HOW THE ATLANTA GM TURNED THE BRAVES FROM A 90 LOSS TEAM TO THE DECADE’S WINNINGEST ORGANIZATION.
Note: If this post seems familiar, it is because it comes to us from Brandon’s personal blog. In light of today’s firing of GM Frank Wren, we decided it would be appropriate to run it again here.
On October 11, 2007, for the first time in seventeen seasons, the Atlanta Braves had a new general manager. Granted, it was a familiar face in assistant Frank Wren, but with John Schuerholz’s ascension to team president, there was a new name on the door. It was also a time of stagnation for the organization; the Braves hadn’t won a playoff series since the 2001 season and had now missed the playoffs entirely two years running. At this point, a change was almost a necessary.
While 2007 had ended with an explosion of excitement after the deadline acquisition of Mark Teixeira, the Braves had bottomed out by early September, falling 9.5 games out of first place at one point and as many as six games out of the Wildcard race. The trade for the exciting Rangers 1B had made an impact on the fanbase, but ended up ultimately having very little impact on the standings. There was one area of the organization definitely felt the impact: the farm system. In the deal, Schuerholz had sent an already troubled system’s top three prospects, all Baseball America Top 100 names, packing (catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, infielder Elvis Andrus and starter Matt Harrison), along with an electric Rookie-level arm in Nefatli Feliz.
The move for Teixeira would leave Wren with talent in the system, but it was all very young and still years away from having an impact at the Major League level. The only ML ready talent at the end of 2007 would be infielder Brent Lillibridge, outfielder Gregor Blanco and pitchers Charlie Morton and James Parr. Sure, there were a couple impressive names there — Schafer, Hanson — but the real talent was all still in their teens and had barely progressed above Rookie ball, if that. Freeman, Heyward, Medlen, Teheran, Delgado were all present, but they were barely a blip on the radar in October 2007.
So onward, Wren went. He knew he had a core in Teixeira; catcher Brian McCann; a talented trio of infielders in Yunel Escobar, Martin Prado, and Kelly Johnson; third baseman Chipper Jones; and right fielder Jeff Francoeur. But he had a potential logjam forming up the middle with Escobar being blocked by incumbent shortstop Edgar Renteria and the forming platoon of Prado and Johnson. Two weeks into his stint as general manager, Wren made his first move.
To clear up space, Wren would send Renteria to Detroit for a couple of the Tigers top ten prospects, starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. While Hernandez added depth to the mid-level of the Braves system, the center piece of the trade would be Jurrjens, who within a couple of months would be crowned the #49 prospect in the game by Baseball America. And considering the state of the current starting rotation, a young shutdown arm was exactly what the team needed.
A huge part of the Braves falling short in the last two months of 2007 was the fact in September alone the Braves saw Buddy Carlyle, Jeff Bennett, Jo-Jo Reyes, Chuck James and Lance Cormier make starts. That wasn’t exactly the heyday of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery. Smoltz was still around, and so was Tim Hudson, but a lack of depth to that extent can spell the end for almost any club. So, even though Jurrjens had yet to throw a pitch above Double-A, he was expected to have a huge impact.
Before the end of the year, Wren would also make another move to sure up the rotation, by bringing back the aforementioned Glavine on a one-year, $8M contract. While many saw this move as one of desperation for a pitcher who had seen spotty success since leaving Atlanta for the Mets five years earlier, overpaying to simply keep trash from making Major League starts isn’t always a bad thing. While Glavine had only been worth 1.0 fWAR with New York and posted a 4.86 FIP, $8M for a washed up future Hall of Famer didn’t seem so bad considering the alternatives.
The 2007 off-season also saw the last of a Braves legend: centerfielder Andruw Jones. Following a sharp drop-off and his worst season, based on fWAR, in over a decade, the Braves let the thirty year old veteran walk. So replacing a legacy would also become a priority in Wren’s first off-season. And just after the start of the year, reliever and a guy a lot of people saw as a future closer, Joey Devine, was sent to Oakland for Mark Kotsay.
While the move was a questionable one, it wasn’t without purpose and forethought. Waiting in the wings was uber-prospect Jordan Schafer. The centerfield job was expected to be his whenever he was deemed ready. No one in the organization sought to block this by going long-term on a CF when a twenty year old top 25 prospect was likely only a year away. So while Kotsay hadn’t produced a positive fWAR in the past two seasons in Oakland, he was brought on. Worst case scenario, the Braves would be stuck with the speedy Gregor Blanco or the also recently acquired Josh Anderson in center.
So with the roster rounded out, the Braves looked towards the 2008 season, hoping to build off a not-completely-disastrous 2007.
And things didn’t quite go as planned.
Actually, to say things didn’t go as planned in 2008 would be a bit of an understatement. Frank Wren’s first season at the Braves GM ended up being a total disaster. The team ended up with a 72-90 mark and finished twenty games out of first place, a distant fourth in the NL East standings. The team was no fewer than three games back after June 27, and last saw the .500 mark on June 8.
However, injuries are what truly spelled the demise that season. The starting rotation alone saw: Hudson make his last on July 23, to eventual Tommy John surgery; Glavine make only one start after June 10 due to shoulder issues; Smoltz making his last start on April 27 before shoulder issues; Chuck James make only seven starts all season, bouncing back and forth from AAA before also having shoulder surgery in September.
By September 1, Jair Jurrjens was the only member of the Opening Day rotation still pitching, and remember, this was his first season at a level above Double-A. Joining him at that point were a resurrected Mike Hampton, rookies Morton and Parr, bust Jo-Jo Reyes, and Major League castoff Jorge Campillo.
Also gone by this point were impending free agent Mark Teixeira, sent to the Angels for some crap scooped into a dustpan, and Mark Kotsay, sent to Boston for a guy who would never make it past high-A ball.
One positive did come out of the summer of 2008, however: in the third round of the MLB Draft, the team selected a hard-throwing righty out of Wallace State Community College in Alabama. A guy we now know as Craig Kimbrel. While the rest of the draft was a bust, the team would also select four players who would play future roles as tradebait in pitchers Zeke Spruill, Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens, and JJ Hoover.
Heading into the offseason, Wren would have major holes to fill. The bench-long platoon in LF hadn’t worked out, and the entire pitching staff had developed into a complete disaster. Twenty pitchers had made more than ten appearances, eleven had made at least a handful of starts, and hardly any had been effective.
Gone was Smoltz. Gone was Hampton. Effectively gone was Glavine, who would be re-signed to a $1M contract, but not throw an inning. Gone was Hudson until at least the end of the summer. Wren would need to work feverishly if the team were to be the least bit competitive in 2009.
And there were plenty of options available. AJ Burnett, Ryan Dempster, Derek Lowe, and CC Sabathia were the big names hitting the market, with Jake Peavy and Javier Vazquez up the trading block. Ultimately, it would come down to Wren actively pursuing Burnett, Lowe, Peavy, and Vazquez. And he would land two of the six, with Vazquez coming over in a December trade with the White Sox that included Lillibridge and catching prospect Tyler Flowers, and Lowe signing a four-year deal worth $60M.
Over the previous three seasons, Vazquez had averaged 4.9 fWAR (4.9 in 2008), while Lowe had averaged 3.8 fWAR (4.5 in 2008). With the addition of these two, Wren had gone from no ace in his rotation, to two top of the line starters ones and one on the rise in Jurrjens. Wren also locked down the top foreign import of the winter, Japanese veteran Kenshin Kawakami to a three-year, $23M contract. The Braves not only had their rotation now, but they had one of the best on paper in the Majors: Lowe, Vazquez, Jurrjens, Kawakami and a the fifth spot made up of a group expected to include top prospect Tommy Hanson.
By the time Wren had his rotation set, the Braves had little left over to solve the mystery of LF. And the market was left with few options. Wren eventually settled on the Angels Garret Anderson and a single-year, $2.5M bargain deal. Anderson had peaked much earlier in the decade, having a five-win season in Anaheim in 2003, and Wren hoped for at least a fraction of that in return, having fall-back options in Matt Diaz, Brandon Jones and previous season acquisition Josh Anderson.
Primed once more with McCann and Chipper leading the way, along with holdovers Francoeur and Escobar, the continued platoon at 2B, Schafer taking over in CF, Casey Kotchman , who had been acquired in the Teixeira trade, returning at 1B, and a rebuilt starting rotation, the Braves were set to improve on the francise’s worst season in well over a decade.
If 2008 was rock-bottom, 2009 was the turning point.
Or, rather, mid-season would be the turning point. The Braves sputtered out of the gate in April, May and much of June. The Jordan Schafer experience had been a bust, the combined struggles in LF had continued, Kawakami had been ineffective, and the combination of Kris Medlen and Jo-Jo Reyes rounding out the rotation had disappointed.
But Wren was willing to make moves to attempt to right the ship. Over the course of June and July, Wren would make four moves that would setup the Braves to close out the season strong.
On June 3, he struck a deal with the Pirates for CF Nate McLouth, sending pitchers Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez to Pittsburgh. McLouth had developed into a three-win player in 2008 with the Bucs, and was on-pace to have an even better season in 2009, amassing a 1.7 fWAR in 45 games prior to coming to Atlanta.
Four days later, Wren would solidify the team’s starting rotation by calling up Baseball America’s #4 prospect and the farm system’s crown jewel, Tommy Hanson to make his first Major League start.
While the team still struggled, June ended with a five game winning streak that stretched into the start of July and put the Braves just two games out of first place.
A week into July, another shoe was about to fall. Jeff Francoeur had began his Atlanta Braves career on as high a pedestal as one can be placed upon. He came roaring out of the gates in 2005, but had hit a wall early in 2006 and was never quite able to regain the legendary status he achieved as a rookie. Following another three months of struggles into 2009 that saw a horrendous 64 wRC+ and -0.7 fWAR through 82 games, he was traded within the division, to the Mets, for career fourth-outfielder Ryan Church.
Wren’s last move of the summer would at the trade deadline, as he sent the defensive-centric 1B Casey Kotchman to Boston for Adam LaRoche, who the Red Sox had acquired a week earlier and who had struggled during his time with the Pirates prior to that.
With a new look offense and established rotation, the Braves would peak at sixteen games above .500 the last week of September, remaining in the wildcard hunt until the final week of the season before a disastrous six-game slide ended the season on a very sour note.
Even with the losing streak to wrap up the season, the club would finish 86-76, a fourteen game swing over a troubled 2008. The team would also have something else to takeaway from the previous season, a 90-loss season landed them the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft: Vanderbilt lefty Mike Minor. The third round would also see another future contributor, righty David Hale out of Princeton.
For the second straight season, Frank Wren’s team looked markedly different as the off-season approached than it did when camp broke in March. And those changes would again continue.
Free agency saw Garret Anderson, closers Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, and LaRoche file, while Kelly Johnson and Ryan Church were left non-tendered. Wren was again going to have to be creative to fill out his roster and finish plugging the holes that remained from 2009.
And two of the biggest moves came early: signing closer Billy Wagner ($6.75M) and setup man Takashi Saito ($3.2M) to one-year deals.
Three weeks later, Wren would make his biggest move. Javier Vazquez had put together incredible numbers for the Braves in 2009 by winning 15 games, putting up a sub-3.00 ERA and FIP and compiling an incredible 6.2 fWAR season. With Vazquez becoming a free agent after 2010, Wren packaged him Boone Logan in a deal with the Yankees for outfielder Melky Cabrera, reliever Mike Dunn and prospect Arodys Vizcaino. Vazquez had become expendable with the return of Tim Hudson and the emergence of Tommy Hanson, and the Braves had what they hoped was an answer to their LF woes.
The Braves still had one hole left to fill, 1B, which had been vacated by LaRoche. Frank again went in search of a bargain, and found it in for Angels slugger Troy Glaus, who had missed much of the ’09 campaign with preseason shoulder surgery and had struggled upon his return in September.
With that, the Braves were set and excitement had begun to build around the 2010 team, especially the arrival of the top prospect in all of baseball: RF Jason Heyward.
But, again, the Braves floundered out of the gate, going 9-14 in April before catching their stride in May with a 20-8 mark. As the Braves set in first place on June 1, the season’s narrative would begin to play out.
While Nate McLouth had struggled mightily during his first full-season with the Braves, no one wanted to see what happened on June 9th in Arizona. As McLouth and Heyward convened on a deep flyball hit by Geraldo Parra in the bottom of the 8th of a one-run game, the two violently collided. Heyward would emerge unscathed, but McLouth would go on the DL with a concussion and play only sparingly until September. This forced a move of the struggling Cabrera to center and an eventual platoon of human dumptruck Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz in left.
A month later, in a move that equal parts surprising and expected, the Braves traded beleaguered shortstop Yunel Escobar to Toronto. Escobar had ran out of favor with the organization. Many saw him as a player whose mind wasn’t always on the game, while reportedly teammates and members of the Atlanta beat were often times at odds with the shortstop. Those are all things much easier to overlook when you’re putting up a wRC+ over 75, which at the time he wasn’t. However, his defense was still enough to make him almost a one-win player halfway through 2010. But off he went to the Blue Jays, in exchange for veteran Alex Gonzalez, and prospects Tim Collins and Tyler Pastornicky. Gonzalez was an excellent clubhouse presence, was an excellent defender, and was also putting up surprisingly good offensive numbers in the friendly confines of the former SkyDome.
But Wren wasn’t done moving players, as he now had an outfield to attempt to piece together once again. At the trade deadline, he would package Gregor Blanco with reliever Jesse Chavez, and the recently acquired Tim Collins and send them to Kansas City for outfielder Rick Ankiel and reliever Kyle Farnsworth. A move that would help bring together the Braves bullpen and strengthen an injured and struggling outfield.
Over the next two weeks, however, a gut-punch string of injuries would cripple the Braves offense. Martin Prado would go on the DL with a broken pinkie, Chipper would destroy his knee and end his season in Houston, and Glaus would go on the DL with knee inflammation.
And Wren went back to the phones, this time sending a bucket full of used mop heads to the Cubs for 1B Derrek Lee.
And while the Braves would limp their way through August in first place, they would drop out of the NL East top spot as September rolled around. The return of McLouth helped a sputtering offense and Lee almost single-handedly kept the Braves in the playoff picture with Chipper and Glaus now missing from the lineup.
The team was also helped down the stretch by stellar contributions from a new set of baby Braves. Along with Heyward, the rookie extraordinaire, the team also saw the first signs of brilliance from reliever Craig Kimbrel, starters Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor, and just a glimpse of 1B Freddie Freeman. The impacts weren’t huge across the board, but in limited time the impression were made.
Even with another late-season injury to Prado that would end his season, usage concerns with Wagner and Saito, the Braves were able to limp back into the playoffs in 2010, the first time since 2005. It may have been a struggle, but in two years’ time, the Braves had gone from a 90-loss season to 91 wins and the playoffs. We’ll conveniently leave out what happened next.
Instead, we will rewind to the middle of the summer and take a look at the results of the amateur draft.
There are only a couple flashy names in the group, but in terms of overall quality, this had been one of the better Braves drafts in recent memory. Andrelton Simmons 2nd round) and Evan Gattis (23rd round) are the two marquee names you’d recognize right away, but also included were Todd Cunningham (also 2nd round), Phil Gosselin (5th), Joey Terdoslavich (6th) and Chasen Shreve (11th). Not exactly names that will set the world on fire at any point, but have served as role—players in the very least.
The end of the 2010 season brought with it many things. Chief among them was the retirement of manager Bobby Cox. In his place, Fredi Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a mainstay of the Braves organization before leaving to manage the Marlins in 2007. After his unceremonious firing during the 2010 season, he was the obvious choice to take over in Atlanta.
And the 2010 offseason would again prove to be an interesting one for the Braves GM, even after the arduous task of having to replace a Hall of Fame manager.
His rotation was set: Hudson, Lowe, Hanson, Jurrjens and the Beachy, who had been signed as a undrafted free agent just two years earlier in 2008. There was also plenty of depth behind the fivesome. Minor, Julio Teheran, and Randall Delgado were already having their names batted around if anyone were to stumble. Of course, missing from this list was that of Kenshin Kawakami. While he had managed to be worth 2.4 fWAR over 41 starts the past two seasons, his time with the organization was effectively over at this point. While you can make the argument that he was better than the 8-22 record over two seasons and his 5.15 ERA in 2010, he would spend the final year of his contract pitching at Mississippi.
His bullpen was also set. The young fireballer Kimbrel would take over the closers role and combination of scrap heap arms were set to fill in the rest: Eric O’Flaherty, who had been claimed off waivers from the Mariners prior to 2009, and had become one of the most left-handed relievers in baseball; Jonny Venters, who had been drafted back in 2004 and worked his way slowly though the Braves system, also become a dominant LH arm; Cristhian Martinez, who had been a waiver claim from the Marlins in early 2010; and Anthony Varvaro, who would also been claimed from the Mariners, in January 2011.
The offense had also continued to take shape. McCann remained behind the plate, Heyward roamed RF, Chipper and Prado (now in LF) were returning from their injuries, McLouth and Gonzalez returned in CF and SS, while Freeman took over full-time at 1B.
This left a huge hole at 2B, which had cost the Braves greatly in the 2010 NLDS against the Giants. But, of course, I’ve covered that in great detail already in a previous entry. Long story short: Dan Uggla.
And into 2011 the Braves marched.
Or, rather: And into April they again stumbled.
And just as they started turning things around in May, the injuries crept back up. First, a shoulder injury that would nag Heyward for the majority of the season, landing him on the DL in May, and forcing him into a ridiculous platoon with professional T-ball player Jose Constanza for August and September. Then came an oblique strain and hernia that limited McLouth to only 81 games.
But Wren remained relatively quiet until the trade deadline. With McLouth’s second DL stint looming, the master of the sweater vest would send a sack full of moldy dishrags (Juan Abreu, Paul Clemens, and Brett Oberholtzer) and a discarded Reese’s Cup wrapper (Jordan Schafer) to Houston for a season-plus of CF Michael Bourn and a chunk of money.
At that point, the Braves held a 3.5 game lead on the Diamondbacks for the NL Wildcard spot and finally had a dominant CF.
And then came August.
Compounded with Heyward’s lingering shoulder would be McCann’s oblique injury, then Hanson’s sore shoulder, and finally Jurrjens’s bum knee. Neither of the Braves righties would appear in September, Heyward would be limited to 80 PA in the final month, and McCann would put up a paltry 76 wRC+ in the season’s final month. While the trio or Minor, Teheran and Delgado may have been loaded with talent, the three were forced into eleven starts in the last 24 games and stumble to a combined -0.1 fWAR.
The Braves collapse in 2011 was one of the worst in franchise history. The team was up 10.5 games with six weeks to play, 8.5 with three weeks left. The Braves entered the last five games still clinging to a three game lead. And didn’t win another game.
For all the heartbreak of 2011, it did give a glimpse of what the team would look like going forward. For all the moves Wren had to make in previous off-seasons, he got a bit of a reprieve in the winter of 2011.
The only pieces gone were Alex Gonzalez and Nate McLouth to free agency, but Frank did have one objective entering the off-season: find somewhere to dump Derek Lowe’s salary.
Lowe didn’t have a horrible run with the Braves, but he never quite attained the level of dominance he had shown in 2002, 2006 or 2008, but in Atlanta he was exactly the pitcher he was in the other seasons: not an ace, but solid nonetheless. His FIP was highest in 2009 (4.06), but fell right in line with his career numbers his second and third year (3.89, 3.70). He also ended up being worth 6.5 fWAR, which fell right in with the 2-3 wins he was worth in every season but those three outliers. He never was able to $15M per his salary ended up being worth, but he was worth $9-10M each of the three seasons. Considering the forced hand of Wren, it’s hard to call a $5M per overspend much of a bust.
The only hole to fill would be one done internally. With Gonzalez gone, the shortstop competition boiled down to two prospects: Tyler Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons. Pastornicky was expected to be the more offensive-driven of the two, whereas Simmons was already considered all-world defensively. The Braves would settle on Pastornicky, expecting his glove to be more refined and less of a question than Simmons’s bat.
Wren would make three other moves before the Braves opened the 2012 season: veterans Chad Durbin and Livan Hernandez were added to the bullpen, and left-handed slugger Juan Francisco was acquired from Cincinnati for minor league JJ Hoover.
Injuries would continue to pop-up, however, as Chipper and Hudson would both begin the season on the disabled list. The team would also have to deal with early (and prolonging) struggles of Jurrjens. As Hudson was returning, Jurrjens was heading to Gwinnett. By late May, concerns over Brandon Beachy’s health would also mount. He would only make three starts in June before his elbow finally gave and he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery.
By the middle of May, Chipper would be making his second trip to the DL and Pastornicky was out at shortstop after continued struggles in the field and at the plate. While the fix at shortstop was an easy one with Simmons, 3B created more issues. The platoon at 3B with Francisco and Prado also created a horrible offensive and defensive platoon in LF of Matt Diaz and Jose Constanza.
The Braves 3B was having one of his best seasons in recent memory, but keeping him in the lineup for his farewell tour was proving as difficult as it had been in six of the previous seven seasons. The Braves offense would only go as far as his bat being in the lineup could take them. And just as soon as he was back in the lineup everyday, another piece went missing.
After just over a month in the Majors, Simmons broke his hand sliding into second in Philadelphia, the day before the All-Star break. Enter the old golden glover of Jack Wilson to take his place. Well, for four innings. The injury bug jumped up and got him before Atlanta was even a full game into the second half. The Braves needed a shortstop, and they weren’t willing to fall back on Pastornicky, so Wren got Cincinnati on the phone again, this time sending AAAA starter Todd Redmond to the Reds for another all-glove shortstop in Paul Janish. He was useless offensively, but he was at least not a liability in the field like Pastornicky had shown to be.
Brian McCann would also have the first injury struggles of his career, dealing with what would eventually be diagnosed as a torn labrum for the final two months of the season. He battled through, but struggled considerably at the plate.
The Braves also dealt with rotation issues in 2012. Along with Jurrjens’s struggles, Minor had difficulty keeping the baseball in the park in his first full season, Delgado had difficulty sticking, Teheran was inexperienced, Hanson saw his velocity dip and a back injury sideline him, and Hudson battled with an ankle injury.
At the start of July, Wren started making moves to bolster the rotation, first agreeing with reclamation project Ben Sheets on a minor league deal; and then at the deadline, acquiring lefty Paul Maholm (along with Reed Johnson) for a sack of rotten potatoes. August again saw Hanson and Jurrjens on the shelf and a new-look rotation of Hudson, Minor, Sheets, Maholm and Kris Medlen, who had made the move from the bullpen back to the rotation.
The Braves were in control of their own destiny, however. Thanks to MLB expanding the playoffs to include a play-in Wildcard round, five teams would now be making the post-season out of each league. And while the team sat 2.5 games back of the Nationals in the East, they were four games up on the second Wildcard spot heading into August. By the end of August, they had moved into the first WC position and held a 3.5 game lead on a playoff spot.
And for once, it seemed like they had caught their stride right at the same time. Simmons was back and the team was almost 100%. They would end the season on a strong 20-10 run, locking up a playoff spot with a week left in the season, and finishing 94-68. Not only were the Braves back in the playoffs, but they had posted their highest win total in a decade.
But once more, it was not meant to be. In Chipper’s swan song, the Braves fell to the Cardinals at home 6-3 and were once again denied advancement in the post-season.
Wren would once again need to use some strategery following the 2012 season. A lot of it I have already discussed at great length referring to BJ Upton and his contract. So I will at least spare that bit. But there was a lot of moving parts that still needs to be discussed.
Out was Bourn, replaced by BJ Upton.
And out were Hanson and Jurrjens, as the club had finally given up on both. Jurrjens was non-tendered, while Hanson was dealt to the Angels for reliever Jordan Walden. Yeah, that Jordan Walden, the guy who hops when he pitches. Not a lot is said about it, so need to make sure you’re still paying attention.
Also gone was the team’s backup catcher of the previous four seasons, David Ross. In terms of a reserve backstop, you cannot ask for more than 6.1 fWAR over 227 games. Taking his place would be Gerald Laird, a serviceable ML backup, even if not quite up to the Ross standard.
But the biggest hole to fill would be either 3B or LF, depending on what the team decided to do with Prado. As it turns out, the intention in relation to Prado would be neither. In trade talks that took all winter to come to fruition, Wren would eventually trade Prado as the centerpiece of a deal that also included Delgado and prospects Zeke Spruill, Nick Ahmed, and Brandon Drury. In return, Frank would get both his LF and 3B: Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, respectively.
Upton would join his brother in the Atlanta outfield, along with Jason Heyward, a trio who had combined for an average of nearly 4.0 fWAR over the previous three seasons.
At 3B, Johnson was expected to compete with slugger Juan Francisco for the starting job. At the very least the two were expected to platoon.
Behind the plate, a question mark remained for the first month at least, while McCann recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. Enter the legend of El Oso Blanco. We all know the story, so I’ll spare you that, but let us also not forget the flier taken on this kid as a 23rd round pick in 2010. And within three seasons, he was poised to make a huge impact, breaking camp as the team’s starting catcher.
There were also two other minor moves that, at the time, kind of flew under the radar. The first was a waiver claim on Jordan Schafer, whom the Astros had tried to pass through to send to AAA; the second being the signing of Yankees castoff, infielder Ramiro Pena. Neither had expectations, but both would end up contributing.
For the first time in this entire piece, the Braves would send only five starters to the mound in the first half – a single three-inning spot start in mid-July by Alex Wood, not withstanding. Minor, Hudson, Teheran, Medlen and Maholm would all contribute between 0.7 and 2.1 fWAR over the first three months of 2013.
And the offense was equally impressive. Gattis thrilled the Atlanta faithful until McCann returned, and then continued to impress with his exploits of the bench. Freeman and Upton performed as expected, combining for four wins during the first half. Simmons was masterful on defense, despite offensive struggles. Heyward began to catch fire after an emergency appendectomy. Even Uggla was contributing.
But Chris Johnson proved to be the deal show. While many of us waited, and waited, and waited for his BABIP to come down to Earth, Johnson just kept finding holes, and battled for the NL hitting crown for much of the season. The Braves brass were so impressed, they would axe the platoon idea, and designated Juan Francisco for assignment by the end of May. It was a move not many understood then, and continue to be as befuddled by today.
Even without the adorably nicknamed Fat Juan, the Braves bench flourished, as Gattis, Schafer, Pena, Laird, and Reed Johnson were all delivering key contributions in reserve on a near nightly basis and filling in admirably when needed.
As the end of July approached, the Braves had opened up a six game lead with a week remaining before the trade deadline. For once, Wren and his team was expected to remain quiet, holding a commanding division lead. And then the injuries began to mount.
Over the course of two days, Atlanta would lose Maholm for a month with a wrist injury and Tim Hudson to a freak broken ankle that left the masses in Braves Country praying for his life. Seriously. That happened. The Braves had youth available to fill in, but 2012 draft pick Alex Wood was on an innings limit and the team didn’t want to stretch him any further than possible. With Brandon Beachy being unable to fully recover from 2012’s Tommy John surgery, spot starts down the stretch were given to castoffs Kameron Lowe, non-prospect David Hale and veteran Freddy Garcia.
The Braves were also forced to deal with the shortcomings of both Dan Uggla and BJ Upton in 2013, but as I’ve alluded to previously, that has been covered in a piece I will link to at the end of this article.
The 2013 Braves rolled into the post-season, wrapping up the NL East early and finishing up with a ten-game lead and 96 victories, improving on their record for a third straight season.
Unfortunately, the playoffs were not meant to be, yet again. As we all watched that final inning, just as Kimbrel watched it from the bullpen – shaking our heads and muttering under our breath about what bullshit it was. All while once again asking what could have been.
This past off-season was one of inactivity for a long period of time. McCann was gone to New York, getting a much-deserved payday from the Yankees. The same for Hudson, off to San Francisco, likely to end his career in the Bay Area, where it started. Gavin Floyd was the only big acquisition before the calendar turned over. Only one trade was made, sending a former first round pick, starter Sean Gilmartin, to the Twins for Ryan Doumit, who was expected to provide some power off the bench.
And then elbow started exploding again. Within two days, Medlen and Beachy both suffered huge setbacks, as both announced they would undergo their second Tommy John surgery. Pair that with Minor expected to miss time at the start of the season because of a surgical procedure which we shall not be named that had set back his throwing program, and problems were afoot.
Once more, Frank Wren was stuck with very little to work on.
The only starting pitcher available on the market was one who’s name had been tossed around repeatedly: Ervin Santana. And Frank would scoop him up within days of the Medlen and Beachy injuries. He came with a hefty $14M price tag, but the deal was for only one season.
Another veteran move was made a week later, as the Braves gave Freddy Garcia his unconditional release, instead taking a shot on another castoff, righty Aaron Harang.
Through it all, Wren managed to accomplish a lot to sure up the cornerstones long-term. Over the course of two weeks in February, Freeman, Teheran, Kimbrel and Simmons were all locked up through at least the next four seasons. Kimbrel was given a four-year deal worth $42M, Teheran will received $32.4M over six years, Simmons at $58M for seven years, and Freeman was locked up for the next eight seasons at a $135M mark.
The jury remains out on 2014.
So far, the big move has been the release of Uggla and Jordan Schafer. Also brought in were James Russell and Emilio Bonifacio from the Cubs, neither of which were expected to be make much of an impact, but were more to add depth.
It also remains to be seen what will become of the BJ Upton contract and which of Justin Upton or Heyward will be locked up, if either.
This could end up being the deciding factor on Wren’s legacy. We don’t know if he’s going to be able to get anything of value out of BJ. We don’t know if he’s going to have to throw in something extra to make such a thing happen. With money already tied up in the Big Four of Freeman, Kimbrel, Simmons, and Teheran, what if anything does that leave for Justin and Heyward? Could the Braves potentially end up with a hole in CF after 2014 and then a hole in each of the corner outfield spots in 2015? All signs potentially point to yes. But with Gattis becoming expendable with Christian Bethancourt behind the plate, perhaps one of those three positions could be filled by selling high.
There are simply too many questions up in the air right now for us to have any real feel for how any of these questions and scenarios are going to shake out.
Word has begun to circulate that 2014 could be Frank Wren’s final season as the GM of the Atlanta Braves, along with other possible restructuring, including but not limited to, manager Fredi Gonzalez.
When Wren took over the Braves organization in October 2007, it was void of direction, and while it did contain some big name prospects, none were remotely close to being Major League ready. Since that time, the Braves have developed a wealth of Major League contributors, locked down the core of the team for much of the next decade, and managed to once again become one of the winningest teams in all of baseball. Since 2008, only the Cardinals have won more games in the National League; and since 2010, no team in the Majors has had the success of the Braves organization.
It hasn’t always been pretty, and sure, there have been a number of contracts that, in retrospect, simply did not work out. But that same could be said of any general manager when you evaluate their long-term contracts. It’s a matter of a broken system, not of a broken facilitator. But it’s part of the game. Much like the minor moves (waiver claims, non-deadline deals) are equally parts of balancing those hefty contracts out by maximizing value and market inefficiencies.
Being a successful general manager involves putting the best team on the field given a limited amount of resources – both talent and financials. Frank Wren has had some key contracts that haven’t worked out in his favor, but he has turned an organization that lost 90 games just six seasons ago into a continued National League stronghold.
Previously referenced: http://bravesgeneralstore.wordpress.com/2014/08/14/an-uggla-upton-and-johnson-retrospective/