Braves President John Hart Discusses Pursuit of Ace Starter

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The air has been rife with speculation for weeks that the Atlanta Braves could be in the market to trade for an ace starting pitcher. Then the club went out and added three veterans to fortify what was the shakiest rotation in baseball last season. Now, the team is looking for the right deal at the right price if it is to add a number one starter.

The landscape changed dramatically on Tuesday afternoon as the Chicago White Sox dealt left-hander Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for a package headlined by Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. That takes one ace off the market, while reinforcing the belief that any trade for young, controllable, top flight starting pitchers is going to be expensive.

Even before the Sale trade, Atlanta had eased back on the throttle from all accounts, preferring to let things cook perhaps. This more cautious strategy is more in line with a club that has spent the last two years building one of the best minor systems in baseball, at great cost to its major league product.

Now equipped with the kind of pieces that should be able to help broker a trade, the Braves front office led by general manager John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart is taking a pragmatic approach to making any major upgrade. With Sale gone, Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer and Oakland’s Sonny Gray are the other targets that Atlanta has made calls on. Neither man comes with the pedigree or the track record of Sale, but both would offer an upgrade. The questions center around the price either man could command on the trade market.

“When it comes down to it and you have a chance to buy a guy who is already under contract, that you can afford, that you’re going to have some level of control over and you don’t have to go out into the free agent market and pay, if you will, sort of the number one starter price, there is an appeal there,” said Hart.

“There is absolutely no doubt. Don’t think for a minute we haven’t discussed and talked to these guys as we’ve gone along.”

Atlanta was one of the clubs that pursued Sale in recent weeks, but it was Boston that stepped up and delivered the prospect bounty to Chicago that got the deal done. The price was most definitely in the vicinity of what most expected. Moncada could star for the White Sox for years, while Kopech has the kind of arm that could eventually replace Chris Sale. The Braves, however, did not want to part with numerous pieces of their their prized young talent.

Hart specifically mentioned that talks centered around Dansby Swanson were a “non-starter” for Atlanta, but admitted they don’t have a player the ilk of Moncada, who was rated the top prospect in the game by every major outlet and evaluator. The strength of Atlanta’s farm includes a stable of top pitching prospects, guys like Sean Newcomb, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson and numerous others. Dealing away the future for the present is part of a delicate balancing act, especially for a team that maintains it does not want a window to compete, but rather wants the talent coming in waves for years to come.

“The problem is the payment is going to come in the young players,” said Hart. “We think some of these guys are going to have a chance to be that number one starter or that number two starter coming down the line that we’re going to have to give up to acquire these guys [in trades]. I’m just not certain that is what it is we’re about at this stage right now. I don’t see us coming out and quote ‘unloading the farm system’ to go out and acquire that front-line guy at this particular stage.”

While the tone could quickly and easily be translated as pessimistic when it comes to Atlanta’s chances of adding a Sale, or an Archer, or a Gray, it’s important to remember that maintaining a realistic outlook on the cost of doing business in trades should always be part of the decision making process. As Hart points out, the Braves aren’t simply one piece away from contending.

Will that stop the Braves from making and fielding the calls that could lead to substantial trades? Not by a long shot.

“Will we talk to them? Will we continue to have discussions? Sure, we will. But the price, as it should be, for a guy [like Sale] is going to be very painful, especially for a club like ours that has worked so hard over the last two years,” said Hart.

“We’ve traded for draft picks. We’ve bought number one picks like Touki Toussaint. We’ve made creative trades to get these guys. We’ve hit so many young players that we like that to start coming in now, before these guys have a chance to really get their feet under them, it’s just not the right thing to do right now.”

Toussaint is just another example of the pure breadth and scope of Atlanta’s young pitching. He was part of a Rome Braves rotation that included three other first rounders, in Allard, Max Fried and Mike Soroka by year’s end. With Anderson, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, Bryse Wilson and other arms from the 2016 draft all highly-touted additions, Atlanta has created the waves of sustainable talent it set out for.

Expect that trend to continue.

“We’re vested in these youngsters and we realize all of them aren’t going to hit, but some of them are,” said Hart. “We’re just not at that spot. The Red Sox are just in a little different stage of where they are in their development and they pushed their chips in.”

As we saw on Tuesday, the Braves sat by and watched Boston pay what is universally viewed as a justifiable king’s ransom for Sale. It gives Boston three years of perhaps the best starting pitcher in the American League. It gives Chicago big building blocks for the future. Atlanta was content to hold onto its assets, hoping to play those cards at a later date. Hart and Coppolella feel as though they may have an ace or two up their sleeves, in more ways than one.


Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

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