April 09, 2015

Defending Frank Wren

In the aftermath of Frank Wren’s firing, there certainly was a lot of talk about his deficiencies and what he did wrong.  (Never mind that the head honchos of The Braves’ Way, John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, were there throughout Wren’s tenure and didn’t seem to get in the way of what they later perceived as getting away from the Braves’ Way.)

The Braves were in a bit of a bind the day Wren left, with Jason Heyward and Justin Upton a year from free agency and the farm system depleted.  But although the major league club struggled to a 79-83 season in 2014, the Atlanta Braves were quite successful during Wren’s tenure as GM, from 2008 to 2014.  They had the eight-best record in baseball over that stretch and the fourth-best record in the National League.  They had a better regular season record over that stretch than the three-time World Series champion San Francisco Giants, and we should all know by now that what happens over 162 is more telling than what happens over the course of a few weeks.

I understand why the Braves felt the need to make a change when they did.  The window had closed for the contender that Wren did a great job in building and it was time for the franchise to reload and focus on their minor league system.  The Braves had wisely let Brian McCann and Tim Hudson walk after 2013.  Not having Heyward and Justin Upton after 2015 was a distinct possibility.  And their farm system didn’t have the players to keep up.  Reportedly Wren’s personality had run some great scouting and player development folks out of the organization earlier in Wren’s tenure.  Plus success means a team can’t afford all the good players that made it successful and it means drafting lower and not having a shot at premium talent in the amateur draft.  After the Braves let go of Wren, a lot of the great talent evaluators came back.

However, as Ken Rosenthal points out:

The Braves’ selections from 2010 to ‘14 under former scouting director Tony DeMacio included shortstop Andrelton Simmons (second round, ‘10), outfielder Evan Gattis (23rd round, ‘10) and left-hander Alex Wood (second round, ‘12). During that period, the team also signed its top prospect, second baseman Jose Peraza, out of Venezuela.

Funny, for all the changes, the Braves Way seemed pretty healthy the previous spring, when the team awarded contract extensions to four homegrown players — Simmons, Kimbrel, Freeman and Teheran — not to mention Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez.

This goes to show how quickly things can change in baseball.  Before the 2014 season, the Braves looked like they were well set for the future, and that was of course well before they traded some major league assets to revamp the farm system.  But beneath the surface, they fell victim to their own successes.  Their farm system had actually produced plenty of talent under Wren and DeMacio.  But that talent made its way to the big leagues quickly and therefore started making real money or approaching free agency quickly.  If a team produces too many young stars, they aren’t going to be able to afford them all.

The window closes quickly on a team that produces a lot of young stars at once and gets them on the cheap for six years but doesn’t or can’t commit to a sizable player payroll budget.  What the 2014 season did was afford the Braves a chance to rid the roster of the stars that they weren’t going to pay, get future value for them, and try to repeat what they did with the young core that won a lot in 2010-2013.

Wren also gets a bad rap for his big veteran moves, like the B.J./Melvin Upton signing, the Dan Uggla extension, or the Derek Lowe deal.  But I would argue even those moves were defensible.  The Braves were in a position to win and win big in 2010-2014, particularly the last few years of that stretch of seasons.  The Braves’ young core was in the big leagues.  The future was now, at that point.  Wren had to have some idea that all these young star-caliber players weren’t going to be around forever.  So, for a GM with a small payroll, he was very aggressive in the free agent market, taking risks paying veterans the going rate for their services, instead of looking for undervalued players without much upside.  Basically he was going for the homerun (to use a baseball metaphor) with these types of fill-in-the-gaps moves while he had the core in place to win.  In hindsight, knowing they weren’t likely to keep that core together, it’s hard to blame him for taking some chances to surround that core with more talent to try to win big.

In some sense, Wren’s plan worked.  Sure he missed on a lot of those risky, fill-in-the-gap moves and maybe he would have been better off going with lower-risk, lower-upside free agent moves but that’s all hindsight.  Wren wasn’t perfect but no GM is.  But the reality is the Braves won 94 games in 2012 and 96 games in 2013.

The organization needed a reset but the fact is Frank Wren and Tony DeMacio got results, both from the major league team and in bringing up young talent.  Maybe the new old crew will be even better than the scouting and player development teams under Wren.  They have the pedigree, so it’s hard to imagine the front office, scouting, and player development aren’t in better shape.  But Wren didn’t run the organization into the ground, even if he was difficult for John Schuerholz, Bobby Cox and others to work with.



5 Responses to “Defending Frank Wren”

  1. 1
    Shaun Says:

    Of all the players who got fewer than 641 plate appearances and more than 20 plate appearances last season, only Evan Gattis had an OPS+ over 84.

    I don’t think we focused enough on how awful the offensive depth of the team was last season. It wasn’t like the best four hitters were good, there was a tier of hitters behind them, another tier behind them. It was like after the best four hitters, everyone was terrible.

  2. 2
    Chris Says:

    I am not a Wren-hater; I just thought he spent the team’s money in an unwise manner. Snatch up a veteran for the going rate and pay them for a year knowing that you need to be able to keep your young players.

    The sample size is small in games. Yet, I can visibly see an intangible side to this ball club that hasn’t been around in ages. It is obvious these young guys are maturing just from having proven winners in the dugout. I think Gomes, Markakis and Grilli bring an attitude with them that has already rubbed off on the youngsters. Baseball is not always won on paper and this ball club is showing the MLB just that.

  3. 3
    Shaun Says:

    Chris, yeah, I don’t know that Wren did a great job in every aspect of the game. Then again, no GM is perfect. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve to be fired. But the criticism of him without Schuerholz and others taking any blame for where the farm system was is tacky. I don’t think it was all Wren, and if it was, the higher powers should have done something before it got to this point.

  4. 4
    Chris Says:

    I agree and thankfully it seems the right people are there now.

  5. 5
    Deandre Says:

    We LOVE Sunday in Central PA. We go deep into the woods behind the house and check out the veranl ponds. I just learned the awesomeness of veranl ponds. They are little ponds that dry up in the summer. They don’t have fish in them so they are perfect breeding ground for turtles, salamanders, and frogs. AWESOME!!!

Leave a Reply