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March 26, 2010

Spring Conversations

John Coppolella, Part One

by Kevin Goldstein

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While he might not be the best-known name, John Coppolella has slowly established himself as one of the brighter young front office stars in the game. After seven years with the Yankees in both scouting and baseball operations, he joined the Braves in October, 2006 as the director of baseball administration, where along with assistant GM Bruce Manno, he is a trusted assistant to general manager Frank Wren. I spent time this week talking with John, talking about the upcoming season at both the major- and minor-league level, the differences between working for the Yankees and Braves, as well as some lessons learned from the Mark Teixeira trade. Here is Part One of that interview

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Kevin Goldstein: Let's start with a spring training question. Obviously, there's been a lot of talk and a lot of focus on Jason Heyward, who will be your starting right fielder. There are a lot of expectations, but we're talking about a guy who is 20 years old. I actually had our stat people look up every corner outfielder who had 300 or more plate appearances in a big-league season and there have been only 17 who have been 20 or younger. How do you try to temper your own expectations here?

John Coppolella:�I think that when you talk about Jason Heyward, we've been very impressed by how he's performed this spring. However, it's just spring training, and one thing Frank Wren always says is that the last couple weeks of spring training tell you everything you need to know. Now, that being said, we've been very impressed with what Jason has done on the field, off the field and in the clubhouse. This is an advanced, very mature kid who is just different in the way he approaches the game and approaches every at-bat. With that excitement you have to temper your expectations. We don't know what his future holds, we just know that it's a bright future and we're excited about it.

KG:�It didn't in this case obviously but does the concept of service time normally enter into decisions like this?

JC:�I don't think it enters into it at all. In the four years I've been with the Braves I've never heard talk about service time, super twos, arbitration eligibility... any of that. It's never factored into any decision we've made since I've been here. I know a lot of people said that about Tommy Hanson last year...

KG:�Yeah that's the obvious follow-up here.

JC:�I was reading a quote by Chipper Jones at the end of last year where he said the Braves did right by Tommy Hanson because when they called him up he was ready. There have been a lot of pitchers we have called up over the last few years before Frank took over, and they were called up early and they might have had a couple of good starts, and after that they really struggled. When Hanson came up, he was outstanding. He was only up for two-thirds of the season and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting, so he was ready. I think the same thing is going to happen with Heyward. If we feel he's ready, we're not going to concern ourselves with what happens three years from now or six years from now.�

KG:�Still, you say you called Hanson up when he was ready. He was outstanding last spring, was there any tinge of regret at all towards the end of last year, where you'd begin to wonder if you would have been right there in the playoff hunt at the end of the season if Hanson had been with you all year?

JC:�Not really. There are a lot of "If we did this in April" things we could say. If we had traded for Adam LaRoche in April. If we had played Matt Diaz every day in April. If we had traded for Nate McLouth in April. There are a lot of things we could have done in April. I think what you saw in the second half of the season, once Tommy was there, and once we added Nate and LaRoche, and Diaz played every day, I think you saw a different club. A club that didn't have as many holes in the lineup from an offensive standpoint, and that was certainly stronger from a starting pitching standpoint. Those are things that happen at different intervals through the course of any season.

KG:�You're now in your fourth year with Atlanta, and before that you were with the Yankees for a long time. The obvious difference is just payroll and budget, but what are some of the other differences between working for the two clubs?

JC: The biggest difference for me is just being in Atlanta. When I worked for the Yankees, I was based out of Tampa at the scouting and player development complex. There was always a lot of talk about the so-called "Tampa Mafia" and the clashes with the New York folks, but it was really never anything like what was portrayed in the media. To Brian Cashman's credit, things have run so well since he was given full control of baseball operations at the end of 2005. But the big thing for me, being in Atlanta, is that you don't do things over the phone. I see (team president) John Schuerholz and Frank Wren and Bruce Manno every day. We can talk through different thoughts, and they come by your office and pick your brain on something. The other difference is that I'm at every home game. I sit in the scout section, I chart every National League team we play, any interleague teams we play at home, and I see all of our players. Being with the Braves and having had the experiences I've had, I'm really grateful for what I have now. Sure it's a different setting with different budgets and different markets and different player acquisition systems, but it's also a different experience for me, personally.

KG:�The organization has a reputation for being kind of an old-school one as far as front offices go. I know you personally do a lot of analytic work, but the reputation remains that Atlanta is a scouting-heavy organization. How does Atlanta use the numbers?

JC:�The key for me really isn't the scouting-versus-stats thing; the key for me is simply information. When you are breaking down scouting reports, they are information. They are what a scout is seeing, and what he thinks is going to happen next. And that's what statistics are as well when you break them down. It's what you see in performance, and you use that information to try and figure out what is going to happen next. There are some people who have the ability to scout and see things. I can watch a game, and I won't see things that somebody like Jim Fregosi or one of our big-league scouts sees. And I can scout until I turn blue and I won't see that. Jim is a former player, a former manager, he's done it all and he'll see things that no matter how hard I scout and no matter how long I'm in the game, I'm not going to see it. But the difference is that if he were to really look at stats, I think Jim could figure out many of the things I bring to Frank. In other words, I'm confident Jim could do my job, but not vice versa.�

KG:�Just looking at your depth chart overall going into spring training, you came in kind of knowing what the team looks like. Other than the question of Heyward starting now or a little bit later, the other positions are set, the rotation is set, and you have a good idea of what the bullpen looks like and what the roles are. Does that make for a more relaxing spring training?

JC:�I don't know if it's an easier spring training, but there are certainly fewer questions. I know the first few years I was here we had a lot of injuries crop up, and this year we've been relatively healthy, and that makes it easier, too, because you can get the right players, but if they're hurt, they aren't contributing. We've been healthy and everyone has played pretty well and that certainly makes things easier. That being said, we are always on the hunt for ways to get better, even if it's in the smallest increment. If there's a guy out there who is the last guy on the staff or might be the 25thman on the roster and he makes us better, rest assured that we're going to seek that player out.�

KG:�You were one of the rare teams last winter with a surplus of starting pitchers, so you ended up trading Javier Vazquez to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera, somebody who can help now, and Arodys Vizcaino, who can hopefully help down the road. On an an immediate level, this doesn't look like a net positive, but you really can't measure this deal for a long time. Can you talk about how you ended up with Vizcaino and some of the challenges of trading a 'right now' talent for a guy you have to dream on?

JC:�You always want to have the problem of too much pitching. It's never easy trading someone like Javier Vazquez. He's an outstanding pitcher, he had a great 2009 season, and as good as he was on the field, he was just as good in the clubhouse. We didn't want to trade Javier Vazquez-we've made that clear-but it was something that we had to do. Even after trading him, we still feel like we have the best starting rotation in the National League.

That said, we're really excited about the package we got. Melky Cabrera has had an outstanding spring and he plays all three outfield spots. He's a switch-hitter, he's a great National League player and he really fits our needs perfectly. Mike Dunn is an exciting converted outfielder, now left-handed reliever. He's a little like (Braves pitching prospect Craig) Kimbrell in that if he throws more strikes, the sky is the limit. You look at the Arizona Fall League and he struck out 20 guys in 10 innings. Our scouts out there really liked him. That said, the key to the deal for us was Vizcaino. For us, he was right on par with (pitching prospects) Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado. If there's one of many lessons to take away from the Teixeira deal, it's that sometimes you can get a pitcher if he's far enough away. I know the one pitcher in the Teixeria deal that really gave everyone heartburn was Neftali Feliz. At the same time, though, you are trying to win a championship, and you don't know what's going to happen in the future. I've tried to learn from that, and we had rated Vizcaino as the best prospect in the Yankee system behind Jesus Montero, and we thought he was far enough away where we might have an opportunity to get him. Part of my job here is to create and maintain our internal prospect lists. So while we talk through names, it's always going to be Frank who makes those decisions, but this was a guy we were really excited about.�

KG:�So the hope is that Vizcaino becomes your Feliz?

JC: I think it's a dangerous thing to compare the players. For me, every player is different. They're certainly both exciting pitchers traded out of short-season leagues. Vizcaino is so young that it's hard to say what the future holds for him, but we're excited about what we've seen from him this spring. Like I said, he's in the same class as Teheran and Delgado, and you just don't get the opportunity to trade for those kinds of arms if they're in Double- or Triple-, or even Single-A.�

KG:�You're going with some guys at first base where there is risk in Troy Glaus and Eric Hinske. We're talking about guys whose best performances are well in their past. Can you talk about your comfort level at that position?

JC:�I think our level with Glaus, even when we talked to him over the winter, was very comfortable. He was always a good player when healthy; he's always put up numbers. Every year that he's had at least 400 at-bats, he's had at least 27 home runs and 70 walks, and often much more than that. What we needed was right-handed power and right-handed patience, and he brings us both of those things. Obviously, the big question with him is health, but he finished last year healthy-he was on the Cardinals' playoff roster. There was a situation where this guy has been one of the better right-handed power hitters in all of baseball for the past decade, and if he's healthy, we're extremely comfortable with him. He's also made outstanding adjustments defensively at first base. He was always a very good-fielding third baseman with great hands. He's made a seamless transition to first. The key to him really is health, but you can say that about any player in baseball. If he's going to be healthy, he's going to give us home runs, and he's going to give us walks, and he's going to do that from the right side and he crushes left-handed pitches. One thing that hurt us, especially early last year is that we were just so left-handed. Hinske is a guy who just hit 20 home runs in 2008. He gives you good at-bats, he was among the leaders in pitches per plate appearance last year, he works the count, and he's a good pinch hitter. He's a great bench player and if, God forbid, something happens with Glaus, we don't have to rush up a Freddie Freeman, we don't have to call up a Barbaro Canizares. This is a guy who has done the job, and he's done it with teams that have won. He's also a good luck charm-he's been to the last three World Series with three different teams, and we're hoping it's a fourth this year. So we feel like he gives us a lot of value off the bench, in the clubhouse and as a pinch hitter. We feel really good about both of those signings.

KG:�You used the phrase "in the clubhouse" a few times there and before when discussing Vazquez. I think some of our readers and a lot of purely statistical-minded folk might underestimate that kind of thing. Can you talk about that aspect of team construction?

JC:�Well, I think that if you look at the 1970s Oakland Athletics, those guys hated each other and they'd beat the piss out of each other and then go out and win championships, so I don't think clubhouse stuff is the be all and end all. But I do think it's undervalued. There's no way to really quantify clubhouse value, but it's something where if you have guys who are good in the clubhouse, that's going to be good for the team. You can't attach a number to it where if you have five good clubhouse guys it's going to translate to three wins or something like that. It's something we look for. We are talking to our scouts; we are talking to guys who have played with players. We take a lot of pride in creating a good clubhouse culture and believe it's something that makes a difference even if you can't quantify it.��

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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