How John Hart, Alex Anthopoulos returned the Atlanta Braves to glory
Just ten days ago, the city of Atlanta hosted its first championship parade since 1995. It was a return to glory for the Atlanta Braves, harkening back to the days when a nucleus of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones led the Braves to 16 straight division titles.
Though it had been 22 years since the club's last World Series appearance, the Braves had no shortage of opportunities. Bobby Cox's team won its division every season between 1991 and 2005. Brian Snitker's club has won the National League East the last four years. In the years between 2005 and 2018, the Braves made three postseason trips in 2010, 2012 and 2013, winning just two playoff games total.
The Braves of the early 2010s, backed by then-general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi González, were the franchise's first attempt at a reboot of America's Team. Though the attempt failed to return the organization to glory, the failed experiment of the early 2010s inadvertently paved the way for the Braves' first winner in over 26 years.
After winning 86 or more games in five consecutive seasons (2009-2013), the 2014 Atlanta Braves bottomed out at 79 wins, and the organization was at a cross-roads. The team's core consisting of Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, BJ Upton, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Andrelton Simmons wasn't cutting it, and over the next year, all six were shipped out of town for a bundle of prospects, international signing pool money, draft picks and cash considerations. Through each trade, the Braves acquired key pieces that would set them up for their World Series run seven years later.
Braves' executive Frank Wren had spent big to acquire talent (i.e.: Mark Texeira, Dan Uggla, Kenshin Kawakami, Derek Lowe, both Upton brothers, etc.) but failed to acquire postseason victories. He was fired September 22, 2014, a day after the Braves were eliminated from playoff contention.
Braves' senior adviser and former Indians and Rangers' GM John Hart was soon named the interim GM, and then a month later, the club's president of baseball operations. Hart wasted no time, promoting scouting director and assistant GM John Coppolella to the GM position and spearheading a rebuild that would pay dividends in the long run. Through a series of trades and savvy financial decisions, the Braves' front office set itself up for a championship seven years down the road. Through each major trade that was made between the years 2014 and 2016 the Braves received a key piece to their 2021 championship puzzle.
The first domino to fall was homegrown Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward.
November 17, 2014 — Braves trade outfielder Jason Heyward and pitcher Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.
Nothing quite says "rebuild" like trading a 25 year-old, who just a few years prior, was a can't-miss prospect drawing comparisons to Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. Heyward burst onto the scene in 2010, smashing a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first plate appearance, later earning a spot in the All-Star Game and finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting behind Buster Posey. Over the next four years though, Heyward slashed a mediocre .258 BA/.340 OBP and averaged 16 homers and 55 RBIs per season. Though still a productive player and elite defender, Heyward hadn't quite lived up to the billing. He was one year away from free agency, where he later signed an 8-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs — arguably one of the worst contracts in sports history. With one year remaining on his contract, the Braves shipped him to St. Louis for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.
Jenkins was traded two years later for reliever Luke Jackson, a staple of the 2021 Braves' lights-out bullpen (or "arm barn", if you will), who logged a 1.98 ERA in 71 games this season.
Miller would turn in an all-star season in 2015 and post a 3.02 ERA with the Braves. Following Miller's stellar 2015 campaign, the Braves sent him to the Arizona Diamondbacks for shortstop Dansby Swanson, outfielder Ender Inciarte and pitcher Aaron Blair. The Braves sold high on Miller — who would soon struggle on the field and have elbow problems requiring Tommy John surgery — and effectively turned Heyward's expiring contract into the no. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft (Swanson) and a 2015 Fielding Bible Award winner (Inciarte). Inciarte won three straight Gold Gloves for the Braves in center field from 2016-2018, batting .287. Unfortunately for him, from 2019 onward, injuries derailed Inciarte's future with the Braves — with him playing no more than 65 games in a season, after proving himself extremely durable up to that point — and he was let go in August 2021. He'll still be collecting a World Series ring in the mail, however.
Swanson of course played 160 of the club's 162 regular season games at shortstop for the Braves in 2021, as well as every playoff game, contributing above average defense and timely hitting (88 RBI). Swanson hit better with runners on base (.253) and with runners in scoring position (.276) than he did with the bases empty (.245), a mark of a clutch hitter.
The Braves replaced Jason Heyward with free agent right fielder Nick Markakis. Markakis would out-hit Heyward from 2016-2020 (.280 BA/.353 OBP/.762 OPS to Heyward's .253 BA/.332 OBP/.721 OPS) and win a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger in 2018 — and cost about $140 million less — before retiring prior to the 2021 season.
December 19, 2014 — Braves trade outfielder Justin Upton and pitcher Aaron Northcraft to the San Diego Padres for pitcher Max Fried, infielder Jace Peterson, outfielders Dustin Peterson and Mallex Smith and international signing bonus compensation.
Like Heyward, Upton was approaching free agency after the 2015 season. The Braves turned the 2011 MVP runner-up into future ace Max Fried. Fried started five games in the 2021 playoffs, including the Braves' closeout game 6 victory where he tossed six scoreless innings. The extra international signing bonus money collected through this trade helped the Braves sign top outfield prospect Cristian Pache, who has drawn comparisons from scouts to Hall of Fame hopeful Andruw Jones.
January 14, 2015 - Braves trade catcher Evan Gattis and pitcher James Hoyt to the Houston Astros for pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman and infielder Rio Ruiz.
Like Inciarte, Foltynewicz wasn't able to stick around long enough to see the fruits of the Braves' labor, but he did finish eighth in NL Cy Young voting in 2018, logging a 2.85 ERA as the Braves' top starter, helping the team turn the corner and win its first NL East division title since 2015. Though Markakis, Inciarte and Foltynewicz weren't members of the 2021 Braves' playoff roster, all three played a part in the Braves' shedding their culture of losing and pushing the team forward to where it stands now.
April 5, 2015 — Braves trade outfielder BJ Upton and closer Craig Kimbrel to the San Diego Padres for pitcher Matt Wisler, outfielders Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin and Jordan Paroubeck, and the no. 41 overall pick in the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft (infielder Austin Riley).
The best piece of this return didn't come until the Braves called his name on draft day two months later. Third baseman Austin Riley entered the 2021 season with a flurry of doubts and trade rumors surrounding him. After struggling in his first two years in the show, the 24 year-old put together an MVP-caliber season in 2021, slashing .303 BA/.367 OBP/.898 OPS with 33 long balls and 107 RBI.
Three years after acquiring Matt Wisler, the Braves traded him (along with Lucas Sims and Preston Tucker) for outfielder Adam Duvall, who the club would trade for again in 2021 as one of its four outfield acquisitions that would jumpstart Braves' offense after losing Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna.
November 12, 2015 — Braves trade shortstop Andrelton Simmons and catcher José Briceño to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for shortstop Erick Aybar, pitchers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, and $2.5 million.
Stick with me here for a second: A year after the Simmons trade, the Braves used Ellis as a trade chip to acquire pitcher Jaime García from the St. Louis Cardinals. Months later, the Braves sent Garcia to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for pitcher Huascar Ynoa, a now-23 year-old member of the Braves' 2021 pitching rotation who posted a 3.02 ERA in his first eight starts, before punching a dugout bench and breaking his pitching hand in May.
Needless to say, through a series of trades and well-used draft picks, John Hart and John Coppolella laid the groundwork for the Braves' promising future that would come to full fruition in 2021. They also wisely hung onto future MVP Freddie Freeman and flashy prospect Ozzie Albies throughout some of the franchise's darkest days.
Over the next three years (2015-2017), the Braves would win no more than 72 games in a season and finish with a cumulative record of 207-278, the organization's worst three-year performance since 1988-1990. During that time, the Braves drafted All-Stars Mike Soroka and Austin Riley, as well as Ian Anderson, Bryse Wilson and promising youngsters Kyle Wright and Drew Waters. After the 2015 season, Hart replaced manager Fredi González with longtime Braves' employee Brian Snitker. Snitker had been employed by the Braves' organization since 1977.
Shortly after the 2017 season, GM John Coppolella was banned for life by Major League Baseball for illegal practices pertaining to signing international free agents and the Braves were punished, too. All 13 prospects that Coppolella signed illegally were released and allowed to sign with any organization they chose, other than Atlanta. MLB severely capped the Braves' international signing pool money from 2018 through 2021, a crippling penalty. The Braves were prohibited from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019–20 signing period and their international signing bonus pool for the 2020–21 signing period was reduced by 50 percent. Consequently, the Braves brought on illustrious executive Alex Anthopoulos as the club's new GM and vice president. Though Hart allegedly had no knowledge of Coppolella's actions, he was removed from his position as president and given a role as a senior adviser to Anthopoulos. Hart resigned from the Braves days later.
Completing a peaceful transfer of power, Anthopoulos — who previously won Sporting News' "Executive of the Year" award (with the Blue Jays) — picked up right where Hart left off. This a key part to the Braves' rebuild: Anthopoulos correctly assessed what the Braves had in their farm system, and didn't deviate from Hart's long-term plan. Not only in baseball, but in life, new bosses have a tendency to clean house and bring in their own people upon arrival. Had Anthopoulos started from scratch or sacrificed the Braves' future to move in to a "win-now" mode — as other teams have done unsuccessfully in recent years — the Braves probably wouldn't have hoisted the Commissioner's Trophy earlier this month. He also remained committed to manager Brian Snitker, a manager he didn't hire and one of the league's oldest managers, at a time when it's becoming increasingly trendy to hire younger, forward-thinking managers.
Anthopoulos hung on to key prospects Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Riley, Soroka, and others, as well as Snitker. Anthopoulos saw what the Braves were building and stayed patient with his new club.
In 2018, the Braves improved by 18 games from 2017 and surprisingly won the NL East, a year ahead of schedule. In 2019, the Braves won 97 games and the NL East, again. During this time, a number of high profile free agents such as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Gerrit Cole hit the open market. Fans and media alike speculated that Anthopoulos could spend big and add a big name (or two) to get the Braves to the next level. After Riley struggled in 2019 and 2020, rumors circulated that the Braves could trade Riley to the Chicago Cubs for all-star third baseman Kris Bryant. Anthopoulos stayed the course, and Riley significantly outperformed Bryant in 2021. Riley cost the braves $590K this year, and the Braves will have him under club control through the 2025 season. Bryant is now a free agent, looking to cash in on a big contract of his own.
Instead of breaking the bank — and the farm system — on a superstar or two, Anthopoulos signed high-impact free agents to short-term contracts, without serious financial risk. He signed third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal in 2018, at a time when some thought Donaldson's best days were behind him. Donaldson finished 11th in MVP voting in 2019 and then cashed in on a four-year $92 million contract with the Minnesota Twins. Anthopoulos got great production out of other short-term signees such as Nick Markakis, Marcell Ozuna, Charlie Morton and Travis d'Arnaud.
The most expensive free agent signing Anthopolous has made with the Braves? Reliever Will Smith's three-year $39 million contract with a club option for a fourth year, prior to the 2020 season. Of course, he'll be tasked with the challenge of resigning free agent first baseman Freddie Freeman this winter.
Anthopoulos has taken a similar, conservative approach in the trade market. At no point over the past four years have the Braves parted ways with a MLB.com top 100 prospect. At this year's deadline, the Braves were 51-54, five games out of first place, and hadn't spent a day of the season above .500. After losing Ronald Acuña Jr., some thought that perhaps the team would be sellers at the deadline. The Braves were buyers. Instead of spending big to acquire one piece (as the Mets did for Javier Báez), the Braves spent little to acquire several pieces. The Braves added outfielders Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall, without trading a single one of their ten highest-ranked prospects, according to MLB.com's prospect database. The additions of all four outfielders reinvented the 2021 Braves. Playoffs included, the Braves went 48-25 after the trade deadline, catching fire at the right time, and well, the rest is history.
When the celebration finally fades and its time for the Braves to get back to work, they'll have Freeman, Soler, Rosario and Pederson hitting free agency, and decisions to make this winter. They have the money to retain Freeman, and it's hard to imagine Freddie in another uniform. But what happens with the outfield? Will they retain Soler, Rosario or Pederson, or will Anthopoulos strike gold, finding other undervalued bats on the open market? Are Cristian Pache and Drew Waters ready to breakthrough in the big leagues, the way Austin Riley did in 2021? Only time will tell. But assuming the Braves retain Freeman, the club will have an inexpensive young core locked up for the next few years (remember the extremely team-friendly contracts Albies and Acuña agreed to?), with four top 100 prospects still in the pipeline (Pache, Waters, Shea Langaliers and Michael Harris) and hopefully, Acuña and Mike Soroka returning from injury soon. Because Anthopoulos hasn't mortgaged the future or spent big, the Braves are set up extremely well to compete in 2022 and beyond. Perhaps they have a Dodgers-like run in them. Entering year five, they already have the title to show for it.
You can take a look across the league, and it shouldn't take long to find examples of teams that have taken alternative approaches, much to no avail. We won't single anybody out, but there are a number of teams that have mortgaged the future to enter win-now territory, without a championship to show for it. They're now saddled with bad contracts, financial limitations, a depleted farm system and an underperforming core that isn't cutting it — just like the Braves were in 2014.
Perhaps those teams should take a page from the Braves' playbook. Of course, it's much easier said than done, and in the words of Mike Tyson, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face." A front office hoping to replicate the Braves' championship blueprint will still need to scout, draft, trade and spend wisely. But most importantly, it will require the ability to remain patient.
Seven years after the Braves flopped in 2014, the combined efforts of John Hart, John Coppolella and Alex Anthopoulos restored Braves' baseball and delivered the city of Atlanta its third-ever championship.
(Image via The Athletic)