Don Zimmer will have his #66 retired by the Tampa Bay Rays in a pregame ceremonial before their home opener on April 6th. The Rays may not be the team most associated with Zimmer, but it was the organization that he spent the most time with, 11 seasons, during his 66 year career in baseball. Zimmer was a player, coach, or manager for nearly half of the teams in Major League Baseball. During his career he was a member of the Brooklyn/ Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, Washington Senators, San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers, Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies, New York Yankees, and Tampa Bay Devil Rays/ Rays. Zimmer also spent a season (1966) playing for the Toei Flyers in Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan.
Zimmer was never an elite player. He hit a career .235, with 91 home runs, 352 RBI. He played more than 100 games only five times during his 12 year career, and was named an All Star in 1961. As a manager Zimmer collected 885 wins in 13 seasons at the helm with four different teams. He won 50.8% of the games he managed. He won his lone Division title with the 1989 Cubs, but lost to the Giants four games to one in the National League Championship Series.
None of the statistics which are associated with Don Zimmer should put him in elite company. However, his longevity and passion for the game do. Few, if anything written about Zimmer reflects negatively on the man. Yes, the local media and fans may have grown tired of his struggles on the field and as manager, but never of his desire to see his team win. Even the incident with Pedro Martinez in 2003 during the American League Championship Series should be seen as Zimmer sticking up for his team, even if his body was not up to the task his brain had in mind. He was sticking up for the Yankees, his guys. His apology afterwards can make a grown man cry, because you can sense the embarrassment he felt as he apologizes to everyone, before he leaves the press conference in tears.
Hopefully, over time this moment will no longer be what most people think of when they think of Don Zimmer. His broad smile and love of the game were on display everyday he put on a uniform. He never had to work a day in his life. Zimmer was the type of person who have propelled baseball through the generations. They allow for a real connection to exist between the past and present. Zimmer’s contribution to the game goes beyond the stat sheet, thus the honor the Rays are giving him in retiring his jersey number is a tribute not only to Zimmer, but also to the other baseball lifers. It is these individuals who, despite not making the world stop and take notice of their accomplishments, are immeasurably important to the game.
Several of the other teams which Zimmer played or worked for during his career could retire his number. The Red Sox, Cubs, and Yankees could have all justified retiring his number, but ultimately it is good that at least one team did retire his number. Regardless how important he was to any single organization, Don Zimmer was more important to the game of baseball. Zimmer spent his life around the game he loved; along the way the game loved him back. Now thanks to the Tampa Bay Rays, he will be loved far into the future even once the people he worked with in baseball are gone. Baseball has shown the epitome of a baseball life the love that the game as a whole can give a man after he spent a life time loving the game.
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 New York Yankees are at it again. Instead of building their team up through the draft, through trades involving minor leaguers or non-super star major league players, along with the occasional signing of a top tier player, they are just buying high priced talent. The New York Yankees are trying to buy their 28th World Series title and it is ruining baseball. They tried to blind us with a smoke screen that they were going to get below the luxury tax limit of $189 million. We did not fall for it because the Yankees never change. Or have they?
The New York Yankees were able to contain themselves and allowed the Seattle Mariners to sign Robinson Cano to a 10 year $240 million contract. Instead of maintaining their status quo with an excellent second baseman while not addressing the other holes they have on their roster. They were able to address their need at catcher, starting pitching, and in the outfield. Yes they will take a step back at second base, but overall the team will be improved, which is necessary to stay competitive in the American League East.
Brian Cashman signed Brian McCann 5 year, $85 million. While he will be an improvement at catcher, I unfortunately do not believe McCann is a long term solution at catcher. He has already caught 8820 1/3 inning in his nine year career. He should eventually transition to be a full time DH or first baseman. Even this transition will allow the Yankees to address another need they will have once Mark Teixeira’s contract ends.
The Yankees made Carlos Beltran’s dream come true by signing him to a 3 year $45 million contract. He will be a major upgrade in the outfield for the Bronx Bombers and in their lineup. However, the major concerns regarding Beltran is where time will finally catch up to him. Every time baseball is ready to write him off he comes roaring back, eventually he will not be able to come back at the level he and the Yankees expect. Beltran’s injury history should also make coming back from the injuries that occur throughout the season more and more difficult as the contract goes on. Beltran’s contract could go either way; he could be a steal for the Yankees or his contract could be a short term disaster.
Speed never goes into a slump, however those legs can get hurt. The Yankees are hoping Jacoby Ellsbury and his 7 year, $153 million contract rack up stolen bases and not doctors visits. An outfield of Ellsbury, Alfonso Soriano, and Ichiro could be a deadly trio if it was five years ago. Soriano has steadily dropped at the plate and hit fielding abilities have never spectacular. Ichiro is on the back half of his legendary career, though I would still ant him on my team even though he will be 40 this coming year. Ellsbury can chase down balls that Soriano and Ichiro can no longer reach and can turn a single into a double or more, plus steal at least 50 bases when he is healthy. Ellsbury is a tremendous upgrade in the outfield, but if he is hampered by leg injuries his greatest weapon and most valuable asset could be compromised.
Masahiro Tanaka and I have something in common. Neither of us has played a single inning in Major League Baseball. However Tanaka has 7 years, $155 million to prove he has more potential between the base lines than I do. Tanaka will face the same pressures that every highly touted rookie faces, can he do it against the best players in the world. The Nippon Professional Baseball is arguable the second best baseball league in the world, even better than AAA in the United States or any domestic league in the Caribbean. Despite dominating in Japan, Tanaka still has doubters concerning his abilities on the mound. Tanaka has plenty to prove and if he can successfully transition to the Bronx the Yankees will have potentially dominate pitchers one through three in their rotation. They can mix and match to get by with a struggling back end of the rotation. However if Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and/ or Hiroki Kuroda struggle the bullpen could be exhausted before the All Star Break and the Bronx faithful could be in for a long summer.
The Yankees are back to being the Yankees, so of. They went out and paid premium players above premium prices to fill in the holes on their roster. They avoided going after the single biggest catch, Robinson Cano, so they could build a team which could and should at minimum remain in the playoff picture until September. The Yankees are aging and without much exceptional talent in their farm system, when compared to their expectations, the Yankees are pushed into paying top dollar for free agents. The Bronx is a destination but eventually the Yankees must begin developing their own talent and at cheaper prices. Signing the best in the game works, but eventually those players age and you are left with a team that cannot spend its way out of aging. The Yankees must begin a youth movement, and that push needs to begin now in earnest both in the Bronx and in their minor league system.