Would you let a man who wasted $200 million keep his job? Probably not. However, in Major League Baseball, being a General Manager is never as simple as the big money hits and misses.
Frank Wren has been the Braves GM since 2008 when he took over for John Schuerholz, who moved to the President position. In many people’s minds, Frank is known for his four biggest free agent misses in Kenshin Kawakami, Derek Lowe, Dan Uggla, and possibly BJ Upton. Their total contracts combined crest $230 million in guaranteed money. That’s over two seasons worth of payroll for the Braves tied up in those four players.
The problem is: for that money, all the Braves got was 7.7 Wins over a Replacement (WAR). Now, I don’t really like WAR as an overall stat for deciding arguments, or for saying a player directly worth those wins, but for the cases of comparing salary value, it provides a basic summary of how those players performed. Needless to say, $200M+ for 7.7 WAR across 4 players is terrible. BJ still has some time to turn that around since $60M and 4 years of his contract is still yet to be played. However, Frank is just as worried as the rest of Braves Country about BJ, because he can’t afford to have another dead money player on the books until 2017.
If we judged Frank just on those figures, he’d be fired this year, but there’s a reason the Braves won the division last year, and the wild card in prior years.
Wren’s moves with small money players, bench guys, and utility pitchers have been top notch. Also, the Braves farm system has helped fill in the gaps better than anyone hoped. I think it’s beneficial to look back at all the moves that Frank made in totality over his tenure as GM, and then judge him accordingly on those results. In the 2013 season (not including BJ), Frank signed Chris Johnson, Justin Upton, Jordan Schafer, Gerald Laird, and Jordan Walden. Those 5 players cost just a shade under $15M in 2013, with the bulk of that going to Justin Upton. Those players combined in 2013 for a WAR of 7.9, a value that exceeds even the $200M bust players across their entire time here.
In 2012, Wren managed to unload Derek Lowe’s $15M salary to the Indians, paying $10M for the pleasure. In return, he saved $5M and got a left-handed prospect named Chris Jones, who he then traded to the Orioles for Luis Ayala. He also picked up free agents Chad Durbin, Juan Francisco, and Livan Hernandez. Those moves cost the Braves a paltry $2.13M. The overall value of those moves wasn’t as high (only 0.1 WAR combined), but it filled gaps the Braves needed. Durbin pitched in 76 games, Francisco had over 100 ABs, and Hernandez was for the most part, a bust. Still, the Braves made the playoffs in that awful Wild Card game. Infield fly, anyone? Had you forgotten about it yet? NEVER FORGET! I’m glad we’re getting replay in the MLB this season, but it still wouldn’t have saved us from that abomination of a call.
In 2011, things went very wrong and the Braves had their epic collapse. Frank didn’t have a great year either. He picked up Dan Uggla, which we all know was a terrible idea in hindsight. He also nabbed pitchers Scott Linebrink, George Sherrill, and Anthony Varvaro. The pitchers were decent, if nothing special, combining for a 1.4 WAR in 2011. The problem was that they cost over $7M to acquire, which is way too expensive for what they turned out to be. The lowest dollar guy, Varvaro, turned out to be the best. He pitched 70+ innings in 2013 with a 2.82 ERA, and a contract for $490,000. Frank also made an acquisition mid-season for Michael Bourn and Matt Diaz. The Diaz trade was a low cost bust, but the Bourn trade yield 6.9 WAR across 2011 and 2012 for ~$10M in salary. In fact, one of my biggest problems with Frank came when he let Bourn go in free agency to Cleveland for $12M a year, and opted to pay BJ Upton even more. I still think having Bourn on this team (and not having BJ) would have put the Braves in a position to win the NL and go to a World Series.
In 2010, Frank acquired free agents Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito, Eric Hinske, Troy Glaus, Melky Cabrera, Mike Dunn, and Jesse Chavez. It was also a huge year for mid-season moves as the Braves picked up Alex Gonzalez, Tyler Pastornicky, Rick Ankiel, Kyle Farnsworth, and Derrick Lee. For some reason, Frank was very busy in 2010, and it paid off with the Braves making it to the NLDS, only to lose to the Giants. All those moves together made up a positive 5.8 WAR on the season. Those moves all cost around $16M not including some salaries traded that were already on the books. All in all, $16M for a value near 6 extra wins isn’t a bad deal. Hell, if ANY of those 6 wins were real, the Braves only won the Wild Card that year by a single game over the Padres. So, it’s obvious to me that Franks wheelings and dealings in 2010 were the reason the Braves made the playoffs.
In 2009, the Braves picked up Derek Lowe and Kawakami, which fall into that disaster category. However, Frank picked up one of my personal favorites that year, David Ross. The Braves also added Garrett Anderson on a one year deal, along with Nate McLouth, Ryan Church, and Adam LaRoche. David Ross and LaRoche turned out to be absolute steals as they combined for 4.0 WAR by themselves in 2009. Even McLouth was good that year for a 1.7 WAR, but Anderson was a disaster at a -1.4 WAR. Combined with Ryan Church, it was still a positive move year with the total WAR totaling 5.3 on the moves, with a contract price of approximately $10M including trade salaries. The downside was that Nate McLouth’s deal ran for another 2 years and cost $12M while producing an awful -2.6 WAR in those two seasons. McLouth really started the major problems for Frank at the CF position that have continued into the present.
In 2008, Frank’s first season, he was obviously determined to move pieces around. He added Jair Jurrjens, Chris Resop, Josh Anderson, Tom Glavine to a one year contract, Will Ohman, Omar Infante, Mark Kotsay, and Greg Norton. It was a terrible year for the Braves on the field as they only finished with a 72-90 record, just ahead of the Nationals for last place. However, the total WAR score for those moves came out to 5.6 total. The problem is that cost almost $20M to make those moves, many of which were only stopgap measures. The only good takeaways from those changes were Infante and Jurrjens, who were worth an astounding 15.4 WAR over their tenure in Atlanta, at a cost of $16M. Anytime you are getting 1 WAR for $1M, that’s the ultimate in value.
Overall, I think you can see that Frank has done an impressive job adding value to this team in his time as GM. The only downside is that he’s sunk so many of his big money deals without getting the necessary value. The idea with huge money moves is that they are supposed to be slam dunks, but across the MLB several organizations like the Phillies, Angels, and Yankees have proven how easily they can blow up in your face. The thing those teams have that the Braves don’t is cash flow to buy themselves out of jams. That’s what makes Franks high-dollar busts even more obvious. However, Frank has kept his job because he can obviously make key moves that yield solid returns.
I think if BJ can turn the tide in 2014, it will most likely remove doubts about Wren’s status with the team. However, if BJ flounders again and Dan Uggla gets pulled before the end of the year? I think we’re likely looking at a new GM in 2015.