Since becoming Braves general manager just over three years ago, Frank Wren has worked at a busy, sometimes frenetic pace, making trades, signing free agents and overseeing changes – some of them major – both on the field and in the front office.
The Braves ended a four-year postseason drought in 2010, but the injury-depleted team fell short of its goal to get venerable manager Bobby Cox back to the World Series in his final season before retirement. The Braves lost in the first round to San Francisco, and two days later Wren introduced Fredi Gonzalez as manager.
Wren also moved quickly this offseason to trade for slugging second baseman Dan Uggla, and the sides have been negotiating a long-term extension that would keep Uggla in Atlanta long after his free-agent eligibility next winter.
Wren, 52, took a break last week from his family’s scuba vacation in Cozumel, Mexico, for a phone question-and-answer session withthe Journal-Constitution’s Braves beat writer, David O’Brien. Wren talked about his job, the state of the Braves, the team’s ownership situation and what’s ahead.
Q. What are you most pleased about since taking over as GM, in terms of what you and your staff set out to do and have been able to accomplish?
A. I think the most satisfying thing has been getting ourselves back in position to play in the postseason. No question. Because that’s ultimately what we’re all trying to do year-in and year-out. That was our goal; we got into the postseason. We didn’t get as far as we wanted to go, but got ourselves in position to at least be there.
Q. Are you pleased overall with how things have gone since you took over?
A. We got a little better each year and continue to build. One thing that gives us hope for consistency and ability to play at a high level is the quality of our farm system, the number of good young players we have and the quality of those players. That’s a tribute to our scouting department, to [scouting director] Tony DeMacio and Johnny Almaraz [director of international scouting], and to Kurt Kemp [director of player development]. Everybody’s pulling in the same direction and has a common goal, which makes what we’re trying to do easier as well as more gratifying for everyone.
Q. What areas do you still want to improve in – is there anything specific that you’d like to get done in the near or long term?
A. We’ve talked about — and it’s a hard thing to do — as we transition to a more athletic team, where speed and defense and those areas are so valuable in the overall scheme of things, the way the game’s played today. Transitioning more to that type of team as we go forward, while also maintaining our strong pitching base. Not to say you can’t have a very successful team without that [speed], but if there’s one attribute that plays so well in our game it’s speed.
In the last five or six years, there’s been a re-emphasis on speed. But speed without the presence of other skills really doesn’t do you a lot of good, either. That’s why those players are so rare. They’re hard to come by. That’s been a focus of Tony’s last year in the draft, and for Johnny as well. That’s hopefully the direction we’re headed more and more as we go forward. But it’s five or six years to turn that around, from the time you sign a player to when they become an impact player in the big leagues.
Q. What’s been the most challenging part of the job since you took over?
A. There’s day-to-day challenges. When you’re in this role you’re living and dying with every win, with every series. That’s probably the biggest challenge. The first year when we had all those injuries and we couldn’t even put a full pitching staff out on the field — that made it really tough to win games.
Q. Is it difficult working within the constraints of a mid-size payroll in a division with two high-payroll teams, the Phillies and Mets? Or is it something you just get accustomed to dealing with?
A. The one thing about it is, as long as you know what you have — and we have an ample payroll to win, there’s no question about that. We’ve seen all kinds of signs of that in recent times. San Francisco was marginally higher than us, and plenty of other [winning] clubs are in our payroll range. Texas and Tampa Bay were lower. You look at clubs that are well constructed, if you have young players coming up in your system – the only way any team can consistently compete, if it’s not in the really high payroll levels, is by having a strong farm system, where you’re continually bringing young players to the big leagues who can contribute to your team.
Q. Does the budget force you to be even more diligent, in terms of making astute draft picks and trades that don’t deplete the minor league system?
A. What you have to be diligent about is, you have to know your players better than anyone else knows them. You make sure you don’t trade those players who have a chance to be real productive, game-changing types. You’re going to make trades, but you just make sure you don’t give away players who are going to have a huge major league impact in the future. But sometimes players develop at a different pace, and you’re not going to see it — they come around and develop at a different time than you thought they would. We’re not going to stop being aggressive and making trades to get players to help us win.
John [Schuerholz, former Braves GM] and Bobby were so good and so consistent for so long, but that’s not the norm. That’s really hard to do, and every other club will tell you that — being in the postseaseon 14 years in a row just doesn’t happen. Our goal is to be consistent, year-in and year-out, but to do that you’re also going to have to keep developing players and getting players.
Q. What are you going to miss most about working with Bobby Cox, and what did you learn from working closely with him for nearly a decade?
A. We were together for 11 years. The thing about Bobby is that he’s so even keel. He never panics, never worries. If he does, he never lets you see it and doesn’t let his players see it. That stability was always reassuring. When you go down and visit with him, even if things were going rough, it never felt like it. You felt like we were just about to break loose.
[Baseball] is a game where failure can get you down, and Bobby was really good about staying above that. That was probably the steepest learning curve for me when I first got here, from being with John and being around Bobby — sometimes we were a little slow coming out of the gate, but there was no concern, no urgency. They knew that if the team continued to play and did things the way they always did, eventually we’d start playing well and be where we should be.
Q. How much interaction do you have with Braves ownership at Denver-based Liberty Media, or is it primarily [Braves CEO] Terry McGuirk who works with those guys and serves as a liason?
A. We all in the front office have interactions with them several times a year, whether we’re playing [the Rockies] in Denver, or they’ll come to Atlanta, or at our annual meetings. But primarily they have given us the ability to run this franchise, especially Terry, to put together the budget and basically just keep them informed. It’s an ideal situation for a baseball operation, to be able to make decisions internally.
Q. So it’s a good ownership situation, from your perspective? Because we often hear from fans who’d prefer to see a single and/or local owner, rather than some far-flung corporation.
A. It’s an outstanding situation. It’s never been a time that I know of where there was a [phone] call saying, ‘Why are you doing this or doing that?’ They’re confident in the leadership situation in Atlanta, to make decisions in those situations. I think [criticism of ownership] is misdirected — the budget is set internally, not by Liberty Media.
“There are a lot of teams with single owners who are local are doing exactly the same thing we’re doing, with a similar payroll. We get very high marks for how our franchise is run throughout baseball….
“The economics are really a function of our market size and the revenues that are coming in. It’s not because there’s an owner saying ‘You’re not going to do this.’ It’s just a function or our market. And like I said, I can reel off half a dozen other markets very similar to us that do have local owners, who are doing it the same way we’re doing it. So that’s a bit of a red herring when you always want to throw it on Liberty.
Q. Did Braves ever consider making a run at Zack Greinke? (The former Kansas City ace was traded to Milwaukee last week.)
A. His name was brought up. We talked about it. I just think it was going to be cost-prohibitive for us, because some of those players it would have taken to make that deal are players we’re going to be counting on in the next year or two, and we think they’re going to be premium talents at the major league level.
Q. Is it true that sometimes the best trade is the one you didn’t make? I’m thinking specifically of the proposed Jake Peavy deal that fell through a couple of years ago.
A. You go through the process of making a trade, and with every trade you try to go through the pluses and the minuses. Still, this game is so unpredictable. It’s not like any of us can really know when a player is going to get hurt or start declining in performance, and sometimes you’re looking at a deal and about to pull the trigger and it just doesn’t work out. And two years later, like in that deal, you’re fortunate you didn’t make it.
If we rolled back the clock, I don’t think we’d change our pursuit [of Peavy] or change our approach at the time. Fortunately for us we were able to do some other things and it worked out real well for us.
Q. What’s the greatest satisfaction you get from your job, and does it make the long hours and stress seem worth it?
A. The key is working with people you enjoy working with and that you trust. I have a couple of guys I work really closely with, [assistant GM] Bruce Manno and John Coppolella [Braves director of baseball administration]. They are as focused and dedicated to it as I am. Then you have those major league scouts, the Jim Fregosi’s and Dom Chiti’s you can call at any hour… It’s a grind, a long grind. But if you have an organization that has everybody on the same page and good people to work with, it makes it all worthwhile. Especially when you win.