It’s a new era in Braves Country. Last week, the Atlanta Braves fired General Manager Frank Wren. Wren, who was handed the reigns from legendary Braves GM John Shuerholz in 2007, was a man known for building the minor league system. Wren was a man who stuck to his young guns and homegrown talent in hopes of winning championships, more lovingly known down here as The Braves Way, but that ultimately may have been his demise.
Wren and his staff had a great eye for young talent, as his first big move was finding Julio Teheran and signing him as an amateur free agent back in 2007. Teheran would become the number five overall prospect in Major League Baseball by 2011 and he is now a formidable force and quite possibly the Braves only true ace. The team is full of very talented youngsters that Wren and the Braves’ organization take pride in, boasting that they throw out a home grown lineup each and every day. Craig Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball and he was a third round steal in Wren’s first draft. Mike Minor was their first pick the next season. David Hale, Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis, Tommy La Stella and Alex Wood were all drafted by Wren and all were starters for the majority of the 2014 season. Even Freddie Freeman, the last big draft pick of the Shuerholz regime in 2007, is quite possibly the best player on the roster. The Braves Way clearly develops major league ready talent that can compete for the playoffs each and every year and that is something on to which they can hang their proverbial hat. The problem is, however, is that it doesn’t work.
Getting caught up in his own homegrown talent philosophy crippled Wren. Believing in his draft picks too much made Wren declare the likes of Minor, Kris Medlin, Julio Teheran, and Brandon Beachy untouchable. The Braves could have gotten quite a bit for any of those guys, and aside from Teheran, it is proving to be a big mistake not trading them. Once Wren deemed himself set on cultivating a champion on home grown stock, he had to go out and make each and every free agent signing count. This is where he failed. Javier Vasquez, Michael Bourn, Derek Lowe, and Justin Upton were just some of the major moves Wren made. They were nice moves, but not the moves that win championships. The Dan Uggla trade and the B.J. Upton signings were his two biggest moves and, well, Atlanta fans know how those turned out. I’m surprised he wasn’t released the day they cut Uggla loose. These moves weren’t just bad Braves’ moves, they were two of the biggest blunders in baseball over the past few seasons.
The Braves Way is very similar to Billy Beane‘s Moneyball concept, not so much in philosophy, but in results. Wren, like Beane, put out a quality product each and every year. Usually it is good enough to put up 90 wins, sometimes it is good enough to win the division, but never has it been good enough to go anywhere in October. The Braves haven’t won a playoff series since 2001, when Wren was the Assistant GM. The A’s under Billy Beane and his Moneyball concept have actually won a playoff series, back in 2006, however they have lost the eight other series in which they were involved. Hell, the As were the 2012 and 2013 AL West champions and came up empty in the first round both seasons. The primary reason, and the huge similarity between both philosophies, is that it leaves the team void of a superstar.
When I say superstar, I mean someone who transcends the game. I am not talking about someone like Sonny Gray or Teheran, who are young, excellent pitchers whose futures both include some exciting years to come. I’m not talking about a crafty veteran or a player like Justin Upton who was indeed the best player on his team before he came to Atlanta. I am talking about a bona fide superstar. Someone who has won a Cy Young Award or an MVP, someone who sets records, or someone other pitchers or hitters fear every time they see them. Craig Kimbrel is right there for the Braves, but unless they are winning, he is rendered useless.
Go ahead. Without googling it, tell me who the best batter for the Oakland A’s has been over the last three seasons when they have finished first twice and second once. Who is the most feared hitter for the Braves? It is hard to spit one name out, because none of them are superstars. Now look at all of the teams in the playoffs. Andrew McCutchen has turned around a sorry franchise in Pittsburgh. The best player in baseball (that’s Mike Trout, people) walks onto the field next to the once best player in baseball (that’s Albert Pujols for those of you who forgot). The Dodgers don’t even need to field a team and would be able to win when Clayton Kershaw pitches. Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright are a lethal battery and two of the very best at what they do. The Tigers? If you survive going through the last three Cy Young Award winners at the top of their rotation, maybe the reigning back-to-back AL MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera will beat you instead. The Giants have Buster Posey, who you can say what you want about, but the kid won two World Series in his first four seasons and anchors one of the best pitching staffs on an annual basis. I am told that Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are superstars, however, I don’t believe it. Perhaps this October they can convince me.
The Braves Way and Moneyball have not provided their teams with any talent on that level. Sure, the Braves had Chipper Jones, a future Hall of Famer, but by 2009, he was no longer a superstar. The Braves not only lack a superstar, but much like the As, they lack leadership. I understand that not everyone can be the Yankees and buy baseball’s best, but to win in this league, you need veteran leadership. The Braves let Tim Hudson walk, a man who loved pitching for his city, and in turn, the Braves, a heavy favorite to win their division, finished under .500 and the Giants, whom Hudson signed with, are back in the post season. People don’t want to acknowledge that there is a formula for winning in baseball. You need to surround a bevy of young and eager talent with guys who have been there before and players that are on another level. Can you break the mold every now and then? Sure, but to sustain greatness and win in October, that is the best way to do it.
It will be interesting to see what direction the Braves go in the next few days. Is Fredi Gonzalez next on the chopping block? Where does B.J. Upton and his ludicrous contract stand? The best thing that can happen for them is for John Hart to start wheeling and dealing in the winter meetings and open up the check book. Don’t forget, Tomahawk Choppers, only Tom Glavine was home grown out of your Big Three during the glory years. The Braves brought in John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Fred McGriff all via trade. It’s time they start to make those kinds of moves again.