Who Can Lead Braves Through Winter of Discontent?
As the Atlanta Braves remain in a holding pattern, the search continues for leadership that can somehow steer this once-revered franchise back in the right direction.
The club is facing industry-wide scrutiny after Major League Baseball launched an investigation into rules infractions in the international market as well as into alleged illicit draft dealings. To make matters worse, they’ve even run afoul of agents. Simply put, the Braves’ brain trust is beset by criticism.
Now the front office will receive a reboot for the second time in three years, something no one thought was possible when the team broke camp in the spring and opened up its brand new ballpark in April. The move to SunTrust Park was supposed to signal a new chapter in Braves baseball. This is hardly what they had mind.
Atlanta has long been a franchise that prided itself on setting industry standards, not skirting industry rules. The Braves certainly did not expect to find themselves in this position.
Yet here they are and with more palace intrigue than ever. It’s a full-scale scandal.
The team is now in desperate need of stability and leadership, two things it had not been lacking in decades prior. However, recent years tell a different story. No one in the current regime will be able to explain away this sordid state of affairs. The Braves are facing major discipline from the league. Internally, infighting and factions are not a recipe for success.
Names of potential general manager candidates are already circulating on the rumor mill. Some of these executives have ties to the Braves, while others could offer a fresh, outside-the-organization perspective that may be just what this club needs. They may need to completely restructure. There’s a growing sentiment that is Atlanta’s only recourse.
Yes, I’m talking about a culture change.
The club has definitely forfeited the ability to use “The Braves Way” as a rallying cry. There’s little to no good will left in that amorphous term which was invoked when Frank Wren’s tenure as general manager came to an end. Longtime team executive John Schuerholz was elected to the Hall of Fame last year, but before he stood on the dais at Cooperstown this summer to accept baseball’s highest honor, he sat at another in the auxiliary clubhouse at Turner Field in late 2014 pledging to redirect his club’s efforts to return to its former glory by going back to “The Braves Way.”
A proclamation won’t do here. In truth, the message may not have resonated three years ago.
It’s not the 90s anymore. That’s something I actually heard a handful of times in spring training. It seemed somewhat innocuous at the time. After all, why should any current player be concerned with yesteryear on a daily basis? While some members of the front office and field staff have ties to the club’s golden years, Atlanta is now 16 years removed from its last playoff series win. That’s a longer stretch than the Braves’ streak of 14 consecutive division titles, the oft-cited result of doing things “The Braves Way.”
Many I’ve spoken to around the club struggle to define what exactly “The Braves Way” is. Sure, the renewed emphasis on player development created the talent pipeline that the club so desperately wanted. In relatively short order the minor league system was built into one of the best in the game, though some questions are being raised as to the methods of that madness.
Suffice it to say, no slogan will solve their problems. This is not about “The Braves Way.”
Nostalgia is not the cure.
How did the Braves get here?
Much of the criticism is warranted. Some of it even comes from within. Some more scurrilous remarks are the residual effect of ousting the last general manager. Regardless, public outcry seems to form a united front which is demanding a full accounting for the actions or inaction that allowed the club to become embroiled in controversy. Are we to believe it was solely general manager John Coppolella’s doing? How could others in the chain of command be completely in the dark here?
The questions are many. The answers are few.
In late August, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription required and recommended) was first to report there was an ongoing “battle for the soul of the franchise.” Initial reaction was one of surprise, followed by confusion and ending with acceptance that things were not as they appeared to be. That report was glossed over as “disappointing” by at least one Braves official, but it spurred curiosity as corroborating evidence began to surface in the weeks that followed.
There were definitely cracks, but it appeared to be business as usual when the Braves hired two new executives to join the front office contingent in September. A mere three weeks later, Coppolella and top advisor Gordon Blakeley resigned amid allegations of impropriety regarding the team’s international spending. The Braves are withholding comment until the investigation is concluded.
The league continues its probe into a host of alleged infractions, both foreign and domestic, according to a highly detailed account from Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. It painted a less than flattering picture of Coppolella’s leadership style, the splintered nature of Atlanta’s front office and the growing displeasure of executives around the league.
Next to the plate was Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, who presented the possibility that top ranking team officials and longtime friends John Schuerholz and John Hart were at odds. Schuerholz handed control of baseball operations to Hart and Coppolella three years ago, but has remained an ever-present figure in the Atlanta front office to help with the efforts of procuring two new ballparks among other things.
That rift may have been rectified according to a follow-up from Heyman, and while both Schuerholz and Hart downplayed the initial report to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, there are too many questions and not enough answers coming from the executive wing at SunTrust Park. The future of Hart is just another one.
Atlanta’s front office is under siege. More departures are expected when the league concludes its investigation and delivers what could be a wide range of sanctions. Several front office executives have been interviewed as baseball attempts to gauge who knew what, when and to what extent about the potential international spending infractions, draft improprieties and other acts that have been brought into question.
Rosenthal added that Major League Baseball investigators have yet to speak with Hart about his potential role in all of this, but the Braves are expected to face “unprecedented” discipline for their violations when all is said and done. The punishment could include a large fine, forfeiture of prospects and serious limitations on Atlanta’s international spending. Whether or not Hart had firsthand knowledge or is implicated in a larger plot to bend the rules, he could still face ramifications according to the latest report from Rosenthal.
Where do we go from here?
It’s hard to expect much clarity on this front office shakeup before MLB wraps up its investigation, delivers its findings and hands out its discipline. Whoever inherits the job of taking control in Atlanta will be tasked with restoring order. There’s no shortage of fires to put out. This will be a completely different type of rebuild. It’s a three-pronged effort that will require rebuilding the faith of the fans, rebuilding relations with the rest of the league and rebuilding the good name of the franchise – all simultaneously.
While the Braves are a damaged brand, the general manager post is still a coveted position. If the club decides to completely restructure its front office and install a new president of baseball operations, the opportunity to spearhead this effort could appeal to Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore, who began his career with the Braves before taking his current post with the Royals just over a decade ago. It stands to reason that Moore would be in line to replace Hart as president of baseball operations rather than report to him as general manager. A lateral move is highly unlikely to lure Moore, a Wichita native, away from a franchise he loves.
Hart’s contract with the club expires at the end of the year, but if he returns then it seems he would be the one to make the call on front office hires. That includes a new general manager. Hart’s wish list includes Nationals assistant GM Doug Harris and former Marlins GM turned Nationals special assistant Dan Jennings. Former Red Sox GM and current Blue Jays VP Ben Cherington would also be a potential fit for the Atlanta vacancy.
Moore would curry good favor within the industry and a sizeable segment of the fanbase. Some of the other names previously listed would be capable hires, but Atlanta likely needs more to undo some of the damage done by this scandal. It would stand to reason that a good-will ambassador of sorts would go a long way.
Though speculative, Braves legend Tom Glavine is uniquely qualified. He is easily identifiable with the club. The Hall of Famer carries a legacy of on-field success, is thoughtful and well-spoken and also has experience gleaned from his role with the players union. While the 1994 labor dispute may have drawn the ire of fans, Glavine took on a responsibility that thrust him to the forefront at a contentious time and handled himself with aplomb. More importantly, he understands the value of relationships and engenders respect. Those two things would go a long way as Atlanta attempts to put its house in order. There is at least some indication that he could consider a role with the club. Mark Bowman of MLB.com recently posited about the potential fit as well.
Glavine’s recent involvement in a bid to purchase the Marlins should serve as further indication that he has contemplated stepping into an executive role in some capacity. This does not mean Glavine is necessarily the prime candidate to become the next general manager of the Braves. That would be yet another unexpected development. However, his mere presence among the team’s higher ups could provide a calming influence. Glavine’s perspective, built from three decades in the game, would be a tremendous asset at a critical time as well.
As the Braves await their fate, big decisions loom. They need a leader who can help them navigate the troubled waters while carefully restoring faith in the franchise. The revamped front office will be tasked with an incredible undertaking. Only once MLB commissioner Rob Manfred hands down the punishment can Atlanta effectively begin to shape its future.