It's Better to Be Lucky Than Smart: Circa 2008 Offseason
In the wake of the disaster what was a promising Atlanta Braves 2008 season, the front office had to make some big splashes. Loud moves were needed, not only bring the team into contention but also show the declining fan base that The Atlanta Braves were still a winning organization that merely had a bump in the road. Essentially, front office moves were as much about the actions of making the team better as making the team better itself. These offseason moves included bringing back Tom Glavine, trading for Javier Vazquez, signing a Japanese starter (what could go wrong?), and a front of the line starter with a big-game reputation-- Derek Lowe. Derek Lowe, of course, was not the ideal option for Frank Wren and Co. In fact, he was Plan C. Not in many realms of life do Plan C's ever work out. But it has for Atlanta, proving it's better to be lucky than smart.
The ideal move for the front office was a trade for Cy Young award winner Jake Peavy. Despite going on the DL for the second time in his career and playing for a terrible team in 2008, Peavy had 2.85 ERA with a 2.81 SO/BB ratio and a WHIP of just 1.18. This was Plan A because Peavy was the only surefire ace on the market the Braves could afford. The Padres lost 99 games with Peavy; the Padres' mindset was to cut payroll the following year because if you're going to lose, lose with the kids. Through strained negotiations, Wren made the right decision not to give the deed to the farm over to San Diego. Some asking price discussions included Yunel Escobar and Tommy Hanson. Perhaps there were concerns about Peavy's durability from his 2008 DL stint which may have caused Wren not to accept San Diego's offers, considering 4 of the 5 Braves starting pitchers spent significant time on the DL in 2008. Sure, there were outcries two years ago over not trading some minor leaguers for one of the top 5 pitchers in baseball at that point, but Wren didn't give in to outrageous demands because there were other viable options.
Plan B was a free agent signing for the familiar name of A.J. Burnett. Typically, gaudy free agent signings aren't the Braves M.O. (for good reason). But Burnett was the best free agent starting pitcher that off season not named C.C. He also came off a solid year were he set career highs in games started and led the AL in strikeouts, all while pitching in the toughest division in MLB. A moderately young pitcher who was familiar with the NL East was exactly what the front office was looking for and Burnett fit the bill. The front office looked past some dependability issues and offered him a generous contract, only to see him later turn it down. Burnett later said he preferred to be a tree in the forest among the New York Yankees rather than be asked to carry the weight of bringing the Braves back into relevancy. There wasn't much that could have been done here. If he doesn't want to play for an organization, he's not going to.The aftermath of the Burnett dealings left Wren with little room to bargain.
Things were certainly looking down for Wren, despite trading for an (at the time was a mere) innings eater, Javier Vazquez. The braves had no real statement which had to be made -- a legitimate opening day starter. Their Plan C was Derek Lowe. To make matters worse, he was a Boras Client. Wren had no cards to play, and now Lowe and Boras were considering a 3 year contract with the Mets. This Mets variable made the signing of Lowe even more crucial, due to the fact that this deal became a defensive move against the rival Mets as much as an addition to make the team better. Wren had to offer "Plan C", a 35 year old who was six years removed from his last All-Star team, to a guaranteed fourth year. Boras saw a front office having arguably the worst of the offseasons among all front offices, which had no cards to play, and needed to make a big splash which was sought by everyone, even publicly by Bobby Cox. The end result was a four year deal, which makes sense, attached to a 15 million dollar annual salary, which clearly made no sense at all. Wren and the rest of the front office not only bid against themselves, but did so two or three times. They were the only team offering four years, and the only team offering anything more than 12-13 million/yr. How it got to 4 years/60 million, I don't know. But the Braves were desperate and the end result was "Plan C" starting opening night on national television.
It would have taken several more of the efforts that Derek Lowe had shown on opening night 2009 (8 IP, 0 R) to justify his infamous contract. Alas, what Atlanta got was mediocrity, mediocrity, mediocrity. When post-Tommy John Tim Hudson came back in August, "Plan C" had the highest ERA on the staff, including two rookies. Despite pitching better at the time, the Japanese rookie Kawakami was moved to the bullpen. Lowe should have been moved to the bullpen in late 2009 as Kawakami was progressing and pitching better at the time, while Lowe was much better suited in the bullpen role due to a a previous reliever role with Boston.However, Derek Lowe's dependability was as advertised in more ways than one. He never missed a start in 2009, all while his ERA rose on a steady pace to an eventual 4.67. "Plan C" appeared to be an obvious gaffe by the organization considering the abundance of starting pitching the Braves had the following offseason. Wren's most viable options were to either sell high on Vazquez (who had a career year and got in the Cy Young conversation), or sell low on Lowe (who was nothing but mediocre and was signed for a lavish amount for the next three seasons). Wren abashed in the face of reason by not trying to sell high and repeatedly tried to sell low on Lowe. There were no takers. This left Wren to trade Vazquez to the Yankees for a bat, Melky Cabrera (he sucks), a LOOGY, a half million dollars, and a starting pitching prospect. This trade, on paper, didn't really make the Braves any better for 2010, again because Wren just had no cards to play during the negotiations. After the 2009 season was over, all Wren was really guilty of was acting rashly, not stupidly. Sure he could have signed Lowe cheaper, but Wren did almost everything right. By not selling the franchise's life savings for Peavy, not getting a bidding war with the Yankees, and by trading Vazquez for a couple of interesting parts instead of flipping Lowe for peanuts, his moves and non-moves payed off in 2010.
No one, especially not frank Wren, would foresee that 2010 would prove to make Executive Vice President Franklin E. Wren a genius. "Plan A", Jake Peavy, played hurt for a terrible San Diego team in 2009 and was traded (while hurt) to a contending White Sox team. Peavy did nothing for the White Sox in 2009 and did nothing noteworthy in 2010 due to midseason back surgery. "Plan B" won a World Series in 2009, and it certainly looked like Wren should have thrown that blank check Burnett's way to convince him to pitch in the NL again. But, Burnett a power pitcher, only had a passable 2.01 SO/BB ratio in 2009 all while walking a career high amount of batters. Let's not forget that the wheels came off for Burnett in 2010 (His ERA+ went from 114 to 81, ERA from 4.04 to 5.26, which added up a 10-15 record for a 95 win team in 2010). And finally, the trade that never was proved to be the most beneficial. After pitching 219 innings in 2009 for Atlanta, Vazquez went on to pitch just 157 for New York. Obviously, Javy was not the same pitcher in 2010 suffering a critical loss on his fastball and overall arm fatigue. His SO/BB plummeted from 5.41 to 1.86. For a power pitcher, it's all the making of a disaster.
Derek Lowe didn't quite silence his critics in 2010. In fact, he added a lot of fuel to the fire in the middle third of the season where he had a span of 11 starts where the Braves lost 9 of them. Lowe's change in mechanics due to ineffectively and decision to finally throw his slider more often had effectively changed his dynamics to become a strikeout threat as much as a ground ball machine. I'm sure him skipping a start and getting a cortisone shot late in the season didn't hurt either. I don't need to tell you that Derek Lowe was the deserved pitcher of the month --when the Braves absolutely needed him most in September of 2010. With mounting injuries to the starting pitching and everyday players alike, Lowe became an ace when Tim Hudson's surgically reconstructed elbow appeared to be in rapid decline. The Braves wouldn't have made it to the playoffs without Lowe in 2010, and his two playoff starts speak for themselves.(Despite the Braves losing each of his games, there was questionable calls and bad luck to overshadow his performance of an ERA of 2.31 and a WHIP of 1.03)
Despite the year that was 2009, Derek Lowe has outplayed Jake Peavy and A.J. Burnett over the past 2 years. Using Fangraph's WAR ratings, Jake Peavy combined WAR for 2009 and 2010 was 4.4 (hindered due to injury). A.J. Burnett combined WAR was 4.7 (hindered due to all-around ineffectiveness in 2010). Derek Lowe notched a combined 5.3 WAR while making about the same salary as Peavy or Burnett. The most substantial decision was the "no trade" of trying to flip Derek Lowe. By keeping Lowe on the staff in 2010 over Vazquez, it was a net gain of 2.9 wins by Fangraph standards (down to only 1.8 if you include Melky and Dunn). The sinker baller Lowe may lack these three pitchers in terms of SO/BB, but more than makes up for it with a vital 58.8% GB/FB ratio he logged in 2010. Despite rough patches in 2010, Lowe walked less batters, struck out more, and had a better GB/FB ratio than he did in 2009, all while finishing the season and postseason in his best form. By continuing the trends of September/October established by a change in mechanics and pitch selections, Atlanta should expect even more in the 2011 season from their $15 million dollar man. Frank Wren can take credit, even though any observer can tell he just got lucky that "Plan C" worked out.
For further proof of how luck can triumph over planned thinking see the 2010 San Francisco Giants starting lineup.