Recently, the Atlanta Braves fired their GM, Frank Wren. The move came after being swept in New York by the Mets1. It was a particularly embarrassing sweep, too, because the Braves scored only 4 runs in 3 games2. This officially eliminated the Braves from playoff contention, which prompted the team to make the move.
The Braves are going to finish the season below .500 for the first time since 2008. Considering they were supposed to contend for the division, this obviously was a very disappointing result. The team did lose Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery before the season began, and Gavin Floyd after only 9 starts, but that only explains a small part of their underwhelming performance.
Under Wren’s tenure, the Braves have been a good, competitive team. They averaged 91 wins a season from 2009-2013, a run that also included three playoff appearances. Unfortunately, they also never won a playoff series and endured epic collapses in 2011 and this season. Wren was no Kevin Towers or Ruben Amaro Jr., but in a time when GMs are getting smarter and smarter, he failed to keep up.
Let’s start off with Wren’s successes. During his time as GM, he was responsible for drafting Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis, Craig Kimbrel, and Christian Bethancourt3. The trade for Justin Upton was lauded at the time, and rightfully so. He only gave up a declining Martín Prado in return for a solid offensive contributor. Upton was good for a 128 wRC+ last season and a 131 wRC+ this season. Wren also locked up Simmons to a team-friendly deal that I loved. I’m not as big a fan of the Freddie Freeman deal, but it’s not bad, and at least it’s backloaded.
Wren, unfortunately, failed more often than he succeeded. To be clear, I’m not talking about factors beyond his control such as injuries or anything involving bad luck. I’m talking about moves that he should’ve known better than to have made. The Braves GM made some terrible signings and extensions the past few years, which is only exasperated by the fact that the Braves don’t have much money to spend due to having a bad TV contract. Obviously, low-budget teams have to be especially careful with their big free agent signings, or risk spending years with an onerous contract clogging the payroll.
Let’s start with Dan Uggla. He was signed to a 5-year, $62 million deal going into the 2011 season. On one hand, he had just come off a great season for the Marlins, having hit .287/.369/.508 with 33 HR and 4.3 WAR. On the other hand, he was a 31-year old second baseman being given 5 years. Being a big guy, he was already a below average defender at the position. That, combined with how poorly second basemen age, made this contract a very risky proposition, regardless of how well he had performed the year before. For whatever reason, everybody seemed to understand this except Wren. Sure enough, it turned out to be just as bad, if not worse, than predicted. In his first 3 seasons in Atlanta, he was only league average offensively with a 102 wRC+, and a disaster defensively. During that time span he totaled -1.9 defensive WAR (dWAR). Then this season he just completely fell apart. Uggla hit an unspeakably bad .149/.229/.213 for a 28 wRC+. A 28 wRC+! He was only 28% of a league average hitter! That looks like a pitcher’s offensive numbers! The Braves decided to make the difficult but correct decision to cut him, even though he still has 1 more year on his contract. It’s like what I said about Ryan Howard: You can either pay him to hurt your team or you can pay him to not hurt your team.
Then there’s the now infamous B.J. Upton, recipient of the biggest contract the Braves ever gave to a free agent. Analysts seemed to be cautiously optimistic about the deal, at least in general. I, however, seriously disliked the deal, though I never expected Upton to be this bad. He had 2 very good seasons in 2007 and 2008, hitting .286/.384/.452 with a 125 wRC+ over that span. The following 4 seasons would find Upton having difficulty getting on base. During his last 4 seasons on the Rays, he hit .242/.316/.420, making him a slightly below average hitter at a 96 wRC+. Worse yet, Wren signed him to that big deal after a .298 OBP season.
Living in Boston, I got to watch Upton a lot facing the division rival Red Sox. He didn’t exactly give 100% all the time, which is probably what led to his inconsistency and struggles. You might remember the time that Upton dogged it on a ball hit to him, which led to him having to be held back while Evan Longoria gave him a piece of his mind. This leads to the fact that Upton clearly took plays off in the outfield. People were crediting him for being a good defender when he signed that big deal, but I never saw it. To me, he always appeared to be a lazy outfielder who didn’t know how to effectively use his speed. The defensive metrics bear this out, too. He never had a DRS above zero, and had a whopping -19 DRS in 2010! UZR was friendlier to him, but overall it did not paint him as a good defensive center fielder.
B.J. Upton had shown in his career what his upside could be, but in the years leading up to free agency, his performance was too erratic to believe we’d ever see a 4 WAR Upton again. I would love to know what Wren and his scouts were seeing that made them think that giving Upton a 5-year, $75 million deal was a good idea. It’s funny that Rays fans were happy to see him go, as they seemed to be in agreement with my evaluation of him.
I doubt that Upton’s biggest detractors predicted he’d be this bad. He has been one of the worst position players in baseball during his time in Atlanta, hitting .197/.278/.311 during that span for a -2.3 WAR. A low-budget team paying $15 million a year for a sub-replacement level player is a complete and utter disaster. No doubt that this was a significant factor in Wren’s dismissal.
Wren also handed out some questionable extensions. During the offseason, he gave Craig Kimbrel a 4-year, $42 million extension that will keep him on the team through 2017, with a team option for 2018. I’ve gone over time, and time again as to why giving a relief pitcher a long-term deal is a bad idea. With failures of the Uggla and Upton deals, it is absolutely critical that Kimbrel doesn’t fail, too. Well, so far, so good. Kimbrel has turned in a season that is roughly identical to last year’s. According to Brooks Baseball, his fastball hasn’t lost any velocity, nor has his curveball lost any movement. Given all this information, I’m optimistic that Kimbrel can turn in another dominant performance next season. But what about the two seasons after?
Even if the Kimbrel deal works out, I would call it a case of bad process, good results. Kimbrel could’ve helped the Braves so much more by getting traded. The assets he would’ve brought back combined with the money it would’ve freed up could’ve been so much more helpful to the Braves. As I’ve said in the past, there’s always some GM that is either foolish enough or desperate enough to overpay for a proven closer. Just look at how poorly the Braves hit this season. As a team, the Braves hit just .241/.305/.361. Their .297 wOBA was the fourth worst in all of baseball. The Braves didn’t need an elite closer, they needed an offense. The fact that Wren chose a closer over one or two position players, and gave that closer to one of the worst bullpen managers in baseball (more on him shortly), only makes matters worse.
Early this season, Wren also gave Chris Johnson a 3-year, $23.5 million extension. It’s not for much money, but I don’t see the point, and Wren can’t be signing players to high risk deals after the Uggla and Upton disasters. Johnson himself has always been an anomaly. Going into this season, Johnson had a career .361 BABIP, including a .394 BABIP last season. Those BABIP numbers are extremely high. They’re even higher than Miguel Cabrera’s. Johnson does hit a lot of line drives, but that doesn’t explain the crazy numbers we’re seeing here. To be fair, one could argue that Johnson could sustain that kind of batted ball luck given how long he had already done so. However, I don’t believe it was reasonable to believe that. That BABIP was just way, way too high, and furthermore, it didn’t pass the eye test. Johnson is also a terrible defensive 3rd baseman. He has a career -60 DRS and -45.9 UZR. Why Wren signed such a poor fielding 3rd baseman whose batted ball luck was the equivalent of winning the lottery multiple times, is perplexing.
Sure enough, the regression monster struck Johnson. He still had a high .345 BABIP, but he only hit .263/.293/.362 with a pitiful 82 wRC+. He was a below replacement level player at -1.3 WAR. That’s actually the lowest WAR on the Braves team this season, which is saying a lot considering they have B.J. Upton. Just 2 more years to go on a player that’ll be lucky to be replacement level.
According to Keith Law in a recent online chat, Wren was difficult to work with and did a poor job with the hires he made in key roles in the organization. I don’t know the specifics, but could that explain the team’s disappointing farm system? What about the lack of ability to develop good hitters? Sure, Freeman worked out, and so has Gattis to a certain degree, but other homegrown talents haven’t. Simmons should’ve taken a step forward this season given his age and contact rates, but he’s actually taken a step backwards. Jason Heyward has been especially disappointing. His monster defense is holding him up right now, but his power is far below expectations. A SLG of below .400 is unacceptable coming from him. The team’s offense as a whole declined precipitously since Wren removed Terry Pendleton from his role as the hitting coach in 2010, though they did bounce for one year in 2013.
Braves manager Fredi González was Wren’s worst hire of all. He was an atrocious manager. His lineups were awful, his in-game tactics were awful, and his bullpen management was awful. Batting players like B.J. Upton and Andrelton Simmons second in the lineup is indefensible. The excessive bunting alone is a fireable offense. When will managers learn that giving away outs doesn’t win you games? Any other profession would not tolerate such willful ignorance of the advancements in its field. No doubt that this is a factor in the Braves declining offense. You can’t score runs when you’re giving away outs, and you can’t develop hitters when you’re telling them not to hit. Finally, I’ll mention for the umpteenth time how Fredi doesn’t know how to use his elite closer. He continues to let Kimbrel rot in the bullpen during high leverage situations late in the game if it isn’t a save situation. Remember, he did this in the playoff game last season that resulted in the Braves getting eliminated. The team was in trouble in the 8th inning and Fredi never brought in Kimbrel, instead choosing to hold him for a save situation. Well, the save situation never came because that decision cost them the game. Kimbrel never ended up coming in, and boy was he ticked off about it.
To top everything off, Fredi never had a logical explanation for any of his asinine decisions. It was always some BS or defensive explanation, not unlike the kinds you hear from Ned Yost or Ron Washington. If you don’t have a logical explanation for doing what you’re doing, then don’t do it.
This is the man who Wren hired to manage his team. He never chose to fire him. He never even chose to hold him accountable for any of his decisions. When a manager keeps screwing up like Fredi has, eventually it falls on the GM for continually letting him hurt the team.
Frank Wren was able to field a competitive team for most of his tenure while making a few good moves here and there. That just wasn’t enough to overcome all the bad decisions that have put the Braves in a difficult position for the next few years at least.