Wren’s tenure a C-. A lot of good, but the bad is REAL BAD

First the bad news.

In the realm of team-crippling contracts, right now Frank Wren appears to be leading the Majors. Certainly other teams are locked into bad contracts. Some might even approach the folly of the Oafbatross and BJ deals.

Let’s look at a few.

The Dodgers are on the hook for $214 million for three so-so outfielders — Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier — through the year 2019. Crawford and Ethier are signed through 2017 and Kemp through 2019. But the Dodgers have oceans of money, so they might be able to overcome these large mistakes. They traded for Crawford, of course, but took on his contract at a time when it was pretty clear he was no longer a superstar.

The Yankees owe A-Fraud $86 million. They owe a creaky C.C. Sabathia $50 million AFTER this season. And, of course, their deals with McCann and Ellsbury are somewhat ridiculous. But they’re the Yankees. That’s what they do. They might not be good for a while, and these deals don’t help. So Brian Cashman might rival Wren in really bad, big contracts.

Then you have the Angels, with Pujols and Hamilton, and the Rangers with Fielder. Those are all terrible contracts. Yet unlike BJ and Uggla, those players have been and remain at least fairly productive. Those contracts probably will not, by themselves, hamstring those clubs to the extent the Uggla and BJ deals hurt the Braves. Of course, Wren has lavished big dollars on other non-performing assets: Lowe and Kawakami, most notably, though at $23 million Kawakami’s deal was nowhere near the scope of BJ and Uggla’s combined $135 million.img24496490

As CB has pointed out, the extension for Chris Johnson, while modest, looks more and more questionable by the day. Andrelton, Freddie, Kimbrel, and Julio are all as rock solid as long-term investments can be in baseball. I hope he can lock up Minor. AS CB has also noted, most GMs with the money to spend would have locked up those young players. Wren did it, and he deserves credit for that. But they were not shockingly innovative strokes.

Signing Santana was a solid move. It was one the Braves had to make, but it was far from a certainty. So credit Wren for doing it and perhaps convincing Liberty Media to fork over the money.

A verdict on big-ticket free agents and contract extensions? Because of Uggla, BJ, Lowe and Kawakami — none of whom gave the Braves even two decent seasons — Wren’s overall grade in signing prominent free agents and long-term contracts as Braves GM: D.

He has fared better on the trade front, in the draft and in lower-profile free agent signings.

First trades.  The good:

  • Jose Ascanio to the Cubs for Infante and Will Ohman.
  • Edgar Renteria to the Tigers for Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez. Renteria was near the end of an excellent career, including exemplary service to the Bravos.
  • Jon Gilmore, Tyler Flowers, Brent Lillibridge, and Santos Rodriguez for Boone Logan and Javier Vazquez. Vazquez had a Cy Young-type season for the Bravos. None of the guys we sent north have done anything of note.
  • Casey Kotchman to Boston for Adam LaRoche. Rochey had a nice half season back in Atlanta. Kotchman continued to be the Oberkfell of the other corner.
  • Juan Abreu, Schafer, Brett Oberholtzer and Paul Clemens to the Astros for Bourn.
  • Jaye Chapman and Arodys Vizcaino to the Cubs for Maholm and Reed Johnson.
  • Prado, Delgado, Ahmed, Zeke Spruill, and Brandon Drury for Justin and Chris Johnson.
  • Hanson to the Angels for Walden.

The so-so:

  • Teixiera for Stephen Marek and Kotchman. Teshowmethemoney was a very good player, but Wren had no leverage at all.
  • Francoeur to the Mets for Ryan Church. Meh.
  • Vazquez and Logan to the Yankees for Melky, Mike Dunn and Vizcaino. Logan has become a serviceable lefty reliever. Vizcaino later brought R. Johnson and Maholm.
  • Yunel Escobar and Jo-Jo Reyes to the Blue Jays for Pastornicky, Tim Collins and Alex Gonzalez.
  • Three stiffs to the Cubs for Derek Lee.
  • Anonymous minor leaguer to Seattle for Jack WIlson.
  • AML to the Pirates for a later-career Matt Diaz.
  • Finally dumped Lowe and most of his salary for someone named Chris Jones.
  • Gilmartin to the Twins for Doumit.

The bad:

  • Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Gorkys Hernandez to the Pirates for McLouth. Not a disaster, but Locke had a good half season and Morton looks like he might be a decent middle-back of the rotation starter.
  • Dunn and Infante to the Marlins for Uggla. Looked good at the time.

Wren has made very few flat-out bad trades for the Braves, a few very good ones but not many absolute master strokes. Overall trade grade: B.

Lower-profile free agent/waiver signings:

Here is where Wren has done some of his best work, especially signing pitchers. Handy acquisitions have included:

Billy Wagner (hardly under-the-radar but it was for just a season and late in his career), Beachy, O’Flaherty, Harang, Carpenter (struggling but was solid last year), Floyd, Varvaro, Laird, Bethancourt (amateur free agent), David Ross, Hinske and Troy Glaus.

It’s hard to call this a category of its own, but in these modest signings, Wren’s earned a B+.

The drafts under his watch as GM, starting with the 2008 selections, have been solid. Those drafts have so far yielded eight big-league Braves: Kimbrel, Minor, Hale, Simmons, Gattis, LaStella, Wood, and Shae Simmons. Not a bad collection of talent, and that crop compares reasonably well to what a few other clubs have done in the same period.

Drafting guys like Andrelton: good
Drafting guys like Andrelton: good

I looked at what most consider the NL’s two best franchises, the Cardinals and Giants. St. Louis’ last half dozen drafts have produced a stellar crop: Lance Lynn, Matt Adams, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Carpenter, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Tyler Lyons, Kolten Wong, Seth Maness and Michael Wacha. That’s 10 big leaguers, and some very good ones. Advantage, St. Louis.

But Wren’s drafts compare favorably with other NL clubs I checked. In the NL East, the Mets have but one current major leaguer from all their 2008 to 2013 picks, Matt Harvey. The Nats have just four, and they have selected at or near the top of most of those drafts. Those players are a pair of overall No. 1 picks – Harper and Strasburg — Rendon and Storen.

The Giants have just three players they drafted during that period: Posey and Brandons Crawford and Belt. They also drafted current Met Zack Wheeler and traded him for Carlos Beltran.

As for what’s in the minors now, the picture is less positive. The Braves’ farm system ranks 24th of 30 organizations, according to Baseball Prospectus.

Wren’s draft grade, then, is a B.

All told, that’s a B+, two B’s and a D. Yet that D gets more weight than those other grades.

Take this year’s strikeout prone, defensively suspect team with a relief corps that may or may not prove adequate. I think the quality of a bullpen depends on a healthy dose of luck. Based on last year, this one should be OK. I’ll largely give Wren a pass there.

As for the offense, BJ and Uggla have obviously been gigantic sand bags weighing down the lineup. That is on Wren. The GM also traded for Johnson and Justin, a decent move in isolation. Yet those are two more guys who strike out frequently. So that’s four prolific whiffers, half a batting order excluding the pitcher, whom Wren has directly added to the team. All four are also from adequate-at-best to lousy defensively. Again, that’s directly on Wren’s ledger.

Mix all this up and I’m giving Wren an overall grade of C-. Am I being too charitable? Overly harsh? What do you think?

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25 comments

  1. This is a harsh assessment. Look at the other GMs and tell me who you like better.

  2. Fair point, roadrunner. The Braves have mostly won during his time as GM. But I think his big signings have been disastrous so far, the farm system was very productive for a while but is now weak and this year’s team is flawed largely because of Wren’s moves. Every team is flawed. Every farm system has up and down periods, almost by the nature of calling up guys. And Wren doesn’t have unlimited funds. He has to play the hand he’s dealt, etc. But I come back to the big signings. They have been SO bad that they color everything else and hold back the franchise.

  3. If everything were weighted equally, it would be a C+. That still might be a tick lower than what I would grade him. The mistake signings of Lowe and Kawakami happened at a time when our rotation was crap and his back was against the wall. Same with Oafer and our need for a righty bat. Not that he deserves a pass on either, but we definitely had a need at the time. I still haven’t given up on BJ yet. If he gets hot in the postseason like he’s done in the past he’s worth every cent.

    Where Frank really shines is pulling players off the scrap pile and turning them into productive big leaguers (EOF and Carp come to mind). Pretty sure they were both waiver claims. Something from nothing definitely adds value.

    Overall I would give a B-. Yes there have been missteps, but overall the team is headed in the right direction.

  4. Good synopsis, Salazr2. Yeah, EOF and Carp were waiver claims. I think we agree that he’s done very good work there. And you’re right about the circumstances of the Lowe and Kawakami signings. Both were defensible, but the results are what count.

  5. I take exception to your sloughing off the Fielder contract and saying he is still productive. He tallied 3 HRs, 16 RBI and a .247 BA this year before undergoing season-ending spinal-fusion surgery, and at the end of last season, looked like he couldn’t catch up with a decent fastball. For that measly 2014 production, he’ll receive $24 million, and he’s still owed $144 million over the next six season ($30 million by the Tigers, $114 million by the Rangers). Once even BJ’s lousy contract is up, the Rangers will still be on the hook for $57 million, and the guy already is nonproductive. The best the team can hope for is that Fielder doesn’t fully recover from the spinal fusion and that most of what he’s owed can be laid off on insurance companies.

  6. OK, Toky. I didn’t read enough about Fielder’s situation. The Rangers made the massive mistake of taking on a massive contract for a massive first baseman That doesn’t change Wren’s record.

  7. Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman, Dave Dombrowski, John Mozeliak

    That’s all I’ve got. Wren’s pretty good, actually. When he made the Uggla deal just about everyone loved it. There were some questions about decline, but no one knew he’d fall off a cliff like that. B.J. Upton I was more skeptical, but Wren’s not the only GM to sink that kind of money into a flop. I’d give Wren a B all things considered.

  8. Whereas each specific point makes sense on it’s own merit, I think the overall grade is too harsh. If you look at the ratio of wins to payroll during the Wren tenure, it would be a near the top of the league. If Wren’s performance grades out at a C- level, then does that mean a good (grade B) or excellent (grade A) GM would be fielding a 100 win team every year on a mid level payroll?

  9. charles, You’re right. The Fielder contract doesn’t have any bearing on the job Wren has done. I just happen to consider the Fielder deal is the worst in baseball, and said so when the Rangers moved a usable player (Kinsler) to pick him up during the off-season. Part of that is my contention that overweight sluggers tend to lose a bit of bat speed at an early age and that once that’s gone, they tend to fall off dramatically because they have nothing else to fall back on. And Fielder’s decline was noticeable during last fall’s playoffs.

  10. C- puts you at the bottom of any class. Are there really 25 GMs who performed better?

  11. All of the ones Jon mentioned, no doubt. I’d rank Brian Sabean ahead of him. And Jon Daniels, Fielder trade aside. Jeff Luhnow, TBD. He inherited a disaster and the Astros look to be turning the corner. White Sox GM Rick Hahn has made some shrewd moves but too early to tell. Dan Duquette is underrated. I like Toronto’s GM Alex Anthopolous — the Dickey trade wasn’t wise (though D’Arnaud appears to be a bust), but he got rid of Vernon Wells and Alexis Rios and their godawful contracts and acquired Bautista, Encarnacion, Lawrie and Fat Juan for nothing. Hate to say it, but Melky deal looks smart, too. Reyes, not so much, but Buerhele has delivered. Pittsburgh’s Neil Huntington, working on a small budget, has stockpiled a lot of talent.

    As for Uggla, everyone liked the trade but the extension was a different matter. Five years was too much. If he would’ve walked, so be it, because you didn’t trade a lot to get him. There were plenty of reasons not to sign BJ. Pagan, a FA at the same time, signed for half the money and fewer years. His numbers were trending up; BJ’s down. And if you have trouble playing for Joe Maddon, what does that say? C- may be a bit harsh, but Wren doesn’t deserve the security he currently enjoys. The Braves have the SECOND WORST OFFENSE IN BASEBALL. That’s on Wren, and he’s left himself zero flexibility to fix it. Shouldn’t he be held accountable?

    Plus he hired Fredi. And Greg Walker. Sure, the Braves have won a lot of games, but have yet to win a playoff series during Wren’s tenure. We should expect better.

  12. So now there are six who you think are better and three who you have nice things to say about. So where does that leave Wren now? Ranked somewhere between seven and ten out of thirty. Deep analysis is not exactly going on here, but it is fairly consistent with rankings in publications. That’s A-/B+ territory. Things will be fine. We’re not dealing with Paul Richards here.

    Get a few drinks and have fun tonight.

  13. “And if you have trouble playing for Joe Maddon, what does that say?”

    That you don’t like playing for pretentious, overrated assholes?

    I was planning to stay out of this but you just put that one on a tee for me.

  14. I think the Uggla and BJ Upton moves were very defensible, given the players’ track records at the time the moves were made. The fact that they have played so badly would not have been foreseen by any GM; their drop-offs are historic. I cannot think of many players over the past 45 years who have lost their ability to play baseball so suddenly. Given your analysis in the other areas, I think Wren deserves a B+. Simply drafting Kimbrel and Andrelton may be enough to get Wren in the Braves Hall of Fame some day.

  15. Maybe the C- is warranted. I don’t fault Wren for trading for Uggla, or even for the contract. However leaving him on the team this long is a mistake a really good GM should not make.

  16. A crude analysis would be wins v. payroll over the last 3 years. That wouldn’t give a complete picture, but it wouldn’t be meaningless either. FW would rank at or near the top I am guessing.

  17. I’m late to the dance here, but the points brought out in the piece are a valid critique of Wren’s tenure. The final grade is probably a smidge low (I’d probably say C+), but I think a lot of fans, myself included, are harsher on our own guys.

    My biggest gripe on Wren is that he does not appear to have a clear blueprint of what he is trying to accomplish and, as such, the team’s construction is kind of an odd mix. He seems to be sewing odd-fitting patches on the quilt all the time instead of weaving things together more seamlessly. Maybe that’s the nature of baseball now. But on some days, Wren looks like a “Moneyball” addict and the next day he’s acting like the ghost of George Steinbrenner.

    I thought Lowe would be worth the contract (I was wrong). I knew nothing of Kawakami. I was against the Uggla extension. He bid against himself for B.J. Upton and probably paid $2 million per year more than he had to to land him. I don’t know if Soriano’s accepting the arbitration offer can be laid at Wren’s feet, but I always thought that was odd. In fairness, Schuerholz never seemed to know when to offer/not offer arbitration either, blaming the economics of baseball for some of his questionable moves.

    Braves had been on the salary seesaw under Liberty and maybe some of my gripes about Wren have to be viewed through that lens. That said, if you have financial constraints, you simply don’t extend Uggla and you don’t sign guys like B.J. Upton for five years. You build your core (and I have never seen either of those guys as core players regardless of what fans of the three-outcome player say about guys like Uggla) and find your complementary players to fill in around the core. We are playing two non-core players $29 million per year. That’s simply bad management.

    Wren’s strength, ironically, has been finding guys who are on the margin. Some very solid smaller deals and some very solid waiver claims.

    As far as the drafting goes (and again, some of this has to be viewed through the budget lens pre-draft bonus limits), he’s done a decent job seeing it’s a thin slice above a crap shoot. He’s taken a mix of guys (tools v. production), but most of the tools guys he’s drafted have simply fallen on their faces. He hasn’t been as aggressive in the international market as I’d like, but again, the overall budget has to be considered.

    I’ve rambled as I am wont to do, but I still think Wren’s weakness is that he doesn’t seem to have a master plan or vision of what the team’s identity should be and as a result, he makes decisions that don’t seem to fit. I’m not going to argue with the team’s success and say that Wren hasn’t played a role in that, but the game has always been both a long- and short-term enterprise and some of Wren’s decisions seem to put us in a situation where those goals don’t match.

    Anyway, good analysis and discussion.

  18. Right back at ya, BrandX. I hadn’t thought of Wren’s tenure that way, but I think you’re on to something. I remember a few years ago they were talking about building a faster, more athletic team, Instead we have the antithesis of that, and the swiftest player on the team (B.J.) doesn’t get on base.

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