Baseball is a team sport. Individual players do not guarantee World Series Championships, if they did Mike Trout and the Angels would have several Fall Classic victories already. Baseball fandom is the same way, individuals can enjoy the game, but baseball with friends is always better. Watching a baseball game on TV or in the stands, allows people to indulge themselves with the game and pause the rest of the world. Watching with your friends is even better as you self indulge and grow your friendship.
Bernie, Kevin, and I met in graduate school. Bernie and I met when he kicked a water bottle out of my hand at shoulder level to prove he could to someone. Critical life skills. I met Kevin through Bernie and other mutual friends. Unfortunately Kevin does not possess the same skills as Bernie, so our friendship followed a more usual path. Our individual love of baseball quickly became apparent, which after graduation led to our annual baseball road trip. This year we ventured to Denver to watch the Colorado Rockies host the Toronto Blue Jays in a three game weekend series.
Coors Field is a beautiful venue to watch baseball. The stadium was built after baseball realized cookie cutter stadiums were boring. Even the seats tucked behind support columns in right field have a good view of the field. Fans do not feel like they are passing through a cave when they are walking around Coors Field. You can see the field as you circle the lower level. Coors Field embraced the radical concept of fan comfort and enjoyment of their day at the ballpark.
Game 1- Friday
Coors Field has many great view points to watch a game. Our first night in Denver we sat in the Left Field bleachers, the Rockpile. The view was outstanding. We were aligned with first and second base, perfect for watching both teams turn a double play. The true artistry of baseball is lost on TV, players gracefully gliding across the diamond, a ballet in spikes.
Edwin Jackson started for Toronto, pitching for his record 14th MLB franchise, surpassing former teammate Octavio Dotel. Jackson entered the game with a 9.00 ERA in three starts for the Blue Jays. In the top of the first, Toronto drew two walks before a double play and a ground out ended any hope for early runs against German Marquez. In the bottom of the first, the first five Rockies reached base. Colorado scored four runs on three hits, including a two run home run by Trevor Story, a walk, and David Dahl reached on a strike three wild pitch. Jackson did strike out the side in the middle of the mess.
The Blue Jays fought back in the top of the second, with a lead off home run by Randal Grichuk and Cavan Biggio scoring on a Luke Maile RBI groundout. Colorado scored a run in the second and five in the third forcing Jackson out of the game. He gave up 10 runs in just 2.1 innings, ballooning his ERA to 13.22. Relieving Jackson was Elvis Luciano, the first MLB player born in the 2000’s. A Nolan Arenado RBI double in the fifth off Luciano and another two run home run by Story off Sam Gaviglio in the seventh gave Colorado a commanding 13 to 2 lead.
Toronto made one final push in the eighth inning. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a lead off solo home run on the first pitch from Chris Rusin, in to relieve Marquez after seven innings. Grichuk scored Brandon Drury on a sacrifice fly to right. Jake McGee came in to relieve Rusin with the bases loaded. Rusin faced six batters, allowing two runs, four hits, and a walk. McGee walked Maile to score Lourdes Gurriel and a sacrifice fly to right center scored Biggio before shutting Toronto down. Both teams had lead off hits in the ninth, only to leave runners stranded. The Rockies’ early onslaught was too much for the Blue Jays, as Colorado won 13 to 6.
Game 2- Saturday
We always pick good seats for one game, usually the best pitching matchup. Saturday night was Marcus Stroman against Jon Gray. Both Righties, so we sat just beyond Third Base, 11 rows from the field. Stroman is a master at altering his delivery to fool batters. It is difficult for hitters to time Stroman when he is unpredictable. Gray is a solid pitcher for the Rockies, which has often been a difficult task at Coors Field.
After the drumming Toronto took Friday night, one might expect the Blue Jays to come out with some energy. Nope. The Blue Jays went down in order in the top of the first. In the bottom of the first, Stroman allowed four consecutive hits, three singles and a double, giving Colorado a 3 to 0 lead. Toronto mustered only a single, weakly hit infield as they took the field in the bottom of the fifth. After Jon Gray struck out looking, Raimel Tapia stepped to the plate. Tapia lined a double to Centerfield on the first pitch, then circus music began to play. Centerfielder Jonathan Davis had trouble picking up the ball, allowing Tapia to reach third. On the relay throw, Second Baseman Cavan Biggio threw the ball out of play, awarding Tapia home. Yes Stroman allowed the hit, but his defense dug him an even deeper hole. The Rockies brought in Carlos Estevez in the ninth to close out the Blue Jays. He served up a lead off solo home run to Justin Smoak. Biggio reached on a Trevor Story throwing error and scored on a Danny Jansen double. Estevez eventually got the final out, securing the 4 to 2 Colorado victory.
Marcus Stroman is one of the most exciting young pitchers in baseball. However the young Toronto team has wasted his 2.84 ERA (post game), leaving him with a 3-7 record. Toronto is extremely young, hopefully Stroman gets help soon and does not become the American League Jacob deGrom.
Game 3- Sunday
Day baseball is perfection. The sun shining on the green grass, the extra white baseballs, the game is more alive. The Rockies were looking to sweep the Blue Jays in the final game of our baseball road trip. Toronto finally showing some life as Eric Sogard and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit back to back singles off Colorado starter Antonio Senzatela to begin the game. Justin Smoak grounded into a Fielder’s Choice at first, scoring Sogard and giving the Blue Jays their first lead of the series. Again the offense could not sustain the momentum, scoring just one run despite sending seven batters to the plate. In the bottom of the first, Raimel Tapia lined out before Blue Jays’ starter Aaron Sanchez surrendered consecutive singles to David Dahl, Nolan Arenado, and Daniel Murphy to tie the game.
Toronto went down in order in the second, third, and fourth. Colorado scored a run in the second and third. Our seats for the finale at Coors Field were in the upper deck, first base side. Looking out, the Rocky Mountains rose beyond left field. Sadly thunderstorms rolled through Denver, forcing us to retreat. Despite the huge raindrops from the soaking downpour, the game was not delayed. The rain faded and Chris Iannetta launched a lead off home run in the sixth that may not have returned to earth yet. Nolan Arenado hit a solo home run in the seventh extending the lead to 5 to 1. Justin Smoak walked to lead off the Toronto eighth, but was stranded by two fly outs and a Brandon Drury strike out. Luke Maile’s single was Toronto’s last gasp as Bryan Shaw struck out the side to complete the Colorado sweep.
The Rockies began the home stand 23-26, fourth in the NL West, 4.5 games behind the second Wild Card. They won eight of nine games on the home stand; winning two of three from the Orioles, before sweeping the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays. Colorado finished the home stand 31-27, second in the NL West, 0.5 games behind the second Wild Card; most likely saving their season.
Baseball is beautiful wherever it is played. A sandlot in Georgia, a high school field in Ohio, a Minor League park in Indiana, or a Major League park in Colorado. Since graduation we have scattered across the country, our annual baseball road trip allows us to get together, catch up, and enjoy the game we love. Our lives constantly change, yet baseball remains constant. Next year will be no different.
The Playoffs began yesterday for ten teams, but for the other 20 teams today is the first day of the off-season. It is time for some teams to make changes, while others stay the course. The Astros, Rangers, Twins, and Diamondbacks have said good-bye to their managers. The Diamondbacks and Braves have fired their General Managers. Firing season has begun. One firing in particular stands out; the firing of Braves General Manager Frank Wren.
Wren’s dismissal did not come as a surprise to anyone considering his track record. Wren took over as GM with John Schuerholz promoted to Team President in October 2007. Following in the steps of a legendary figure is never easy, but this was Wren’s task. During Wren’s tenure as GM for the Braves the team compiled a 604-523 record, a .535 winning percentage. The Braves won the National League East in 2013 and were Wild Card teams twice, in 2010 and 2012. The team never advanced beyond the Divisional Series in the play offs. The lack of post season success however was not Wren’s undoing. Rather his track record with signing or trading for free agents. The four major moves during Wren’s reign were, all individually to say the least, disappointing. Collectively they were disastrous, and eventually cost him his job.
On the mound, Wren signed Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami to a three year, $23 million contract before the 2009 season. During Kawakami’s two seasons in Atlanta he posted the following line:
Kawakami spent his final season of his contract in the minors pitching in Rookie ball, for the Gulf Coast League Braves, and in AA, for the Mississippi Braves. Kawakami never lived up the expectations Wren set after signing him from the Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball league. After his contract ended, Kawakami returned to Japan and to the Chunichi Dragons.
After the third year of the contract, Lowe was traded to the Cleveland Indians with cash for minor leaguer Chris Jones, who is currently pitching at AAA Norfolk Tides in the Baltimore Orioles system. While a serviceable starter in Atlanta, Lowe was unable to sustain the success he had had with the Red Sox and the Dodgers. Lowe had become an overpriced luxury the Braves could not afford. The Braves were willing to pay for Lowe to leave and took Jones to get something as a return on their investment in Lowe.
Starting in the 2010 offseason Wren attempted to bolster the Braves offense through trade and signings. Wren pulled off a trade with the Florida Marlins which sent Mike Dunn and Omar Infante to Florida in exchange for Second Baseman Dan Uggla. Uggla and the Braves then agreed to a five year, $62 million contract. The trade and contract were a disaster. Uggla spent three and a half seasons with the Braves, seeing his production and playing time dwindled to almost nothing before he was released. He was able to post a line of:
One of the few bright spots during his tenure with the Braves was his 33 game hitting streak in 2011. Despite the hitting streak Uggla hit .233, which would be his highest batting average as a Brave. His play at second was not much better; he posted a Defensive WAR of -2.1 with the Braves. In 2014, the Braves released Uggla and were willing to pay the remainder of the contract, which was at least $ 15 million. Uggla was reducing the Braves to a 24 man roster, and had to be moved if the Braves were to compete on any level, which ended one of the worst experiences in Braves history.
In November 2012, B.J. Upton landed in Atlanta as a free agent after eight seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays. Upton signed a five year, $75.25 million contract. The Braves made a major splash with the signing, but they had almost immediate buyer’s remorse. Upton is closing out the second year of his contract and has amassed this line:
Upton has been better on defense than Uggla, but it has not been enough to counteract his offensive struggles. Upton has a Definsive WAR of -0.4 with the Braves. As improbable as it might seem, Braves fans are already beginning to wish Dan Uggla would come back in place of Upton. The rumor mill has already begun about how Atlanta can get out of the contract without having to pay out all the remaining money of the contract. It does not look promising for Upton to finish the contract as a member of the Braves.
Frank Wren gave seven years and $83 million to Kawakami and Lowe. In return, during five seasons the Braves received:
Neither pitcher lasted the full length of their contract with the Atlanta Braves. Wren also gave ten years and $134.25 million to Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. In return, the Braves received:
In five and a half combined seasons, Uggla and Upton have not produced a single season worthy of an average Major League player. Kawakami and Lowe were serviceable on the mound but not respectable based upon their salary and expectations. Kawakami finished his Braves career in the minors, Lowe was traded away with cash for a minor leaguer who at the time was in High A ball, and Dan Uggla was released because the Braves could not find another team to take him nor were they willing to take away playing time from their minor leaguers. Three of the four major acquisitions made by Frank Wren did not finish their contracts as a member of the Atlanta Braves. The fourth, B.J Upton, seems destined to be the worst signing of the bunch, and at the present it does not seem too difficult to imagine a situation where the Braves get rid of him either through trade, demotion, or release.
Ultimately Frank Wren sealed his own fate through his inability to successfully acquire players who could remotely live up to their large contracts. While not entirely his fault, Wren was highly involved in altering how the Braves play on the field. He sought out the pricey talent from other teams. The Braves have been highly successful in developing talent through the draft or through trades for minor leaguers or young players. The Braves continue to have excellent pitching; it is the offense which is lacking. While Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz were all Hall of Fame caliper players, the offense was balanced. Atlanta had the power from Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, and Brian McCann. The team also had the players who could get on base ahead of these power hitters, like Otis Nixon, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, and Marquis Grissom. The Braves forgot how to play same ball.
Times change, but in baseball generally the winning formula stays the same. Good pitching, which the Braves generally had during Wren’s tenure despite the signing of Kawakami and Lowe, and a balanced offense, which seemed to be forgotten. Atlanta has plenty of offense to be competitive; however with a lineup full of high strikeout batters who are swinging for the fences, the difference between success and failure becomes razor thin. Success in baseball is about scoring runs and preventing runs. Atlanta forgot what brought them success and appeared to value highlight reel worthy home runs more than fielding a balanced team which could compete on a yearly basis.
The Braves lost their way and fell in love with both the long ball and with making a splash with high profile free agent signings or big trades. The long term ramifications for these ill-advised signings by Frank Wren are still being felt. B.J. Upton needs to return to hitting .240 before fans can at least say the Uggla trade was worse than the Upton signing. The situation in Atlanta with Derek Lowe was not good. A mediocre to serviceable pitcher at best, being paid based upon past performance and hopes. The situation with Kawakami was sad. He seemingly never got the run support from the Braves offense, before he began to struggle, and eventually disappeared into the minors for his final season of baseball in America. The situation with Dan Uggla was ugly. A guy who worked hard but most likely should have never made it beyond AA except for the Marlins thrusting him to the Majors and then the Braves believing his power was worth the lack of hitting ability. Uggla eventually got into a standoff with Manager Fredi Gonzalez and the Front Office as he saw his playing time dwindle to nothing. The Uggla situation became so bad the Braves, who do not have a big market payroll, were willing to pay Uggla at least $15 million to leave.
The situation with B.J. Upton looks like it could be worse than it ever was with Uggla. Less than two years into his contract the Braves sought to trade him to the Chicago Cubs for Edwin Jackson at this year’s trading deadline. Jackson has a worse career ERA and WHIP than Kawakami and Lowe during their time with Atlanta, and is still owed $24 million through the 2016 season. The trade however was rejected by the Cubs. Try as they might Atlanta will have a tough time moving Upton through a combination of poor play and over $45 million due to him during the final three seasons of this contract. Do not be surprised if the Braves have to eat more money, this time from B.J. Upton to get out from under the last of Frank Wren’s disastrous major moves.
Frank Wren understands baseball. You do not become the General Manager of two teams by accident. Nor do you last seven years in a place which is used to winning and expect to win. What went wrong for Wren is not the day to day operations of the Braves, rather it was his attempt to go out and sign priced talented players. The signing of Kawakami, Lowe, Uggla (after trading for him), and Upton have not helped the Braves to continue winning. It is fair to argue these signings actually hurt the team both based on their on-field performance and the money they tied up, which could not be used to go out and sign other players. These four moves eventually caught up with Frank Wren and cost him his job. The Braves should return to the formula which led them to over a decade of success, while integrating advances in scouting and sabermetrics to get the best out of their players and to fully understand the capabilities of the players they are looking to add to their roster.
The Braves in some ways lost their way when they fell in love with the home run and over looked the high number of strikeouts they deemed acceptable by their lineup. The men who led the way to the Braves success, John Scherholtz and Bobby Cox, have been tasked with leading the Braves back to their winning ways and steady baseball. Along with John Hart, Scherholtz and Cox are not trying to rediscover “The Braves Way”; rather they should aim to return to playing sound baseball. The Frank Wren tenure is over. B.J. Upton has some major work to do if he wants to avoid being one of the worst, if not the worst, free agents signings by the Braves ever. Time with tell with B.J. Upton. It is time for the Braves to return to what they know and for a long time did so well, winning through great pitching and a balanced offense, while on a budget.