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Despite being deep on talent, the Braves’ minor league system has had plenty of dysfunction

Not all is going smoothly in the Braves’ minor league system as organizational disputes and departures have hit.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Braves’ minor league system has been lauded far and wide and rightly so. One only need to look at the upper minors to see the mind boggling depth that exists, in particular on the pitching side. At LEAST 12 different pitchers could make a case for place in the starting rotation alone and that doesn’t factor in position players like Austin Riley and Cristian Pache who are among the better players at their positions among prospects league wide.

However, beneath that veil of talent has been what can best be described as a good bit of dysfunction. Some of that can be attributed the fallout from MLB’s investigation into the Braves which cost John Coppolella his job as the Braves’ general manager and led to the Braves’ bringing in Alex Anthopoulos to guide the organization going forward. A certain amount of change and turmoil is to be expected when a new front office comes in, but a big chunk of what has occurred can be traced back to some organizational changes that went down back in 2017.

Dave Trembley, who was farm director as well as head of minor league operations, was ostensibly demoted when he lost the farm director half of his title to Dom Chiti who previously oversaw Braves’ pitching prospects and also had a stint as the Orioles’ bullpen coach.

To say that the new organizational structure did not sit well with Trembley may be an understatement. Multiple sources tell Talking Chop that Trembley cared very deeply about every aspect of the job including what workouts every player needed to do and when, what uniform and appearance standards needed to be upheld, and everything in-between. Chiti, on the other hand, has overseen a more straight forward approach that has sought, to some degree, to eliminate the unnecessary controls and focus on the issues that matter the most to the organization. As one source put it, “There was definitely just a difference of philosophy and neither were better or worse. Trembley was very detail oriented and wanted all of the little things a certain way, whereas Chiti has been more on the ‘Lets focus on the things that matter’ way of thinking.”

By all accounts from players and coaches and others within the organization, both men were admired and respected, but it was clear that there was tension over what direction minor operations was headed. Trembley resigned from the Braves this past August and there have been more than a couple whispers that he had some not-so-nice things to say about the organization on his way out, questioning the organization’s commitment to the players and to the right course overall.

The dominoes fell from there and, combined with the changes that the Braves front office has wanted to make, there have been a slew of changes in the minor league ranks. Luis Salazar was reported by Jon Heyman as being let go as manager of the Florida Fire Frogs, the Braves’ High-A affiliate. Just recently, Rocket Wheeler, manager of the low-A Rome Braves, was let go, as well as Randy Ingle, who was the former manager of Rome before he took on a special assistant role with the organization last year.

Reviews of Salazar and Wheeler have been mixed at best. Rocket has long been known as a very hard-nosed, tough coach for a while who would make players run drills after games if he didn’t feel as though they had put in satisfactory effort during a game. Some players liked it (one source said, “He was a hard ass, but I like those kind of coaches”) whereas others did not and several sources said openly that he was a hard guy to play for as his act wore on and on.

Salazar, on the other hand, was described by some sources as aloof and did not often communicate with players on his teams unless they were seen as prized prospects. Some wondered aloud if the struggles of the team in terms of wins and losses caused him to lose interest.

The one move that was universally panned was the loss of Randy Ingle. Ingle is beloved by many throughout the Braves organization and while he had started to phase himself out by taking the special assistant position, more than a few people were deeply upset that he was let go. As one source put it, “Firing Randy Ingle is absolutely shocking to me. Forty years of his life. He did nothing wrong.” It is worth noting that while both Ingle and Wheeler were known to be fans of Dave Trembley, multiple sources seemed to indicate that the organization was just wanting to move on from some of the longer tenured coaches and it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with any allegiances or preferences those coaches had.

If the issues for the Braves in the minor leagues were isolated to just coaching and player development personnel, that could easily be chalked up to just a changing of the guard in the front office that wanted to install their own people. However, there have been issues festering within some levels of the Braves minor leagues that have been going on for longer than just this season.

The Gwinnett Stripers (formerly the Gwinnett Braves) recently lost both their general manager and assistant general manager and it has been troubling to see the team struggle to draw anything resembling good attendance numbers (Gwinnett has consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the International League’s attendance numbers) despite a strong interest from Braves’ fans in the minor leagues, an extensive rebranding initiative, and a ton of high profile prospects being on the team over the last couple of years.

Mississippi has seen even more turnover as they were essentially without a general manager for much of the season (Chip Moore was the interim GM and recently got promoted to oversee minor league operations) and recently lost their assistant general manager and almost half of their full-time staff which is remarkable when you think about it. The Fire Frogs have long had to deal with fickle weather and several sources indicated that their always seems to be logistical issues behind the scenes down in Florida.

What to make of all of this is tough. While it is clear that there was a guy in Dave Trembley who was highly thought of by many, there has also been an absence in oversight and leadership of minor league operations over the last few years. While the loss of Trembley, Wheeler, Ingle, Salazar, and others amounts to losing decades upon decades of valuable experience in the game of baseball from the Braves organization, it isn’t clear who their replacements will be and if it will lead to a better player development program overall.

Ultimately what this comes down to transparency and leadership. Right now, there are Braves employees and players that don’t really know why all of this is happening and what this means for them. Careers and livelihoods are on the line and right now it isn’t clear what 2019 holds for many levels of the organization from the affiliates themselves to the minor league operations and player development staffs. If what this is is a purging and a necessary one, there need to be clarity as to what the plan is going forward and who will be making those plans.

Moreover, the Braves need to make it clear that they are acutely aware that the minor leagues isn’t simply a faceless, nameless oven of talent that they can just press a timer, wait until it goes off, and out pops the next outfielder/pitcher/third baseman of the future. These are all separate organizations and rosters that have their own desires, idiosyncrasies, and needs. The minor leagues isn’t just where players learn how to play baseball, but it is where they learn how to be professionals and that means learning about community involvement, dealing with the media, marketing, etc. The affiliates need the personnel and the resources to do these things and do them well.

The players, meanwhile, need to know what the plan is for them going forward, what they need to do to make it to whatever level is next for them, and for that communication to be clear and consistent...all of which is critically important in a system that is filled with talented players that have great aspirations than just making it to full season ball.

Hopefully that is the end result of all of this. It is entirely possible that the Braves’ front office saw a need for big changes and want to put the affiliates and personnel in a position to succeed rather than watch them suffer. One would hope that is the case at least given the amount of institutional memory and familiarity that just left.

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