Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote a column Thursday defending the work of the previous Braves front office. It almost seemed that someone no longer in power may have sent Rosenthal a memo to try and defend the work done between 2010 and 2014.
Rosenthal reported that, according to STATS LLC, over the last five drafts the Braves had the second-most players drafted reach the big leagues with 13. Another one, Sean Gilmartin, made it the 14th player when he made his major league debut Friday for the Mets against his former team. Only the Tigers, with 15, have more players from the last five drafts that have made it to the show.
“I’m not convinced that the Braves were in such bad shape to begin with,” Rosenthal wrote. He added, “I’m also not convinced that they will be in better shape in the future.”
Wow. Where do we begin?
First, ESPN’s Keith Law had the Braves farm system rated 26th at the end of last season. That is likely the worst Atlanta’s farm system has been ranked in decades. Law, who knows all the farm systems rather well, has them in the top six, and that was before the Braves added top prospect Matt Wisler in last Sunday’s trade with the Padres.
Rosenthal said, “the team’s farm system grew thin in part because the Braves traded several youngsters and accelerated the developments of others.”
First, there is one thing to point out different in the Frank Wren era, with Tony DeMacio as his scouting director, compared to the John Schuerholz (as GM)-Roy Clark era (as scouting director) from years past – the number of picks.
In DeMacio’s five years in charge of the draft, the Braves did not have their own first round pick three times due to free agent signings. Also, they had more than two picks in the Top 100 selections only once – in 2010.
Under Clark, from 2000 through 2009, the Braves had more than two picks in the Top 100 in eight of his 10 drafts. The Braves actually had four or more picks in the Top 100 in eight of Clark’s drafts.
Obviously, the structure of the draft has changed a bit. But DeMacio should also blame Wren for not having as many draft picks.
Let’s look at these last five drafts one at a time. Last year’s draft is thought by many as the best under DeMacio. Thirteen picks from last year are on Rome’s roster, with three more on Rome’s disabled list. One player is in High-A Carolina. It’s too early to see how good this draft looks, although the returns are promising.
The 2013 draft saw DeMacio take Jason Hursh at 31 over Aaron Judge and Ian Clarkin, two picks by the Yankees taken right after the Braves’ selection. Hursh is a decent prospect. Many believe Hursh will wind up in the bullpen. He has fallen down the prospect list after the acquisitions of better young pitchers this past offseason. There are four players (Tanner Murphy, Steve Janas, Alec Grosser and Tyler Brosius) from this draft still in the system that are considered legit prospects, and none are close.
The 2012 draft had Lucas Sims go in the first round. Sims is a good prospect. He’s repeating High-A to start the 2015 season. Sims is still considered a potential starter, but he needs a solid season this year. Alex Wood was the second round pick. He’s in the Atlanta starting rotation now. Shae Simmons is the only other worthwhile pick. He was taken in the 22nd round and made his debut last season. Simmons just had Tommy John surgery and should be back next season.
The only other player from the 2012 draft was Josh Elander, the sixth round pick traded last week to Arizona for Trevor Cahill. Elander was a marginal prospect not even listed in any analyst’s Top 30 list for the Braves entering this season.
That’s it. The 2012 draft produced Wood, and that’s obviously great to get a starting pitcher out of a draft. In fact, not counting Sims, only seven players from that draft three years ago remain in the Atlanta system today and not one is considered a serious prospect.
The 2011 draft has seen six players get to the big leagues. Gil Martin was the first round pick, taken with the 28th pick over Joe Panik (29) and Henry Owens (36).
There is no doubt having six players from one draft make it is an accomplishment, but here are the others that have made it to the show: Nick Ahmed (2nd round), J.R. Graham (4), Cody Martin (7), Tommy La Stella (8) and Gus Schlosser (17). Again, that is something to be proud of, but are there any stars on this list from the 2011 draft?
Not yet. They are marginal players, three of whom (Gilmartin, Graham and Martin) just made their debuts this week. And you can holler about the Braves losing Graham, but if they had not lost him they might have lost Martin instead. Graham had trouble staying healthy the last two years, so the Braves were not unhappy that Martin was the one that was not picked in the Rule V Draft last December.
But to laud that 2011 draft is puzzling. Quantity is one thing, but where is the quality? I don’t think four middle relievers, a new starting shortstop (Ahmed) for another team and a player widely regarded as a defensive liability who will not be a starter for long (LaStella) should be considered a stellar draft.
The 2010 draft for the Braves produced one player still in the starting lineup – shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who was taken in the second round at pick 70. That pick makes up for the first round pick, Matt Lipka, who five years later is still stuck in Double-A and is no longer considered a prospect.
The other big name from that draft is Evan Gattis, who was obviously a great draft pick in a later round. He’s now been traded to the correct league, and the Braves received a great return from Houston in that deal.
Todd Cunningham, Phil Gosselin, Joey Terdoslavich and Chasen Shreve are the other four players who have made it to the big leagues. Three are still with the Braves, with Gosselin on the 25-man roster.
One thing should be pointed out about the selection of Simmons. Reportedly, DeMacio wanted Simmons as a pitcher. It was others who made certain Simmons played shortstop. This is what DeMacio told me after Simmons was drafted.
“We’re going to give Andrelton an opportunity to play shortstop as well,” he said. “And then we’ll show the arm off a little later on. He’s also a great athlete. He does get it up there pretty well on the mound.”
The area scout that signed Simmons, Gerald Turner, said, “I don’t know if we’re going to put him on the mound or we’re going to let him play his way to the mound or what.”
So to act like the Braves knew they were drafting a player that would become the best defensive shortstop in the game is a stretch. If they had, certainly they would have taken Simmons in front of Lipka and Cunningham.
But those are the players produced by the drafts touted by Rosenthal. No doubt, Simmons and Wood are the stars, and the Braves got two good years out of Gattis before trading him away. However, there were more misses than hits in these drafts, which caused the farm system to suffer.
Last year, Atlanta’s minor league coaches walked around Disney asking, “Where did all our talent go?” Well, Wren traded a good number of the minor leaguers. The Justin Upton trade two years ago stands out. There is one player he probably he wishes he had not put in that trade. Brandon Drury, Atlanta’s 13th round pick in 2010, is now one of Arizona’s top prospects. Ahmed was the other big player in that trade. He is now Arizona’s starting shortstop.
Wren used Jordan Schafer, Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer in the Michael Bourn trade in 2011. But all three of those players were drafted by Clark.
Rosenthal brought up Jose Peraza, who is one of Atlanta’s top prospects, as a success on the international market. But there were misses, as well.
Wren made mistakes like giving Edward Salcedo a huge $1.6 million dollar contract several years ago. Salcedo had a possible contract cancelled with the Indians because of questions about his age. Many knew Salcedo was older than he claimed, including coaches and players in the Braves own minor league system. But Wren signed Salcedo anyway, even though no other team was thought to be even close with an offer to the amount he was given.
Before last season, Baseball America listed Sims as the top prospect, followed by (in order) Christian Bethancourt (signed in 2008), Graham, Hursh, Mauricio Cabrera, Peraza, David Hale, Victor Caratini, LaStella and Gilmartin. But anyone that knows the history of the Braves knows that Top 10 list pales in comparison to the type of talent the Braves usually have as top prospects.
That group, as a whole, did not include as many high-impact prospects as the Braves usually have. That’s why those coaches were making those comments on the back fields at Disney a year ago. It just wasn’t the same caliber of talent.
The quantity of the draft picks selected the last few years that have made the big leagues cannot be disputed, but the quality can. There is a huge difference between quantity and quality when it comes to prospects.
What happened? Well, many believe Wren had his hand in the draft. In contrast, Schuerholz gave his scouts, particularly Clark, the freedom to make the picks. Wren was meddling, doing it his way, and it sometimes had area scouts frustrated that their work would be shot down by what Wren and his staff wanted in the draft.
In fact, Clark left the Braves after the 2009 season because Wren did not appreciate the work Clark and his staff had done. The list of players drafted by Clark that either made it to Atlanta or players used in trades is totally impressive. In his 10 years as scouting director, Clark had 33 draft picks that made it to Atlanta, while another 18 that were signed by the Braves and were developed in the system made it to the big leagues with other teams, usually through being traded.
But we’re talking about a number of high-impact players that made it to Atlanta – Adam LaRoche, Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jonny Venters, Yunel Escobar, Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Minor. Some of the traded players who made it with other teams, but started in the Atlanta system, include Adam Wainwright, Matt Harrison, Tyler Flowers, Jeff Locke and J.J. Hoover.
There’s quantity and quality in that list. Yet Wren wanted to tell Clark how to run the draft, which made it inevitable that Clark would leave after a very successful run.
Rosenthal’s main focus was on the draft, but that does not paint the entire story on what went wrong in the Wren era. He may want to keep it on the draft, but Rosenthal himself opened up the door by injecting the “Braves Way” slogan. He must have no concept of what that is.
When Schuerholz fired Wren last September, he talked about how he wanted to get back to “The Braves Way” of doing things. That was because many of the philosophies he had in place in his years as general manager were changed by Wren. It just wasn’t the same. And to understand what was different, let’s read what Schuerholz, and Wren’s replacement John Hart, told me recently about the culture change in the organization.
First, Schuerholz explained “The Braves Way.”
“The Braves Way is the people who run an organization, hire people who join the organization, who they believe think like-mindedly who have the same level of professionalism and pride and personal commitment and work ethic to sustain and grow and improve what is already in place being done by this great, productive organization,” he said. “It was the Orioles Way when I was with the Orioles. It became the Royals way in Kansas City because what I learned and what Lou Gorman learned with Baltimore we brought with us to Kansas City. What I learned I brought with me to Atlanta. Bobby Cox was here. What Bobby knew we blended together. It just continued to grow and enhance and improve. If you have people like myself and Bobby and others who come in and have a belief in their philosophy and operational attitudes and the kind of people they want with them, that’s how you keep the Braves way going.”
Wren tore that down with a lack of trust among his staff. He shunned many of Schuerholz’s people, ignoring the opinions of many tenured baseball people that had a better track record than his own.
A few years ago a minor league pitching instructor, with an impeccable resume, told me, “He (Wren) doesn’t listen to anyone.” One example given was the instructor had recommended Wren not promote a pitching prospect who the instructor simply did not believe was ready for Atlanta. But the prospect, who Wren had acquired in a trade, was promoted anyway. The young pitcher struggled, and it seemed to the coach Wren was simply trying to justify one of his trades by forcing the player to the big leagues before he was ready.
Another longtime Atlanta scout said last spring, “The man in charge doesn’t want to listen to anyone else. It’s his way or you’re out.”
Wren rarely asked the advice of his major league coaches, relying instead on his main assistant, Bruce Manno, and his own brother, Jeff Wren. When Frank Wren was warned about B.J. Upton, he ignored the stories and signed him anyway. When meetings were held, coaches knew anything they said would be struck down and literally ignored.
After a while, they just gave up. No one respected Wren. His relationship with former manager Bobby Cox was horrible. It has already been reported by Peter Gammons that Cox quit in spring training 2009, but he was talked out of it by Schuerholz. No one is more respected in the organization more than Cox, and when Wren knocked heads with Cox, he lost everyone.
Here is a telling comment from Schuerholz to me in February. This really tells you a lot about what went wrong with Wren, as Schuerholz was describing the difference in the methods used by Hart compared to last year.
Schuerholz said, “Not only was our talent level down, lower than it had been, so too was the morale, so too was the enthusiasm, so to was the feeling of trustfulness, so too was a lot of things that don’t allow you to reach your full capabilities and optimum level of production or passion or interest or desire or love or joyfulness. That’s back now.”
Wren reportedly threw a fit when he learned Schuerholz had hired Hart a year ago as a consultant. But Schuerholz knew the Wren era, even after a 96-win season in 2013, was on unsteady ground. Schuerholz was hearing more stories of how Wren was treating people, how he was ignoring the advice of his baseball people. This was something Schuerholz was so good at – listening to his top advisors and then making a decision. He knew Wren simply did what he thought was best, regardless of what anyone else said.
Hart saw first-hand how bad the organization was last year with the morale of staff members, many of whom had been berated by Wren or his assistant, Manno. Wren rarely even communicated with some of his minor league managers, and many in the farm system believed the team really didn’t have a farm director after Kurt Kemp left the Braves a few years ago.
A few weeks ago Hart talked about “The Braves Way.”
He said, “It’s about the people. It’s about good people. It’s about empowering good people. It’s about the culture that is created here. And certainly it’s about the players. We have a lot of people that are energized. We have a lot of people making decisions that are encouraged to have that autonomy back a bit. I do feel good about that. It’s an ongoing process. It’s not something you snap your fingers and it happens overnight. But I do feel good about it.”
Realize that Hart said “we have a lot of people making decisions that are encouraged to have that autonomy back a bit.” What does that tell you? No one felt they were really able to do their job with Wren in charge. He was in charge, and that’s all that mattered. Wren wanted to do everyone’s job.
Of course, when it came to Wren’s roster construction, there were problems. Wren obviously made a mistake in having a team with no veterans last season. He insulted Tim Hudson with a low-ball offer after the 2013 season. He did not believe the team would miss Brian McCann, and while it was not logical for the Braves to re-sign a 29-year-old catcher to a deal he got with an American League team, the clubhouse did miss McCann’s influence.
Veteran players like John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones never liked or respected Wren. They certainly didn’t like him butting heads with Cox, who all three loved. But like Wren did in Baltimore as general manager when he disrespected Orioles’ legend Cal Ripken, Jr., Wren never won over the Braves’ clubhouse. There was just never any respect for him personally by many of the players.
Players may have disagreed with Schuerholz when he was in charge, but there was always a level of respect.
Check out Chipper’s tweet last Sunday after the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel, as he tried to calm the masses who were upset about the deal: “We got away from what made us the Braves.” That’s a shot right at Wren. Then he tweeted, “John Hart is getting it back.”
Of course, Wren’s biggest problem was his signing of free agents. He swung and missed on Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami and, of course, B.J. Upton. The Billy Wagner signing was his best. But the other three were catastrophic moves.
The Dan Uggla trade was a good one. Wren dealt super-utility man Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn to the Marlins for Uggla, who had averaged 30 home runs in his five years in the big leagues. But Wren gave Uggla a five-year contract even before Uggla had played his first game in Atlanta. That was a mistake, and obviously the Braves are still paying for it by paying Uggla to play somewhere else.
Rosenthal brought up some of the recent moves made by the Braves new front office. He had skepticism regarding the trades made by Hart and his assistant, John Coppolella, who is likely to take over for Hart in a couple of years.
He mentioned the trade with the Yankees, as the Braves acquired prospect Manny Banuelos for relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve. Really? Carpenter and Shreve are interchangeable relievers, while Banuelos still has potential. The Braves replaced Carpenter with Jim Johnson, who at $1.6 million and experience as a closer (not to mention his now improved sinker) is a lot better option. Banuelos is a left hander who can throw in the mid-90s and might be a starting pitcher in the big leagues if he gets his curveball back. The Braves need potential starters like that. There were not many in the farm system like that last season.
Rosenthal then listed the Tommy LaStella for Arodys Vizcaino trade. Yes, Vizcaino got busted for PEDs and will sit out half the season. But to think the Braves gave up the next Joe Morgan in LaStella is peculiar. LaStella, who was one of Wren’s favorite players, still has issues defensively and will undoubtedly be on the bench once the Cubs better prospects arrive in Chicago. LaStella also fizzled out last season with the Braves (.294 in the first 57 games and .174 in the final 36 games) and had little chance of beating out Peraza in a future lineup.
Rosenthal wrote about the Braves losing Graham, but again, we’re talking about a kid that could not stay healthy for the last two years and had a 5.58 ERA in 27 games in Double-A last season. The Braves kept Martin instead, and he’s looked great so far out of the Atlanta bullpen.
Rosenthal then chided the Braves for trading David Hale, who the team did not believe could be a starting pitcher, to Colorado for two catching prospects. Tanner Murphy is the only real catching prospect in the system, so the Braves needed to add Jose Briceno, who is starting the season in Carolina. Briceno is a very good prospect.
Rosenthal believed if the Braves had kept Hale they would not have needed Cahill, a veteran starter who the team acquired last week. But again, if the Braves thought Hale could start, they would have kept him.
Does he realize that Hale is actually older than Cahill, but that Cahill has 170 major league starts compared to eight starts for Hale? Is that even a contest? Plus, the Braves also got a draft pick in the deal with Arizona. That is something they want to accumulate – draft picks.
What is so hard to understand about the Braves signing Nick Markakis? Rosenthal has repeatedly made snide comments about that acquisition. This team desperately needed a veteran player to be in the starting lineup. It’s one thing to bring in A.J. Pierzynski and Jason Grilli, but Markakis is a guy that will be out there every day. This signing is just like the one the Braves made before the 1991 season, when they added Terry Pendleton to a young nucleus of David Justice and Ron Gant. Schuerholz brought in Pendleton to have that veteran presence, and Markakis will do the same thing. They also needed consistency, something the previous player at that position did not provide.
If the front office had not brought in a player like Markakis, analysts like Rosenthal would be writing, “The Braves would benefit from having a veteran player in the everyday lineup.” It’s something last year’s team did not have, and with all the young players on this roster, a player like Markakis was desperately needed.
What Rosenthal needs to understand is that this organization was broken. Read again above what Schuerholz and Hart said. Plus, last year did not work. That mix, with the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward, did not work. It was a dysfunctional team that obviously underperformed. That’s why they started over. Take a bad major league roster and a barren farm system and you get an organization that needed a makeover.
Did Rosenthal think the Braves should have kept last year’s roster and added to it? Well, it was over budget and they would have had to cut payroll, mainly because of the $28.5 million dollars that would have gone to Wren’s signees – Uggla and B.J. Upton. Plus, they were losing 400 innings from Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, and because of the bad drafts there was absolutely no pitcher from the farm system that was ready to step in to start this season as a starting pitcher.
Sure, Hart and Coppolella might strike out here. Pitchers like Wisler (acquired last Sunday for Craig Kimbrel), Tyrell Jenkins (acquired for Heyward), Mike Foltynewicz (acquired for Gattis), Max Fried (acquired for Justin Upton) and Ricardo Sanchez (acquired for minor league third baseman – one the Braves did not believe could start at the big league level – Kyle Kubitza) may all flame out. Position player prospects like Briceno and Rio Ruiz (from Houston) and Mallex Smith (from San Diego) may never make it.
The draft picks that Clark (who is now back after a five-year absence) and Brian Bridges (the new scouting director) select this June may be duds. The talent that is being assembled may simply not work.
The Braves are starting over with pitching. You must build with pitching, as was the priority under Schuerholz and before that when Cox was general manager. Look at pitching means to teams. Boston gives Rick Porcello, a pitcher with a 76-64 record and a career ERA of 4.30, a four-year, $82.5 million dollar contract. Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey is getting $81 million over the next five years, despite his career record being 58-50 and having a career ERA of 4.17.
You have to have pitching. The Braves did not before, but now, due to the tremendous amount of work done by Hart and Coppolella, they have much better depth in the minor league system. It’s that depth that could be the key moving forward in this remodeling of the organization.
There has to be some faith here that this monumental effort, the biggest in the 50 year history of the Braves being in Atlanta, will result in a better outcome than the culmination of Wren’s work last year. The 2013 Braves was the worst team in Atlanta’s history. It wasn’t the team with the worst record, but it was the worst team, by far. It was a team hated by the fan base and it smelled of dysfunction.
Hart and Coppolella have surrounded themselves with great executives - not only Clark and Bridges, but also Gordon Blakeley, a former Yankees executive who is considered one of the best international evaluators in the game. The Braves are going to make a more concerted effort to make a splash with international talent, after several down years under the previous regime.
There is little doubt, at least inside the organization, that the Braves are better off than they were before. So while Rosenthal may be skeptical, the Braves believe they are finally all pulling in the same direction and the results will be positive.
This spring training was like a breath of fresh air. Everyone was on the same page. Coaches were smiling again. There was a synergy in place that has been missing for several years. If executives like Schuerholz and Hart had believed the Braves were not in bad shape after last year, as Rosenthal suggested, then they certainly could have added to the roster and tried again. But this team, this organization, was a mess. The drastic moves made prove that something major had to be done. This is not an organization that regularly tears it up and builds it back. This was a calculated offseason intended to fix what had been horribly broken.
The changes have been painful, but the overwhelming opinion is this makeover was needed. It’s a shame a respected national writer can’t see the same thing and decided to try and defend what was done in the past. For those who know exactly how bad it has been the last few years, Rosenthal’s column, its tone, was way off base.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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