By Kent Covington
As the Braves survey the marketplace for potential trades and roster upgrades, they do so from a position of strength. That strength comes not only from their bounty of bargaining chips—few teams are as well stocked with young talent—but also from the competence of their front office.
Atlanta Braves General Manager, Frank Wren, is quite simply one of the best in the business.
Just a few short years into his tenure as Deal-Maker-In-Chief, he already deserves credit for a series of remarkably canny trades. (I’m sure significant credit belongs also to his inner circle of scouts and assistants, but for our purposes, we’ll consider them part of the Frank Wren collective.)
Among Wren’s trade credits:
• Jair Jurrjens , Gorkys Hernandez for Edgar Renteria
• Omar Infante, Will Ohman for Jose Ascanio
• Javier Vazquez, Boone Logan for 4 prospects
• Nate McLouth for Charlie Morton and 2 prospects
• Arodys Vizcaino, Mike Dunn, Melky Cabrera for Javier Vazquez
• Alex Gonzalez, Tyler Pastornicky for Yunel Escobar
• Dan Uggla for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn
• Michael Bourn for Jordan Schafer & 3 prospects
Only one of the trades listed above still draws widespread criticism. That trade is, of course, the ill fated deal that brought Nate McLouth to Atlanta. But ill fated is not the same thing as ill conceived. The McLouth exchange didn’t work out for the Braves. No debating that. But just because a particular trade doesn’t pan out doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right decision at the time. Many were skeptical that Nate would ever duplicate his ‘08 all-star stats, but there was no reason to anticipate a complete bust. At the time of his trade to Atlanta, McLouth was, after all, fresh off a season in which he was one of the top few players in the game at his position (It’s true. Check the stats.) The Braves needed a center fielder, and Wren swooped in and grabbed McLouth from Pittsburgh before most general managers had any idea he was even available. He deserved kudos for swinging that deal, regardless of the outcome.
A few have also complained about Wren’s decision to unload talented shortstop, Yunel Escobar, to the Toronto Blue Jays in ‘10, but it’s simply too early to judge that move. The Braves acquired their likely ’12 opening day SS, Tyler Pastornicky, in that deal.
The success of all other trades listed above speaks for itself.
Even a couple of Wren’s seemingly less fruitful trades were more beneficial than many realize. Take the Vizcaino/Dunn/Cabrera—for—Vazquez deal for instance. Remember that Mike Dunn was one half (along with Omar Infante) of the package later sent to South Beach for Dan Uggla, while Vizcaino is expected to pitch in a Braves uniform for many years to come.
And just as impressive as the deals he has brokered… are the trades he did NOT make. Wren has fielded countless calls from fellow GM’s over the past few years asking about Atlanta’s young arms and other top tier prospects. Those conversations were generally very short.
Even after the promotion of Rookie of the Year candidates, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Johnny Venters, Brandon Beachy and Craig Kimbrel (who won the ROY award this year) over the past couple of years, Atlanta’s farm system remains one of the deepest in baseball.
This is a credit to Wren’s restraint. He doesn’t panic when division rivals ink superstars to gaudy free agent contracts. He doesn’t act out of desperation and sell the farm to respond with a short-sighted blockbuster trade. He sticks to the plan. He plays the long game. He’ll make every effort to strengthen the roster immediately, but he won’t mortgage the future to do it. Wren has jealously guarded the team’s young arms and core prospects, preferring instead to deal from the Major League roster.
The trade that brought 2B, Dan Uggla, to Atlanta is a perfect example. O.Infante and M.Dunn were sent to Florida; no minor league talent included. And while the Braves did exchange minor league talent for OF, Michael Bourn, all players traded to Houston were considered second-tier prospects from Atlanta’s perspective.
Many critics will be quick to point out the free agent contracts given to Atlanta flameouts, Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami. It’s true that those signings were, by any measure, miserable flops. However, to the best of my knowledge, no general manager has Ms. Cleo on speed dial. That is to say, no one knows what fortunes lie ahead. GM’s must make the best possible decision with the facts in hand.
Heading into the 2009 season, Atlanta had cash to spend, but limited free agent options. Kenshin Kawakami was a measured gamble at a point in time when I would argue it made sense to roll the dice. And while 23 million over 3 years is an unthinkable fortune to us common folk, it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster contract by modern MLB standards. The risk was tolerable. And it’s worth noting that Kawakami actually earned his keep through the first year of that deal.
As for Derek Lowe… Who could have predicted that one of the most consistent starters in baseball would suddenly become the poster boy for maddening inconsistency? Again, the Braves had money to spend, and they desperately needed a reliable veteran anchor atop the rotation. Lowe seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Sensible move at the time. Sometimes even the best of bets fall flat.
Speaking of free agents, while financial constraints have limited the Braves to addressing needs solely by way of trade over the past three seasons, that should change next winter. With several of Atlanta’s largest contracts expiring at the conclusion of the ‘12 season, Wren and Co. may be legitimate players in the free agent market come this time next year.
But of course, the Braves don’t want to wait for next year. They want to compete THIS season. And rest assured, the front office is busy. I understand the impatience of many Atlanta fans. In fact, I share it. But don’t mistake inactivity for inaction. Wren is the assertive type, and he will turn over every rock to try and find a deal(s) that makes sense.
The Braves have made it clear that any significant upgrade this winter will likely come by way of trade. And really… how many big trades have there been so far? Most of the headlines have been grabbed by free agent signings. The trade market should heat up soon, and Wren will be right in the middle of it, bartering hard.
It’s comforting to know that the Braves’ front office won’t swallow a bad deal, just so they can say they made one. But I suspect that, one way or the other, this team and this general manager will find a way to upgrade before the winter comes to an end.
Have faith. These folks know what they’re doing.
Even with a modest mid-market payroll, Frank Wren has the Braves back in the playoff picture while simultaneously positioning this team to contend for many years to come. I don’t think Braves fans could ask for much more than that.
PS: The Fried Baseball podcast will return in early 2012 with an entirely new feel. More guests, more interviews and more insanity. See ya then!