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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