Frank Wren was fired by the Atlanta Braves after seven seasons as the Atlanta Braves executive vice-president and general manager. With Frank Wren as their general manager, the Braves went 604-523 for a 53.59 winning percentage. In the time that Wren was in charge the Braves won more games than any National League team except the St Louis Cardinals, made the playoffs three times and missed the playoffs a fourth time on the last day of the regular season. The Braves also only won a total of two playoff games under Wren and had their only two losing seasons since 1991, though one came in Wren’s first season in charge. Based purely on results, the Braves under Wren were one of the best teams in baseball, though they never achieved anything meaningful in the playoffs. I think context matters though and that with proper context, Wren comes out looking like an outstanding general manager undone mostly by bad luck and the insanely competitive nature of his job.
What Wren Inherited
The first bit of context needed for Wren’s tenure is to understand what he inherited from his predecessor John Schuerholz. Wren took over following the 2007 season which is most notable for being the season in which on July 31, 2007, the Texas Rangers traded Mark Teixeira along with Ron Mahay to the Atlanta Braves for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Beau Jones, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, and Neftali Feliz. The trade was very much one of trying to win now at a huge future cost with Saltalamacchia, Andrus, Harrison and Feliz all being consensus top 100 prospects in baseball. Schuerholz traded four top 100 prospects for 1.3 seasons of Mark Teixeira who, in fairness to him, was an absolute monster in what ended up being one full season with a tomahawk on his hat. On the day of the trade the Braves were 3.5 games out of the wild card and 4.5 games back in the NL East, though it is important to note they trailed more than one team in both races.
The Braves ultimately would finish the 2007 season five games out of the division and six games out of the wild card. The Braves were in third place in the NL East on the day of the trade and that is exactly where they finished the season. Now I bring this up in an article about Wren not to rehash a trade widely viewed as one of the worst in MLB history. I bring it up because Schuerholz knew 2007 was his last year in the role of GM, before being promoted to team president. It is reasonable to paint the trade as an ego move by Schuerholz to try to get Atlanta into the playoffs in his last year and he was quite willing to mortgage the future to make this happen. Wren came into his job without four players who have gone on to be good major league players and in exchange had one player who was a free agent at the end of the season and whom the Braves had no hope of re-signing. It was a bad position to be in.
Despite the loss of those prospects, the Braves were able to survive perfectly well with their lineup. The 2008 Braves had a very good lineup with Chipper Jones setting the franchise record for on-base percentage, Brian McCann had arguably the best season of his career, Teixeira was excellent before he was traded, Edgar Renteria was one of the best shortstops in baseball, Kelly Johnson was very good, and Martin Prado put up solid numbers in his first full season in Atlanta. The lineup was fine.
The problem was the starting rotation was an absolute mess defined by aging starters and never-became-good prospects. Forty-year-old John Smoltz led the Braves in innings pitched in 2007 but very predictably went down to injury early in 2008 and only pitched 28 innings. Buddy Carlyle, Chuck James and Kyle Davies were the Braves 3-5 starters in 2007 and were all various levels of atrocious. The disgusting state of the rotation made the loss of Harrison especially hurt as the highly regarded prospect could have been a building block and made some of Wren’s stopgap moves in the future less necessary. Regardless, the Braves had a nothing rotation with only Tommy Hanson and Jeff Locke on the horizon as possible solutions. The Braves did have future studs in the minor league system in Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, and Hanson would be excellent as well. Jordan Schafer was actually the team’s top prospect and, even though he never fulfilled his potential, Wren would be able to use Schafer as a key piece in one of Wren’s best moves.
Overall, Wren inherited a team in which his predecessor had foolishly gone all in on 2007 despite the Braves having one of the worst starting rotations in baseball that year. Wren would have to rebuild the rotation nearly from scratch with only Tim Hudson ready to be a reliable guy from day one and only Hanson ready to come up from the minors. In Wren’s first season in charge the Braves went 72-90 for their worst record since 1990. The Braves finished 13 games behind the third place Florida Marlins if you need an idea of how bad things were. I think this is mostly a reflection of the sorry state Schuerholz’s "win one before I step down" mentality had left the team before Wren’s coronation.
The 2007 Offseason
The very first move of Wren’s tenure was one of his best, as he worked to fill the massive holes he inherited in the rotation. Wren traded Edgar Renteria for Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez. The move opened up the shortstop position for stud prospect Yunel Escobar who had impressed in part-time duty in 2007. In his first season as a first choice player, Escobar put up a 106 wRC+ while playing excellent defense at the most important position on the diamond. Jurrjens made his big league debut in 2008 and was immediately the Braves' best starter finishing with a 3.59 FIP and finishing third in rookie of the year voting. Hernandez ultimately failed as a prospect but was part of the trade that brought Nate McLouth to Atlanta. Renteria had an excellent 2007 for Atlanta but was 32-years-old and, as Wren anticipated, declined quickly after leaving Atlanta. In short, Wren’s first move as GM was a resounding success as Wren was able to trade an aging vet who soon fell off for an excellent young starter and opened up a full time job for Escobar. This was a great opening move.
One move that Wren made to desperately fill his dumpster fire rotation was to bring Braves legend Tom Glavine back from New York. The move was a complete failure with Glavine suffering from injuries and being ineffective when he was able to get on the field. Still, the move cost the Braves very little as Glavine was on a one-year deal for a minimum salary. Since it was Tom Glavine, the move was noteworthy, but in pure baseball terms it was a no-risk gamble on a future hall of famer looking for one last chance. It didn’t work out, but it isn’t a move particularly worthy of criticism either.
A solid move from Wren that offseason was acquiring Omar Infante for Jose Ascaino. Infante would have several solid years for the Braves, even making an All-Star Game before being traded for Dan Uggla. This was an under-the-radar move that paid big dividends for the Braves.
Wren added reliever Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal to be the Braves' closer, but he would miss most of 2008 with injuries. Soriano did come back strong in 2009 though and had an excellent season as closer.
Mark Kotsay and Matt Diaz were added to the roster at little cost. Kotsay was pretty meh for the Braves and Diaz was abysmal in 2008. Diaz did come back strong to have an outstanding 2009 season and was a solid contributor when Atlanta returned to the playoffs in 2010. These moves were ultimately solid though not earth-shaking.
The Braves ultimately went into the 2008 season with a rotation of Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Mike Hampton (back from season-long injury) and Jair Jurrjens. Glavine and Smoltz ended up being essentially zeroes for the team, Hampton started 13 games before going down for year, and even the reliable Hudson underwent Tommy John surgery in early August. The entire starting rotation from opening day went down with injury with the sole exception of Jurrjens.
Jorge Campillo ended up as an emergency starter for the Braves that year and actually performed very well, filling in all year for the guys who went down. Charlie Morton and Jo-Jo Reyes were disasters and the Braves finished the season 12th in the National League in ERA. The napalmed rotation was the main reason for the disastrous season though I really can’t blame Wren for much of it. His move for Jurrjens gave the Braves their one reliable starter and he was a young, promising player, not a stopgap. Hudson’s injury was unpredictable and he inherited Smoltz and Hampton. 2008 was ultimately the transition season that had been coming for years and the Braves finally suffered through it after Schuerholz finally gave up control and stopped robbing Peter to pay Paul. It was a bad year, but Chipper and McCann kept things reasonably entertaining. Meanwhile, Jurrjens, Infante, and Escobar broke into the first team and the farm system had a small but excellent group of future studs. Wren was building for the future and his moves would pay off.
Of course Wren made one move that is worthy of some criticism. At his first trade deadline in charge with the team going nowhere and with no hope of resigning Teixeira, Wren decided to trade Teixeira to the Angels for Casey Kotchman and Steve Marek. Since Wren only had three months of Teixeira to trade, his return was always going to pale compared to what Texas got from Atlanta for him. Still, this was pretty bad with Kotchman being a complete disaster in Atlanta before being traded the next season. Teixeira played out his contract for the Angels before signing a massive free agent deal with the Yankees that offseason. As compensation for losing Teixeira, the Angels received a draft pick that ultimately turned out to be… Mike Trout. Yeah.
It is unlikely the Braves take Trout with that pick as the Angels were by far the biggest fans of Trout in the draft. Also of note is that Braves had the eighth pick in the draft where they took Mike Minor and passed on Trout. Even if Atlanta holds onto Teixeira, I highly doubt they draft Trout. Still, a compensation pick would have been more valuable than what Atlanta got for Teixeira. Trading Teixeira was perfectly reasonable but the return was pitiful and this has to count against Wren.
The 2008 Offseason
After one year Wren had made mostly strong moves. The trades for Jurrjens and Infante were excellent, Soriano and Diaz would ultimately come good in 2009, and only the Teixeira trade was really worthy of criticism. An under the radar move that offseason was the signing of relief pitcher Eric O’Flaherty. In what would become an annual tradition, O’Flaherty was a bullpen reclamation project who would become a stud for the Braves. This kind of move occurred basically every offseason like clockwork and was a major factor in the Braves success.
The Braves picked up David Ross on a two-year deal that offseason, and he would be the clear best backup catcher in baseball during his time in Atlanta. Ross was a solid backup for the Braves, providing excellent defense in his appearances and being far better on offense than could ever be expected of a backup catcher. This was a great move by Wren.
Wren struck gold again when he traded for Javier Vazquez. For a group of players that never made the Braves regret trading them, the Braves got Vazquez who, in one year in Atlanta, had possibly the best season of any Braves starter this century. This was an absolutely brilliant trade.
The offseason featured the excellent trade for Vazquez to improve the disastrous 2008 rotation but it also featured two signings that are often held against Wren. Wren gave a big four-year deal to high-priced free agent Derek Lowe and three years to Kenshin Kawakami from Japan. Lowe is generally mentioned with Uggla and BJ Upton as major Wren mistakes in free agency but I think this is unfair. For one, Wren was in a bad spot trying to keep the team afloat after being left with almost nothing in the way of starting pitching. He had to make moves and Lowe was a guy coming off several excellent seasons for the Dodgers. It was a situation where Wren went out and spent big money on a guy who filled a massive need and was widely viewed as the best available guy for fill that need.
Lowe ultimately didn’t work out, though it should be noted he was a groundball pitcher constantly let down by the Braves' poor infield defense. In 2011 for example, Lowe had a 5.05 ERA but 3.70 FIP. Lowe was an innings eater who got the ball on the ground at a high rate and was often betrayed by his defense. From a context-neutral perspective, Lowe’s three seasons in Atlanta were solid. No, he wasn’t a guy to anchor the rotation but he was decent and not worthy of much of the scorn he has gotten. Certainly nothing about his tenure is worthy of comparison to BJ Upton. Wren had a massive problem in the rotation and Lowe was a perfectly reasonable choice to fill that hole even if Wren did overpay for him. Not an outstanding move but not the disaster it is often portrayed as.
Garrett Anderson was also signed to a one-year deal that offseason and he was a complete disaster. Anderson got 534 plate appearances for the Braves in 2009 with an 83 wRC+ while playing comically terrible defense in the outfield. Like Wren’s other poor signings to this point Anderson was a one year deal and not a long term problem but the fact that he started all season was awful. Every game he was out there he actively hurt the team.
Tom Glavine was signed to another one year deal that offseason but he would never actually appear in Atlanta. Glavine was released after making his final rehab start with the feeling of the team apparently that the future Hall of Famer had nothing left. The move was criticized by some for being disrespectful, but as a baseball move there was nothing to criticize here.
Vazquez, O’Flaherty and Ross were absolute jackpot moves by Wren. I would consider Lowe to be a solid move and a necessary one. Kawakami is often considered a failed move but he was fine for the Braves in 2009, putting up a 3.86 ERA as the fifth starter. Glavine was a wash and Anderson a disaster, though a cheap one.
The Braves were much improved in 2009 mostly on the backs of a rotation that upgraded by leaps and bounds. Vazquez and Jurrjens were absolute studs with both throwing over 200 innings of sub-3.00 ERA ball. Highly regarded prospect Tommy Hanson made his debut in early June and never relinquished his spot in the rotation being one of the best pitchers in baseball the rest of the season. Lowe was a solid innings eater and Kawakami was good enough. The bullpen was also outstanding with Soriano and Peter Moylan having big years after recovering from their injuries. The team finished the year 86-76 and, while they missed the playoffs, this was clearly a team on the upswing with a bright future. This was quite a turnaround from what had looked like a lost franchise only a year prior.
Wren made three trades during the season, none of which were poor. Kotchman was traded for Adam LaRoche who arrived in Atlanta and tore the cover off the ball the rest of the year, putting up a 150 wRC+ with Atlanta. Prospect Jeff Locke was traded for All-Star center fielder Nate McLouth in the rare trade that didn’t really end up working out for either side. Locke was a good prospect who flamed out, while McLouth was a good center fielder who was never anything more than meh for the Braves.
Of course the most brilliant trade of Wren’s tenure was when he conned the Mets into giving him a living breathing baseball player for the Ashlee Simpson of baseball players Jeff Francouer. Yup Wren was able to not only get rid of Francouer but he stuck him on the Mets and got something halfway decent for him in Ryan Church. Really, an absolute coup all around.
Overall, this was a really good year for Wren. The only truly poor move was the Garrett Anderson signing and in one season he turned one of the worst rotations in baseball into one of the best. The Braves were in a good spot going into the offseason.
The 2009 offseason saw the Braves with a good young team in need of a few moves to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Stud starting pitcher Javier Vazquez was traded for Melky Cabera, Mike Dunn, and Arodys Vizcaino, which proved fortunate as Vazquez’s career cratered after leaving Atlanta. Cabrera was awful in his one season in Atlanta, but Dunn and Vizcaino would both be part of future trades that made the Braves better. Neither team really got a ton of production from the players in this trade but the Braves would use the assets acquired to trade for productive assets in the future. Except for Melky who was just as bad as bad can be in his one season for the Braves. Fortunately, Vazquez never made the Braves regret trading him and it was savvy of Wren to cash in on Vazquez’s fluke career year.
Soriano, Anderson and LaRoche were also all allowed to walk. Soriano was replaced by Billy Wagner who had an outstanding final season in the big leagues for Atlanta that year. Anderson was awful and the Braves were glad to be rid of him. LaRoche walked after his massive second half of 2009 which he never remotely replicated again. Basically, Soriano, Vazquez and LaRoche put up great years for Atlanta but were let go only to see them become much worse or, in the case of Soriano, the Braves signed a much better replacement.
The only guy I wish Atlanta had held onto was Kelly Johnson. Johnson was non-tendered after a very poor 2009 in which he was often injured. The Braves still controlled Johnson and could have kept him at a reasonable price and counted on a bounce back season if healthy. Instead he was let go so Infante and Prado could both get regular time in Atlanta’s starting lineup. With Prado, Infante, Escobar and Chipper Jones the Braves didn’t really have room for Johnson who did have a bad 2009. Still, Johnson signed with Arizona and put up a career year. I would have liked to see them hold onto him and at least explore trade possibilities. But considering Johnson’s poor form and the overabundance of infield options, I understand why Wren let Johnson go.
Eric Hinske and Troy Glaus were both signed to cheap one-year deals and both had some good moments for the Braves in 2010. Scott Proctor was added to the bullpen and was atrocious. Proctor’s one positive moment as a Brave actually came when he delivered the famous walkoff hit to mercifully end the 18-inning game against the Pirates on a play in which Proctor literally fell flat on his face trying to run out of the box.
This was another good offseason for Wren. Johnson had a big season after leaving but, given the information Wren had at the time, letting Johnson go was reasonable. The guys the Braves let go besides Johnson all got noticeably worse after leaving. Wagner was outstanding as the Braves' closer, Hinske was the ideal power bat off the bench and Troy Glaus won NL player of the month for May. Besides that month, Glaus was poor and he was horrific on defense, but considering how cheap he was, he should be considered a solid buy. The Vazquez trade added good assets while selling high on a player who would subsequently regress in a major way. The biggest problem for the Braves was Bobby Cox ever using Proctor in meaningful innings and Melky Cabrera somehow making 509 plate appearances.
The Braves returned to the playoffs in 2010 with a strong lineup and good pitching staff. Prado became a full-time starter and was outstanding. Omar Infante played the role of super utility man and somehow made an All-Star Game. At the trade deadline, Wren added Derek Lee who put up a 132 wRC+ for Atlanta, solving the first base problem for that year at least. Rick Ankiel was added in the summer and stabilized cenerfield after McLouth somehow lost all his ability as a baseball player. Yunel Escobar was traded for Alex Gonzalez who was an elite defensive shortstop and well regarded prospect Tyler Pastornicky. This was a good move even if Gonzalez was a defense-only guy for Atlanta after being quite productive offensively for Toronto. Gonzalez was arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball while with Atlanta and was a strong addition to the side by Wren. Tim Hudson returned from injury and was outstanding, finishing top-5 in Cy Young voting.
But of course the big addition was the arrival of uber prospect Jason Heyward in Atlanta. Heyward arrived with a ton of hype and smashed a monster home run in his first at bat. Heyward hardly slowed down leading the Braves regulars with a 134 wRC+ and being everything that was promised by all the prospect gurus. With Heyward leading the hitters, Hudson back in the rotation, and a dominant bullpen led by Wagner, O’Flaherty and Johnny Venters, the Braves won the wildcard and returned to the playoffs. A series of horrific injuries led to Brooks Conrad being forced to start a playoff game at second base and this ultimately would undo an excellent season. I truly believe this team was a serious World Series contender and that the terrible run of injuries to the team were the reason they missed out. Certainly they were the reason Conrad was in position to set the NLDS record for errors.
To this point in Wren’s tenure there was precious little to criticize. Wren took a team in desperate need of rebuilding and had them in the playoffs in his third year in charge. The rebuild was efficient and effective with the only real big money signing being Derek Lowe. That Wren turned the team around so quickly without splashing very much cash is a testament to his creativity and intelligence in team building. Omar Infante, David Ross, Eric Hinske, Jair Jurrjens, Yunel Escobar, Alex Gonzalez, Derick Lee, Billy Wagner and Eric O’Flaherty were all key members of the team that reached the playoffs who were added in either smart trades or bargain signings by Wren. Melky Cabrera and Nate McLouth were the only real clunkers who played meaningful innings for that team, but neither was expected to be nearly as bad as they were and neither was on a finance-killing contract. Wren was operating on a limited budget and doing really good things for the team.
The 2010 offseason, though, featured the first move of Wren’s tenure that was widely viewed as disastrous and is one of the two main moves that was widely mentioned when Wren was fired. This was the offseason where the Braves traded Omar Infante and Mike Dunn for Dan Uggla, then subsequently signed Uggla to a five-year, 62 million extension.
First off, let’s get one thing straight about this deal: the trade was an absolute masterstroke on the part of Wren. Wren traded a utility infielder coming off a career year and a dime a dozen reliever for one season of the 30-year-old best power-hitting second baseman in baseball history. Uggla was a bad defender then, but the Braves were a team desperately in need of home run power and Uggla had been an absolute star in Florida. Uggla was precisely what the team needed, he was on a cheap contract, and there was every reason to believe he would come to Atlanta and hit 30 home runs and help the Braves return to the playoffs. The problem wasn’t the trade at all; this trade was brilliant.
The problem was signing a 30-year-old whose one asset was his power to a five-year extension when his skills were unlikely to age well. The Braves committed to paying Dan Uggla 13 million dollars when he was 35 and there was simply no reason to do it. Peter Hjort nailed this in his initial post on the subject which is sadly no longer available on the internet. Uggla would have been a perfect low-cost rental and re-signing him could have been explored after the 2011 season if the Braves wished. Instead, they committed all this money to him up front and there wasn’t one day on this Earth where that extension made sense. Yes, this move counts against Wren but it shouldn’t be seen as an unmitigated disaster considering how smart the initial trade was and considering that Uggla was better than people remember his first two seasons in Atlanta.
The other moves of the offseason were to let Melky, Ankiel and Diaz walk all of which were good moves. Anthony Varvaro was the annual gem to be added to the bullpen and Scott Linebrink was another Proctor. But the big move was trading Infante for Uggla, which for 2011 was a great trade, but a poor decision in the long run.
Of course the other big offseason move was the retirement of longtime manager Bobby Cox and his replacement by Fredi Gonzalez. The fact that Fredi has kept his job so far while Wren has gotten the ax lends credence to what was the consensus at the time: that Fredi was handpicked by Bobby as his successor and that Wren didn’t have much say in the matter. Reports this week have suggested Wren’s desire to fire Fredi was a contributing factor to Wren being canned. If you do think the hiring of Fredi was a bad decision the evidence available suggests that you can’t really blame Wren for the decision.
The other big moves of the offseason were rookies Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel joining Heyward as the key members of the young core in the first team. Freeman had a very solid first year and Kimbrel immediately became the best closer in baseball and won the Rookie of the Year award. July 2011 saw Wren deliver what is likely his masterstroke as GM when he traded Jordan Schafer and assorted middling prospects to Houston for Michael Bourn. Bourn came to Atlanta and finally filled the hole in centerfield that the team had been unable to fill ever since Andruw Jones left. Bourn was outstanding for Atlanta as a speedy leadoff hitter and elite defensive centerfielder. The trade looked great at the time and in retrospect was absurdly one sided. This was probably Wren’s best move as GM and one of the most one-sided trades in baseball history.
But of course the 2011 season is mostly remembered for the Braves having one of the largest collapses in baseball history. The Braves entered the month of September with an 8.5 game lead over the Cardinals and missed the playoffs on the last day of the season. It is hard to say how much of a burden Wren bears for that collapse. He did make the excellent trade deadline move for Bourn who played well and should have bolstered the team. Derek Lowe was legitimately atrocious in September after being a hard luck pitcher most of his Atlanta tenure. Jason Heyward dealt with injuries that robbed him of his power and, even when healthy, he was often benched for Jose Constanza in one of the most absurd situations I have ever seen in sports.
Brandon Beachy was a hidden gem added to the Braves after not being drafted (which is unheard of in baseball) and he had an excellent 2011 season. Beachy goes down as a major positive in Wren’s camp and Jair Jurrjens was a candidate to start the All-Star Game. The Braves bullpen lead by Kimbrel, Venters and O’Flaherty was the best in baseball, though it faltered in September, possibly due to overuse by Fredi. Injuries were a major issue with only Uggla, Gonzalez and Freeman playing consistently all year. The 2011 Braves were a good if imperfect team who should have made the playoffs. The team was talented enough to make it; I don’t think Wren can really be blamed.
Wren didn’t respond to the 2011 collapse with any particularly drastic moves. Derek Lowe was offloaded as he couldn’t be brought back after his disastrous September. Kawakami returned to Japan, Alex Gonzalez walked, McLouth left now that he was solidly second choice and Brooks Conrad made an exit. The biggest additions were bargain hunting signings of Livan Hernandez and Chad Durbin. Juan Francisco was acquired in a trade for JJ Hoover. None of these moves sent out shock waves. Gonzalez was the only first choice guy to leave and he was replaced initially by rookie Tyler Pastornicky. Durbin was a disaster for the Braves, though this was compounded by Fredi Gonzalez regularly using him in high leverage situations as if he were somehow effective. Pastornicky was the only guy in the opening day lineup who hadn’t been in Atlanta the previous season and, while he had been a well-regarded prospect, he was a failure, never playing well for the big club. Pastornicky was replaced in June by rookie Andrelton Simmons who was spectacular once he got his chance.
Chipper Jones missed the first month of the season, but once he returned, he had an excellent final season before retirement. The big trade deadline move for Wren was trading Vizcaino for Reed Johnson and Paul Maholm. Johnson fit perfectly with the Braves as a guy who could pinch hit effectively without regular starts and Maholm solidified the rotation down the stretch after Hanson and Jurrjens both were injured and lost their effectiveness. A dumpster-diving move by Wren was adding Ben Sheets who gave the Braves a brief run of excellence before retiring for good. The Sheets move was a wonderfully creative one for Wren and Vizcaino, while a high ceiling prospect, has yet to show the ability to stay healthy. Kris Medlen was eased back into the rotation while recovering from Tommy John and unexpectedly turned into the best pitcher in baseball once he was added to the rotation in late July. Wren added Paul Janish and Jack Wilson as defensive fill-ins when Simmons got hurt and they were effective in this role. The only real mistake was the Durbin signing but the biggest problem was Fredi’s use of Durbin in important spots.
By standing pat with a good team and making some smart complementary moves, Wren got the Braves back to the playoffs by winning 94 games. But, because this is the Braves, they were forced to play in the first-ever wild card playoff game, losing to the Cardinals in the infield fly game. With the retirement of Chipper Jones and the impending exit of free agent Michael Bourn, the next offseason would require a much more proactive strategy from Wren for the Braves to return to the playoffs.
The offseason following the 2012 season is the defining one of Wren’s era and likely the biggest cause of his termination. The first big splash the Braves made was signing BJ Upton to the biggest free agent deal in team history in a move that was almost universally praised. Hardball Talk called the move a smart signing. MLB Trade Rumors listed Upton as the fifth-best free agent available. Ken Rosenthal liked the move. Bleacher Report called Upton the prized outfielder of the free agent class. Grantland writer Jonah Keri loved the deal for Atlanta and specifically discussed how BJ's game should age well. Even good ole Talking Chop in an article by Gondee raved about the move and in a poll only 21 percent of Talking Chop readers registered some level of dislike. In short, Upton arriving in Atlanta and at the age of 28 losing all his baseball ability was completely unexpected. This was viewed as a good move by the Braves and an aggressive one that showed the team was committed to winning. There’s no denying in retrospect that this move was a disaster. I just can’t use this move as the primary impetus for firing Frank Wren when nobody could have reasonably anticipated this outcome.
The other big move of the Braves offseason is controversial in some corners though really there is no reason for it to be. The Braves traded Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and assorted prospect flotsam for BJ’s younger brother Justin Upton and Chris Johnson. Martin Prado is a nice complementary piece, now highly overpaid since Arizona gave him a big extension after trading for him. Randall Delgado is the long man in Arizona’s bullpen. Meanwhile Justin Upton has been outstanding in his two seasons in Atlanta. Chris Johnson had one good and one bad season for Atlanta but getting even that one season was a bonus considering he was a throw in. The Justin Upton trade was a masterstroke from Wren and probably his second best move behind the Bourn trade where the guys Atlanta let go were completely useless. Wren nailed this one.
Another savvy trade was Wren sending the now broke Hanson to the Angels for outstanding setup man Jordan Walden. This move was viewed skeptically by people who hadn’t followed Atlanta closely enough to know Hanson was broken. Wren did well to move a guy no longer of any value for one of the best setup men in baseball.
Gerald Laird was signed to replace the departed David Ross as Atlanta’s backup catcher and Laird has been perfectly serviceable in that role. Jordan Schafer was brought back as a waiver claim and, at no cost, his strong two months in 2013 were great to have though they were annoying in the way they convinced a certain segment of Braves fans that Schafer is good. Ramiro Pena was added as a cheap utility infielder and he was unexpectedly brilliant off the bench before his season-ending injury. Nobody the Braves let walk came back to haunt them. Aside from BJ Upton’s bizarre collapse as a player, this was a brilliant offseason from Wren where he nailed move after move.
BJ Upton was immediately terrible for the Braves and 2013 was the season that Dan Uggla’s foreseeable collapse began in earnest. Despite this, the Braves cruised to their first division title since 2005 on the backs of a home run- and walk-heavy offense, the best pitching staff in baseball and outstanding defense especially from all world defenders Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward. Chris Johnson started out platooning with Juan Francisco before taking the job full-time and seeing Francisco shipped out.
I didn’t like the Braves cutting ties with Francisco. Johnson is very much a platoon player, showing extreme splits during his entire Atlanta tenure. Francisco also has amazing raw power that would have been useful off the bench if Atlanta wanted to make him a purely bench bat. Letting Francisco go seemed a rash move and one that especially haunted Atlanta the following season. While BJ’s contract obviously is the biggest burden on Wren’s reputation, I think the Francisco move was a more predictably poor decision by Wren.
Braves minor league diamond in the rough Evan Gattis also made his debut for Atlanta in 2013, having a very good season. While Wren missed on more first round picks than you would like his team did tend to make up for it with brilliant moves like getting Gattis, Beachy and Simmons.
David Carpenter was Wren’s annual waiver wire bullpen pickup and, per usual, Carpenter was brilliant all season, helping the Braves maintain their status as having the best bullpen in baseball.
The Braves easily won the NL East despite having to abandon playing two first choice starters down the stretch and even leaving Uggla off the NLDS roster entirely. Despite the great season, the Braves lost in the first round to the Dodgers, blowing game four in the 8th inning with best closer in baseball Craig Kimbrel standing ready to go waiting for a call that would never come. The early exit sucked but is it something that can be blamed on Wren? He built a team that performed brilliantly all season and then wasn’t able to make it happen in that one key inning of that one key game. Not sure what there is to do other than come back and try again next year.
The Braves went into the offseason in both a good but also difficult place. The team had a strong core that won 96 games the year before with a monstrous run differential that didn’t suggest there was anything fluky at work. On the other hand, unlike previous mistakes like Garrett Anderson and Melky Cabrera, Wren was locked into his problem positions. BJ Upton was one year into a massive five-year deal and was untradeable. Wren desperately tried to move Uggla but there was no interest. Centerfield and second base were where the Braves had gotten no production in 2013 but there didn’t seem to be any feasible way to improve these positions other than hoping the players turned it around.
Therefore it seemed the Braves front office decided to make the main focus of their offseason locking in longterm deals the players who seemed likely to be the core of the team going forward. Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel were all signed to longterm contracts. I liked all of these moves except the Johnson move. Johnson had a good year in 2013, but he did it by way of the highest BABIP in baseball. Johnson is a guy who doesn’t hit for power, doesn’t walk, has poor plate discipline, is slow on the bases and is awful on defense. Literally the only way he can be a valuable player is if he is leading the league in BABIP which isn’t really a sustainable model for success especially for a guy with no foot speed. More than that, the Braves still had three years of control for Johnson and Johnson is in his late 20s. They could easily go year to year with him and cut bait if he ever had a year where the bottom dropped out (like 2014). Instead they locked in a guy at third base who isn’t a building block. This was a rare Wren move that looked bad the day it was announced and has only gotten worse.
The other big move was letting Brian McCann leave in free agency. Honestly, as tremendous as McCann was for Atlanta this was a no brainer. McCann was aging and showing decline in the position where decline happens faster than any other. More than that, the Yankees were willing to throw down big money to sign McCann. If the Yankees make a Braves free agent their number one offseason priority that guy is leaving. That is just reality. McCann hasn’t really made the Braves miss him either. Wren’s record of letting players leave was excellent with Kelly Johnson’s monstrous Arizona season the only exception.
As a result of all this the Braves came into 2014 with basically the same group that won them the NL East in 2013. Gavin Floyd was added to the rotation as pitching depth that would turn out to be very much needed. The team was struck early with injuries as Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen were both lost for the season in spring training. Wren responded with another brilliant bargain bin pickup in Aaron Harang. Harang was cut by the Indians in spring training but came to Atlanta on a minimum deal and pitched 197 innings of a 3.60 ERA.
Wren’s other addition to the rotation was to splurge on a big one-year deal for Ervin Santana who had held out all off season looking for a big money deal. Santana and Harang both gave Atlanta as much as could have reasonably been expected from the guys they replaced and Atlanta maintained their excellent starting rotation. Gavin Floyd was excellent in his 54 innings but then he too went down for the season due to injury. Wren responded by sliding Alex Wood into the rotation where he immediately became Atlanta’s best starter. The Braves in 2014 suffered more horrible injury luck to their rotation than could reasonably be expected but Wren had responses to each injury that kept the team from missing a beat.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Atlanta’s lineup, which was abysmal in 2014. The lineup had three excellent hitters in Freeman, Justin Upton and Gattis. Gattis as a catcher who suffered some injuries couldn’t be counted on to play every day. As a result, Freeman and Justin consistently hit the ball for Atlanta and Heyward provided good on-base skills but no power. Chris Johnson’s offense plummeted back to Earth, Simmons went from below average to awful, BJ Upton actually improved from worst offensive player in baseball to merely bad, and Uggla hit like a pitcher before being replaced by Tommy La Stella who hit below average. Even worse was the bench, which in one season went from a strength for Atlanta to maybe it’ biggest issue with nobody hitting anywhere near league average.
How much of this is on Wren? The bench I think is. Wren whiffed on all his bench moves in 2014 with Ryan Doumit being an unmitigated disaster, Schafer being brought back and playing atrociously, Gerald Laird hit worse than usual, and Tyler Pastornicky giving the team nothing. Wren absolutely deserves blame for this. If Juan Francisco had been kept, he would've given actual power off the bench and could've platooned with Johnson once he predictably fell back to earth. Wren traded for Doumit to be the power bench bat and he gave the team nothing. Joey Terdoslavich and Todd Cunningham were never given a chance with the team despite strong seasons in the minors and possessing skill sets the team needed. Sure, Wren couldn’t move BJ in the offseason but these were areas he could have done something and he failed.
Overall, where does that leave us with Wren’s decisions? I grouped them into good decisions, bad decisions and bad outcomes. I differentiate bad outcomes from bad decisions in that a bad decision is something that should have been anticipated. A bad outcome is when the decision is made following a logical process but it just turned out poorly.
• Uggla’s extension
• Chris Johnson’s extension
• Releasing Juan Francisco
• Trading Teixeira for Casey Kotchman
• Signing Garret Anderson
• BJ Upton’s contract
• Derek Lowe’s contract
• Trading for Ryan Doumit
• DFA of Kelly Johnson
• Signing Chad Durbin
• Trading for Jair Jurrjens
• Trading for Omar Infante
• Signing Rafael Soriano
• Signing Matt Diaz
• Signing Eric O’Flaherty
• Signing David Ross
• Trading for Javier Vazquez
• Trading Javier Vazquez
• Trading for Adam LaRoche
• Signing Eric Hinske
• Trading for Rick Ankiel
• Signing Billy Wagner
• Trading for Derick Lee
• Trading for Dan Uggla
• Trading for Juan Francisco
• Trading for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson
• Trading for Michael Bourn
• Trading for Justin Upton
• Extending core guys besides Johnson
• Signing Aaron Harang
• Signing Ervin Santana
I do think that list is rather comprehensive. To me, the major mistakes of Wren’s tenure were Uggla’s extension, Chris Johnson’s extension and the complete bungling of building a bench for 2014. I don’t know why Terdoslavich and Cunningham never got a shot this season when things were in such poor shape. I do not blame Wren for the BJ Upton signing. I do not think there was any reasonable way to predict that BJ would play anything like he did -- not when the overwhelming response to bringing BJ in was to praise Wren.
Beyond these personnel decisions at the big league level, Wren also oversaw the Braves drafts and development of players. A quick look at Wren's first round choices shows three disasters (Matt Lipka, Brett Devall and Sean Gilmartin), one strong prospect (Lucas Sims) and one I honestly don't know what to think player (Mike Minor). I am not a prospect guru so I do not really know what to say about Braxton Davidson yet. My impression is he is solid with a good ceiling but hasn't started setting the world on fire yet.
Without a doubt, missing on that many first round picks is not good enough. On the positive side, Wren did nail several later picks. Gattis was a later round pick, Simmons a second round pick, Beachy was a guy the Braves got undrafted which never happens. Alex Wood was taken in the second round and appears to be a full on stud. Jose Peraza was signed as an international free agent and appears to be a certain impact player at the major league level. Christian Bethancourt was an international free agent and still has a massive ceiling. Tommy La Stella was an 8th round pick, Todd Cunningham a 2nd round pick and Joey Terdoslavich a 27th round pick.
The point is, while the Braves have whiffed on first rounders at an alarming rate, they have still been able to successfully draft and develop talent. Did Wren do an outstanding job at drafting? Absolutely not. But it is unfair to look only at his first round picks and say he has routinely botched the draft. Hopefully, the new regime will nail more of these early picks but hopefully they also keep finding these hidden gems the way Wren's organization has.
Many people seem to think Wren had to go just because someone needed to be held accountable for the 2014 disaster. Personally, I do not think that the point of view that if you get bad results, you should be punished no matter the reasons for those results makes much sense. We aren’t dealing with children and we are not trying to teach lessons about morality here. The only guiding force in deciding things like who will be the Braves general manager should be what course of action is most likely to help the Braves win more games. That should be the only consideration and past results only matter so much as they help us to intelligently predict future performance.
That being said, Wren is gone and this gives the Braves an opportunity. The most important job in the franchise is now available and while I think Wren was good at his job, there does exist humans who would be better at it. That number is very small but they are out there and if the Braves manage to hire someone better than Wren, then the team will be better for it. I am pessimistic about this but certainly the opportunity is there.
This post was long and involved but I hope I accomplished what I set out to do. That is to lay out in accurate detail exactly what decisions Frank Wren made as general manager, to appropriately asses those decisions based on what information Wren had when he made them and to appropriately weigh the good and the bad against each other. In my opinion, the good far outweighs the bad and I think that is reflected in the team’s excellent record under Wren. Wren apparently was moved out mostly because of not being a cultural fit with John Schuerholz, the guy who put him behind the eight ball when Wren came into the job. Wren apparently offended Bobby Cox by wanting Cox's protege Fredi Gonzalez replaced. There was much talk about things not being done "The Braves Way," whatever that means.
Regardless, Wren came into a very poor situation and quickly turned things around with limited resources. He did an excellent job and will be a tough act to follow.