The Braves lost their top three starting pitchers and their top two relievers. There's not much Frank Wren could have done to avoid that.
However, some do criticize the decision to go with older pitchers for the 2008 season. Wren signed Tom Glavine to a one-year contract last winter. Glavine turned 42 years old in March.
The list of free agent pitchers last winter was less than impressive. Carlos Silva was overpaid by the Mariners, but he had been nothing more than an average pitcher for the Twins. Kyle Lohse held out for more money for so long that he had to accept a one-year deal from St. Louis early on in spring training.
Other than that, you had Livian Hernandez and Glavine. So with Glavine wanting to come home, and agreeing to accept a deal for $8 million dollars, Wren had to jump on that to try and get someone who could provide the team with innings.
Glavine had never been on the disabled list, and as a soft-tosser it was logical to assume he could avoid it again. But a hamstring injury, and then an elbow injury ruined Glavine's season.
That's just bad luck. Yes, it might not have happened with a younger pitcher. But it's not like pitchers avoid injuries very well these days anyway.
And with Smoltz, the Braves had to ride him as long as possible. They knew his shoulder could go at anytime, but they had to just let him go out there until he couldn't no more.
There were hints Mike Hampton might have some problems in spring training, and perhaps Wren should have looked for another starter in late March. But remember, Hampton didn't get hurt until he tried to go out there for his first start of the season. And Smoltz came back to make his first start of the year at the end of that same first week.
So even leaving Florida, Wren believed his rotation would include Smoltz, Glavine, Hampton, and Tim Hudson, with Jair Jurrjens as his fifth starter. He had little way of knowing 80% of that rotation would be changing for most of the season.
Plus, there was internal depth on hand, with Jo Jo Reyes and Chuck James in Triple-A.
Hampton proved at the end of the season why the Braves were confident in his return. They knew if they just got him out there, he could probably be productive. And with the team having to pay Hampton, you can't blame them for waiting on him to get back.
When the bullpen blew up, with Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan both battling elbow trouble, the Braves knew they had Mike Gonzalez getting ready to come back. If he had not been there, Wren would have had to go get some help. The middle relief corps, with Jeff Bennett and Buddy Carlyle, was pretty effective.
Wren did have to go sign some help, however. Julian Tavarez joined the team in July and overall did pretty well. Vladimir Nunez and Jorge Julio were brought up from Richmond and for the most part did okay. But the team had little choice but to rely on pitchers who had been repeatedly released when the injuries crippled the staff.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of the season was Corky Miller being left on the roster, despite his pathetic attempt at a batting average. The Braves had to designate Brayan Pena for assignment and then lost him to the Royals. They also left Clint Sammons down in Triple-A too long.
Bobby Cox likes his backup catchers to be more defensive-minded players, but Miller wasn't too impressive behind the plate either. But his offense, well, there just wasn't any. He hit under .100 for most of the season. You can usually get by with a catcher, like the Braves have for many seasons, if they at least hit .200. But Miller never got close.
He was on the roster too long, and Wren either should have brought up Sammons or signed another catcher. The lineup looked pitiful already at times this season, and it wasn't helped when Miller was in there as the catcher.
Wren cannot be blamed for the Mark Teixeira trade from Texas. That was John Schuerholz's deal, and now we all know that Schuerholz was leaving as GM and was going for it all in 2007. But while the Braves did need a big bat, the prospects used to get Teixeira might have been better suited to go in a deal for a starting pitcher.
It was obvious after the series in Philadelphia after the All Star Break that the Braves were not going to compete for the playoffs. So Wren moved to look for a deal for Teixeira. It was not easy, since he was trading away a rental player. But he got a nice return when he dealt with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Wren got a first baseman who is under control for a few more years in Casey Kotchman, along with a relief prospect in Steve Marek. The Diamondbacks were also involved in discussions for Teixeira, but refused to give up Conor Jackson and other prospects. Again, considering Teixeira was a rental, Wren got a pretty decent return. The Braves will have Kotchman as their first baseman until Freddie Freeman is ready in 2011.
While the Teixeira deal went down, Wren was unable to move Will Ohman in a deal. Ohman was very effective overall this season, but after the trade deadline he struggled. Even in August Wren was not able to complete a deal for the lefty reliever.
Wren did find a taker for outfielder Mark Kotsay, acquiring a minor league outfielder from the Red Sox in return. That was probably all he was going to be able to get for the pending free agent.
Overall, you have to be pleased with Wren's trades in his first year as a general manager. The Jair Jurrjens deal with Detroit was a steal. The Braves robbed the Cubs in the trade that netted Omar Infante and Will Ohman. He did a fine job trading for Greg Norton when the Braves bench needed a lift.
The Mark Kotsay-for-Joey Devine deal will get scrutinized. Kotsay was effective for the Braves and was a solid veteran presence, which was Wren's thinking behind the deal. Devine was outstanding for the A's, but he was probably not going to be in the mix in Atlanta. Bobby Cox had lost confidence in him, making him a long shot to contribute as much as he did in Oakland.
Wren felt Tyler Yates was going to be squeezed out of the bullpen situation in March. Yates wasn't particularly effective in spring training and was being outpitched by Blaine Boyer and Manny Acosta. So Wren traded Yates for a minor league pitcher from Pittsburgh. Todd Redmond would go on to win the Southern League's Pitcher of the Year Award after an outstanding season for Mississippi.
When the bullpen was being overused in the first half of the season, Yates might have come in handy. But the problem was getting him on the roster to start the year, when Soriano and Moylan were still on the roster. So Wren had little choice but to get something in return, and Redmond was very effective and is now on the radar.
The Jeff Francoeur situation will perhaps be looked at as a big event under Wren's first year. Wren made the call to send Francoeur down to Double-A, only to call him back up three days later. The debate is two-fold: Should the Braves have sent Francoeur down in the first place, and should they have brought him back up so quickly after saying he was staying in Double-A for ten days?
Wren obviously felt he had little choice but to bring Francoeur up, but the right fielder continued to struggle until September. Was it a good move to send him down? Was it effective by just leaving him down there three days?
The Braves stuck with Gregor Blanco too long and did not give more at bats to Brandon Jones or Josh Anderson (at least until September). Was that Wren or Bobby Cox? Well, both Jones and Anderson could have stayed on the roster at times, but the Braves decided to go with thirteen pitchers.
The 72-90 record was the worst season since 1990. It coming in Wren's first year will put the spotlight on him a bit. But again, the season would have never fallen apart if the team had at least stayed marginally healthy. There's little Wren could have done to prevent that.
But now Wren is really under the gun. He has payroll flexibility and a strong farm system, so the opportunity is there for this organization to bounce back quickly if he makes the right decisions this winter. He's got to be excited. This is his chance to put his own mark on this team.
He's got to hope the second year goes smoother than his first as the GM of the Atlanta Braves.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at email@example.com.
5. What could Frank Wren have done different?
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