If the Cubs want to emulate Boston, they should look at John Coppolella as their next GM

When the Cubs GM job opened up, it was immediately speculated that the Cubs would go after one of the top names in the business -- perhaps a  guy like Theo Epstein.  It makes perfect sense, Epstein is well-known and he's had a tremendous track record of success.

But things weren't always that way...

Once upon a time Epstein was relatively unknown.   He was a young, sharp mind with a fresh new take on how to run a team, but the one thing he didn't have was experience. He needed some team to take a chance on him.  That  team turned out to be the Boston Red Sox, one of the most storied franchises in the league.  Like the Cubs job, the Red Sox GM job is one of the highest profile jobs in baseball.  There is a huge market, a fervent fan base, and high pressure to succeed.   Surely, the team needed someone with experience to handle that...right?

Well, sort of.  Actually, Epstein wasn't Boston's first choice.  It was Billy Beane.   They pulled out all the stops to lure him from Oakland while he was still the hottest GM in baseball.   They came very close.  Beane was tempted but ultimately he decided to stay where he had it good.

Perhaps history can repeat itself here in Chicago.   Theo Epstein is now what Billy Beane was then.   He's the guy the Cubs would need to make one heck of an offer to land as their new GM-- and it still might not be enough.  Like Beane back then, it's very likely Epstein will stay where he's most comfortable.   Like Boston, the Cubs would then have to look elsewhere.

One place should be Atlanta.  This is where the Cubs will find 32 year old John Coppolella, the Braves Director of Professional Scouting.  He is, by all accounts, one of the sharpest young baseball minds in the game today.  He's already made several top 10 GM Candidates lists, including  those of such respected sites as AOL, MLB TradeRumors, and Sports Illustrated. If the Cubs are willing to take a chance, he has the skill set to be the perfect fit...

1) He meets Ricketts basic criteria for a GM

  • He comes from a winning background.   The first team to hire him was the New York Yankees.  There isn't a more winning franchise than that in all of baseball -- in all of sports, for that matter.   He then took a promotion to go to the Atlanta Braves, a team that is consistently in contention and is currently on the rise.
  • He has a good track record for player development.  Coppolella is in charge of such duties as depth charts and prospect lists for the Braves.  He's very immersed in what is going on in their minor league system.  The Braves are developing some of the top young talent in the game.   Last season it was OF Jason Heyward.  This year it's been 1B Freddie Freeman and P Mike Minor.
  • He has an analytical approach.   This is Coppolella's best known strength.  He does statistical analysis for the Braves. It's an area where the Cubs are lagging behind the rest of baseball while the Braves are doing quite well.

2) He is financially savvy.  Jim Hendry was a good baseball man but this was not his strength.  Unlike Hendry, Coppolella comes with a background in the financial aspects of the game.  He handles arbitration cases for the Braves.  This area isn't emphasized as much, but it is one where the Cubs could also use some improvement.  The Cubs have done a good job of avoiding arbitration with their players but sometimes arbitration can be used by teams in other ways, such as accumulating draft picks.  He is also in charge of payroll analysis for the Braves.

3) He understands that the game is a blend of scouting and statistical analysis.  This is what he told Squawking Baseball back in 2009...

I also truly believe we have the best scouting and player development system in baseball.  The work being done by Roy Clark and his staff on the amateur side, Johnny Almaraz and his staff on in the international side, and Kurt Kemp and his staff on the player development side is nothing short of outstanding.  I can’t speak for those three individuals and their methods, but the results speak for themselves.  I can say that there is a synergy among all those departments and within our entire baseball operations group that provides us with a competitive advantage when it comes to identifying talent.

And yet that isn’t enough.  We want to continue to get better and to learn more about players and methods.  Just as we surround our organization with the best scouts we want to provide Frank with the best information to supplement the contributions made by those scouts.  To that end, we explore any and all statistics that may be relevant to a given player.  We are on the cutting edge of newer, advanced stats and have created some of our own statistics and formulas, which obviously we cannot discuss.

You can't always get a statistical analysis guy to work well with scouting, so it's very refreshing to hear that Coppolella can not only work with them, he is quick to defer credit to them for some of the talent the Braves have acquired over the years.  As a bonus from my perspective, he told Fangraphs that UZR is a tool they use, but not one they rely on entirely.  That is music to my ears...few things burn me up in baseball as when some guy scans down a stat sheet and tells me so and so is a good or bad fielder because UZR says so.  UZR has Alfonso Soriano as an above average defender -- should anyone really take that conclusion literally?  UZR is useful but not infallible, especially in small sample sizes.   For Coppolella, scouting also plays a role when evaluating defense.   Here's an excerpt from his interview with Fangraphs back in 2010...

I still think the best way to evaluate defense is through the eyes of a scout. I say that because a scout can see where the defender starts, where he finishes, what kind of break he gets, and what sort of closing speed he has. When we look at the stats, like UZR/150 or other zone ratings, or Bill James’ +/-, there’s about seven or eight different stats that all offer something. It’s about trying to find some kind of blend, some merge that you can feel good about. If you can match that up with what your scouts think, and all of that kind of gels, then you’re onto something.

As we've talked about on this site many times, it's the blend of the old school way of scouting and the new school way of statistical analysis that makes teams like the Red Sox successful.  It shouldn't be an either/or philosophy.  Both disciplines have something to offer.  Communication and mutual respect between the two is the best way to make that decision.  Coppolella seems to understand that as well as anyone.

4) As you can tell from his thoughtful responses, Coppolella is media savvy as well.   I suggest you also check out his podcast interview with Baseball Prospectus back from January of this year, as well as the links to Squawking Baseball and Fangraphs provided above.

5) He has some local ties.  He attended nearby Notre Dame.  It's a small thing, perhaps, but let's face it -- we like guys who know and appreciate our great city.  We want the GM to be aware of our fervent fan base and how much we really want -- make that need -- a World Series title.  The bar has been raised.  It is no longer good enough to compete or make the playoffs every once in a while.  We want to compete consistently and, of course, take home that ring.

The bottom line here is maybe,  just maybe, the Cubs are looking about this the wrong way.  Maybe they shouldn't get a guy who has already tasted success as a GM, maybe they should get a young, sharp mind who is still hungry for it.  Instead of getting the current Theo Epstein, maybe the focus should be on finding the next one.

And John Coppolella may just be that guy.

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  • He sounds like a great candidate & I would be happy if he was hired. I enjoyed his thoughtful responses from those interviews. With his position though, how much credit can he be given in player development & scouting?

  • In reply to ChiRy:

    That's a good question, ChiRy, but from what I could gather he seems to be very much involved in the evaluation process from a numbers standpoint and as far as communicating with the scouting team. Don't forget we also have two of the most respected veteran scouting people in Fleita and Wilken, so it would have to be a team effort. If Coppolella is the guy, it's very likely the Cubs would hire an experienced baseball guy as well...someone like Pat Gillick. Remember that Epstein had Lucchesi to lean on when he started and Friedman had Gerry Hunsicker.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Another fascinating look at a name we hear but don't know well.

    Much as existing GMs sound good, Kaplan points out the recent history of Div Series and AL/NL CS, & WS winners is how many of the teams have GMs with no previous experience. While TR has stated he wants experience there's no true clue if he is serious or using that as a diversion.

    TR also says the GM will report directly to him. This hints at someone like Gillick not being included. But what about Maddux as "special asst to the Chairman" in an at-large role.

  • In reply to MoneyBoy:

    Exactly! That was a good article by Kaplan.

    He did hint at that but who knows? The process could change his mind.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    As far as Maddux, though, I don't know what his future is. He was very close with Hendry and that was the main reason he came here.

    Coppolella and Maddux both have ties with the Braves so maybe there's something that can be worked out there. I do not know if they know each other, though. At any rate, Maddux is a respected baseball mind and hopefully there's still a role for him here somewhere in Chicago.

  • I like Coppolella a lit, if the Cubs don't hire Beane ( which won't happen) or Cherington, I like Coppolella after that. He strikes me as a younger Theo Epstein, and will be a guy who lean heavily on person like Gillick or someone like that. I really believe he's the sleeper candidate the Cubs fans should remember.

  • In reply to rodeosteve:

    If I had to separate my favorites into three categories, it would be...

    1) Experienced candidates: Theo Epstein (but Beane out of the more realistic choices)
    2) Semi-Ready Candidates: Ben Cherington
    3) Up and comers: John Coppolella

    There's a lot of other guys I like, obviously, like Friedman, Hahn, Preller, Levine, Forst, and a few others...it just seems like there's a lot of good names out there right now. So the Cubs better not screw this one up!

  • John, thank you for the insightful and informative narrative about Coppolella. I don't know where else I'd get this type of information. Bravo! May this blog continue to yield thoughtful and well-researched content.

  • In reply to kansasblackhawk:

    Thanks kansasblackhawk, I appreciate the great feedback!

  • In reply to kansasblackhawk:

    absolutely right on all counts kansas !!!!

  • John,

    This is off topic, but I have been reading back on some of your posts about the success the Cubs have had this year in signing Latin talent. Do you have an update on any of the players? How they have performed, what their ETA might be, the ceilings on the better prospects? Thanks

  • In reply to supercapo:

    Hey supercapo! I wrote about the top Cubs international prospects a little while ago. Here's the link...

    http://www.chicagonow.com/cubs-den/2011/08/the-cubs-top-international-prospects/

    It's not just Latin players in this piece. There's some Asian prospects as well as one Australian pitching prospect. But it's a good primer. I will write about top overall Cubs prospects league by league starting tomorrow with AAA Iowa.

    If you're looking for something more specific let me know.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Thanks John, Do you expect any of the players mentioned at that link to make it to Wrigley next year, even if it is in Sept?

  • In reply to supercapo:

    I think Dolis has a great shot of being in the bullpen next year...Nasty stuff, just needs to command it. If he does he could be dominant.

    Welington Castillo is probably a major league catcher right now. The question is does he have a place with the Cubs. We may see him and Dolis this September as soon as Wednesday. If Castillo doesn't pass G. Soto on the depth chart (which is unlikely), he's a trade candidate.

    Other guys who may make their way up are...

    Alberto Cabrera, who has great potential as either a starter or reliever -- but it looks more like reliever right now. Hard stuff, but still needs some development despite reaching AAA.

    Junior Lake...he has great tools, especially his arm, but lacks discipline. He will excite you one moment and then have you banging your head against the wall the next.

    Also Marwin Gonzalez has a shot as a utility infielder...

  • John, tell us what your gut tells you, and when do you think a decision will be made. Organization meeting are scheduled for the middle of October, right? I'm just ready to see what direction were going to go.

  • In reply to PJS24:

    That's really tough to say. It's early and I really can't say I have a clear gut feeling yet...so the answer is going to be a little longer than it should be!

    My gut says that once the Cubs finish their research they'll move quickly. There's a reason Hendry was let go sooner rather than later. I think the goal would be early October. As a reference point, the Mets hired Sandy Alderson on Oct. 26th. However, they didn't fire Minaya until Oct. 5th. It took them just 3 weeks but they were pressed for time. I think Ricketts wants to start earlier so that he can have someone in place earlier than the Mets did.

    As far as who that GM might be, my gut has always said Cherington as the guy who fits the right criteria and has enough experience that the learning curve won't be too high. He's recognizable enough that he won't be a tough sell here in Chicago... but the more I research this thing, the more I wonder if the Cubs should be a little more bold with this hiring. When you think about how guys like Epstein, Friedman, and Beane were hired very young, you can't help but wonder if the best route might be to combine an experienced baseball man with a young dynamic GM he can groom.

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    John, wold be a great candidate in the future. People forget that GM's have to also be very good evaluator's of talent themselves to be successful. Atlanta has always had some of the best evaluators, amataure scouts, and player development people in the game. John Schuerholtz was an outstanding evaluator of talent. John Coppolella would struggle in Chicago. 1.) Chicago does not have a ready farm system of available talent. Major league ready or trade ready. 2.) He doesn't know enough people outside of the front office to be able to hire people in the right positions Scouting Directors, Pro Scouts, Farm Director, International people. He would be relying too heavily on recommendations and you have to trust these people. 3.) He has never made a big trade or been involved in one. In Atlanta they haven't had to do a lot of big trades since his time there because there have been replacements in the farm system left there from Roy Clark. The Braves don't go to arbitration, because Schuerholtz always told everybody in the organization that your up against a double barrel shotgun with arbitration. Nobody wants to go there. Not even the agents. Keep throwing the name around maybe in the future with more seasoning, but the Cubs want to win now and going in this direction would only mean he would need to hire a lot of expirenced people as a supporting cast like in Texas and Boston. They need to go after Dan Jennings, Roy Clark, Logan White, DeJon Watson, Eddie Bane, Tony LaCava, Damon Oppenheimer all are great evauluator's and know where to hire the right people to build the organization and don't forget there was a reason the Cubs gave Oneri Fleata a four year deal....

  • In reply to DBat:

    I appreciate your input but you could just as well be describing Theo Epstein or Andrew Friedman before they got their jobs with that description.

    I disagree with some of your reasoning here.
    1) The Cubs farm system is an up and coming one, currently ranked in the middle of the pack and was actually 8th by one national publication before the Garza trade. They've had contributors the past 2 years and will continue to have more next season. Those players have been covered extensively on this site.
    2) If you haven't read the Fangraphs interview, you should. Coppolella communicates very well with his scouting people -- and the Cubs have two of the best in the game in Fleita and Wilken. Friedman came in with almost no scouting experience whatsoever and relied heavily on Gerry Hunsicker. It seems to have worked out well for Tampa.
    3) None of the alternative candidates you listed have made a big trade either.

    Additionally, I can assure you the Cubs are not in win-now mode. That went out the window with the Tribune and Hendry. The Cubs have not made a single major free agent signing since Ricketts has arrived and have instead invested heavily in the draft and international scouting.

    Although Coppolella is a young candidate, he wouldn't be any different than guys like Epstein, Friedmann or Beane in that regard. You may be right that the Cubs may go in a different, more experienced direction but I'd be shocked if they went after guys like LaCava (who's a lot like Hendry) and Oppenheimer, who's also of the old guard and seems awfully comfy in NY.

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