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.
The Professor is gone. Pete Van Wieren recently passed away after a long battle with cancer. I love baseball, and the death of Tony Gwynn was sad for everyone associated with baseball in any manner. However, the death of Pete Van Wieren hit home for me and made me genuinely sad. Just as Braves fans were celebrating the inductions of Bobby Cox, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, they were hit with the news of Van Wieren’s passing. Each one connects back to the run of 14 straight division titles for the Braves. As a kid growing up in suburban Atlanta they were all a part of my childhood.
Listening to Cox cheer on the players or get in the face of an umpire to protect one of his players. Watching Maddux and Glavine pick apart opposing batters, often getting borderline calls which other pitchers with less impressive resumes would not get. Through it all there were Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren calling the games. These men were the voices of my obsession with baseball when I was growing up. The nasally voice of Caray with his one liners, countered perfectly with the precise information of Van Wieren. They were amazing on their own, but together they were golden.
I have no doubt that both Skip and Pete had their faults but to a boy so in love with baseball and rooting hard for the Braves every night, they were saints. Every team has their own voices. Some even share these voices with the rest of baseball. The Dodgers share Vin Scully, the Tigers shared Ernie Harwell, the Cardinals shared Jack Buck, the White Sox share Hawk Harrelson, and the list goes on. However, Skip and Pete always seemed to not garner the same national recognition as the others, despite the Braves being on television nationally nearly every night thanks to owner Ted Turner and TBS. I have personally met die hard Braves fans from Rochester, New York (Van Wieren’s hometown), Billings, Montana, and other cities which should be far outside the reach of the Braves. In some way this has made me love Skip and Pete even more, they were the Braves treasure to enjoy. We did not have to share them with the rest of baseball, they were ours.
Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS is the proof that Skip and Pete were ours. The call by the national broadcasters is as foreign to me as speaking Russian. However listening to Skip and Pete call the game continues to give me Goosebumps. Skip talking about “alotta room in right center” and Sid Bream’s mad dash home from second on Francisco Cabrera’s single to left field and Barry Bonds’ throw being too late. I had just turned six when that play happened but I can remember jumping up and down then and when Marquis Grissom caught the final out of the 1995 World Series. These calls by Skip and Pete will forever be the sound track of my childhood.
Every broadcast for the Braves with Skip and Pete began the exact same way. The camera would come on in the broadcast booth and Skip would say “Hello everybody”. It always made you feel like he was talking to you and your family. In the same way in which Red Barber, Jon Miller, and Tim McCarver in my mind have a full name because they are broadcasters, Skip and Pete only have one name each because they are family. They were not working, they were simply telling you what was happening in their opinion, often times with a pro-Braves slant because they too were cheering for the Braves. Most people want a neutral announcer, not me, I want someone who will celebrate an important win or be angry when an umpire blows a call or will laugh when a player does something funny. I want to watch the game with family and friends and this is exactly what Skip and Pete gave you and me every night.
Skip carried on the family business from his father Harry Caray, while he could be just as entertaining as his father, he could also be serious in his own manner. This has passed on to his own son Chip Caray, who broadcast with the Cubs for a while but has found a home with the Braves now. Chip is his own man but you can definitely tell there is Carey blood in him.
Pete sought to change his family name, as chronicled in his autobiography Of Mikes and Men. His father abandoned him and his mother when he was young, so he sought to reclaim the dignity of the Van Wieren name. I view Vin Scully as a grandfather figure, Harry Caray as the fun uncle, Bob Uecker as the crazy cousin, Skip as the wisecracking older brother, and Pete as the smart friend who never ceases to amaze you with his vast knowledge of the game and his humility. You will be missed by me and everyone who ever heard you call a game, and you played such an important role in my life and the lives of thousands of others who you never met. Job well done Pete and thank you.