Fifteen hours after the Braves lost 6-3 against St. Louis in the single-game Wild Card playoff game, Atlanta general manager Frank Wren discussed the abrupt end to the season, as well as plans for the offseason and what he believes is a bright future for the organization.
Can you describe the feeling the next day after losing like the Braves did in the Wild Card game?
Wren: “Probably a one-word description is emptiness. I think we’ve talked all season long that we had a real good team and had a chance to take it into the postseason and do well. How well? You never know. That you understand that’s kind of the laws of baseball. But we had a chance to do well. I probably went into [this] postseason game as relaxed and at ease as I’ve gone into any in a long time, because I felt like we were ready to play. We had played well in September and felt like we had the right guy on the mound. We had everything going in our direction. And then you don’t make the plays defensively in postseason, it’ll bite you. And that’s what beat us.”
Did this game show what some view as an inherent flaw in the Wild Card single-game playoff?
“All of us at the general managers meeting when we talked about this format, it’s not a format that’s indicative of the best team. When you’re playing for six months and 162 games, this is not a sport where you play 20 games. This is not a sport where you play a handful of games, and then one game is appropriate. This is a sport where it’s about series, it’s about winning series. And one game is kind of a harsh reality.”
Could you see Major League Baseball tweaking the format?
“I think there’s a lot of people that love it. They love the drama. They’re not sitting where we’re sitting this morning. They love the drama, and I understand that. I’ve watched those 163rd games over the years and thought about, this is baseball drama at its best. I’ve also seen a real good friend of mine, David Dombrowski, play in one of those games a couple of years ago, and see what a crushing defeat it is. It’s a little bit different, that being a tie at the end of the season and a 163rd game. Postseason is supposed to be different.”
“Really what came down to the crux of the problem when we discussed it at the general managers level – obviously this is a decision made above the general managers level – but you don’t want to disadvantage the division winners as well, by having them sit. Because in many cases — and we’ve experienced it with the Braves over the years, where we clinched on the 20th of September and you’re now getting your team ready, and you lose that edge — well now all of a sudden you sit four or five days to play your first playoff game, there’s a good chance to lose your edge. So it’s a difficult fix, to say the least.”
Thinking outside the box, could they perhaps play a three-game Wild Card series in two days?
“That’s one off the things we discussed at the general managers meetings, make it a best two-out-of-three and play a split doubleheader the first day. I think all of us would prefer that. I mean, if you’re playing a team that’s got Randy Johnson — they really don’t have much else, but they’ve got Randy Johnson – you’re likely going to lose. But that same team is going to go into the playoffs and get swept.
“I guess it’s trying to fit everything into a neat little package that may not fit very well.”
On the infield-fly rule, do you think there might be a time where they change it, maybe say you can’t go more than 200 feet out, put a line down or something?
“I don’t know. It really comes down to umpire’s judgement. There’s always case studies after things happen, and usually it takes something like this for it to be studied further. I can’t remember, and I’ve been in the game 34 years, I can’t remember an infield fly rule having this big of an impact, and being talked about. So there’s a first time for everything.
“But that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame. We didn’t lose the ballgame because of that call. We lost the ballgame because we didn’t make routine plays. We had three of them that came back and bit us. And that’s not indicative of the way we played all year long. We played pretty sound baseball all year long. If there was any question about our club over the course of the season, it was would we be consistent enough offensively. And what did we end up with, 12 hits [in the Wild Card game]? If we make plays we win the game 2-1 or 3-1. They score one run. I know they end up getting more earned runs than that, because you can’t assume a double play. But they shouldn’t have scored.”
A year ago when you fired hitting coach Larry Parrish, you talked about requiring a better approach at the plate from hitters. Were you satisfied with the approach in the first season under new hitting coach Greg Walker and assistant Scott Fletcher?
“Very much so. I think we started from the beginning of spring training with a real battling approach. You look at early in the season, I thought up until the All-Star break we did a really good job of that. I think that kind of whittled away a little bit in the second half, and Greg will tell you that. And it’s not because he stopped preaching it. I think hitters will sometimes get less patient.
“But we saw a lot of games where we got the other team’s starter up around 100 pitches in the fifth inning. And that’s the goal. That’s the goal, to make them pitch and make them make their pitches to get you out. And I thought we did a very good job of that throughout the year, and I think it’s only going to get better. Because there’s a lot of nights where we’ve got three or four young hitters in that lineup, and as they learn their craft and become more patient, look for a better pitch, they’re just going to get that much better.”
Could that decline in patience in second half also have contributed to the team’s reduced average when hitting with runners in scoring position? (The Braves finished the season tied for last in the majors with a .231 average with runners in scoring position.)
“I think there’s probably no coincidence. Because when you get over-anxious as a hitter, you really fall into the strategy of the pitcher, because he’s going to try to get you out with his pitch. And especially with runners in scoring position, they’re not going to serve you something over the middle of the plate, unless it’s a mistake. You’ve got to make them come to you. And usually, that’s not swinging at the first pitch.”
Going into this offseason, obviously you’ve got significant holes to fill with Chipper Jones retiring and the Michael Bourn free-agent situation. What’s this kind of offseason like for you as a GM?
“I feel like this is a more focused offseason. I’m looking forward to it, because I think there’s a narrower focus with what we need. We have a lot of good young players in place. We’ve got to determine what we do it center field, and that kind of couples with leadoff. Center field/leadoff. And then how we replace Chipper. And beyond that, our club’s pretty solid. So it’s a fairly narrow focus.
“I think the exciting part for all of us is we’ve got a dynamic young core. We’ve got three young guys that were in that lineup [for the Wild Card game] that have a chance to be All-Star players and have a chance to be leaders of this team for a long time. And the bullpen’s intact, our starting rotation’s intact. There’s a lot of things that are real positive going into next year. And guys are going to get better. We’ve got a very young pitching staff, and we’ve got some dynamic young pitchers that are just on the horizon who have a chance to be good.
“I’m very optimistic about where we sit as a franchise, with the thought of adding a couple of key pieces.”
Do you think Brian McCann is going to be fine after surgery?
“I think we first have to determine if surgery is necessary. And that hasn’t been determined yet. So I think there will be some testing to determine if surgery is necessary.
How about the contract options for him and others? (The Braves hold 2013 team options for McCann, at $12 million, and starting pitchers Tim Hudson, $9 million, and Paul Maholm, $6.5 million.)
“We haven’t talked about options, picking up options. We haven’t talked about any of that stuff yet. We’ll do that over the next weeks.”
What’s the deadline for picking up those options?
“I think it’s within three days after the World Series.”
Is it too early to determine how realistic a chance there is of re-signing Bourn, given the market?
“Yes, it is. Michael’s situation is, we made contact with his agent in spring training to start negotiations, and they were not prepared to negotiate at that point, and said they would prefer to wait until after the season. We made it clear to Michael that we want him back, that we’d love to have him back. But we also know there’s a process in place.”
A year ago you had four young pitchers you considered nearly untouchable in terms of trades. How is that situation now?
“We’ve got a good handle on the inventory of pitchers we have. We still like our young pitchers a lot, so that hasn’t changed. I think the opportunities were there for them to get their feet wet. In the case of [Randall] Delgado, I think he got a number of starts in the middle of the season and I think he saw some things that both he and we realized he continued to develop.
“Julio Teheran, in his case he got off track for about two-thirds of the minor league season, and in the month of August he got back on track and was dynamic and outstanding again. So we’re looking forward to him – they’re both pitching winter ball in the Dominican Republic, and we’re looking forward to them continuing that development. But they’re still guys that we value a lot, and so if we’re going to have any [trade] discussions it’s going to be for a very, very big piece.”
Now that you have more cash available, do you look beyond cheaper options to fill holes?
“We may shop at a different store.” [Laughter.]
So instead of Walgreen’s or Wal-Mart….
“We may go up the street to Target.” [Wren laughs; he was joking.]
“No, we have the [financial] ability. We’re losing one Hall of Fame player, and the salary that goes with a Hall of Fame player. And we’re going to be looking to replace him. And as we do that, it gives us an opportunity to add another big player. And we’ll see what happens with Michael Bourn. We’d love to keep him and hope we do keep him.
“That being said, there are not a lot of pieces out there in the free-agent market this year that are all that appealing. So we might have to look other places.”
Regarding the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, does having the extra wild-card team in each league make teams approach roster building differently and/or make fewer team willing to trade in the offseason, or in July because they’re still in playoff contention?
“The trade deadline is pretty early right now for the current system we have. I’m not sure people are going to be courting for the Wild Card in October-November-December. I think what they’re going to be trying to do is build a division winner, so I think it’s still the same concept in offseason team-building. I think it changes in-season.”
When would you like to see the trade deadline moved to?
“I almost think it should be probably Aug. 15. As late as possible. Fifteen days is probably about as far as you can move it.”
We’ll you be on the free-agent market like you were in, say, 2009, when you pursued A.J. Burnett and others and signed Derek Lowe?
“We’re going to be looking for premium players, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But a couple of things we’re always mindful of. We’re mindful of, we’re putting a team together. We’re not trying to put a player on this team. And so that’s our overriding philosophy of putting a good team together – if we think we can add two players that give us more than one player, we’re going to do that.
“So we’re not going to go outrageous salary-wise. We’ve seen that time after time bite teams in the butt, so we’re not going to play that game.”
How do you view Martin Prado? (Prado can be a free agent after 2013 season.)
“I see Martin as a real valuable player on this team, a real solid player on this team. He’s a Brave. He cares about this organization, he cares about the team. I think the good thing for us is we were able to get him through a full season without him starting to break down. I think he’s a hard guy to get through a season because he wants to play every day. The season just wears him down, and this year he got through it and was still a real solid performer and producer right until the end.
“The other part of is, he can do a lot of things for your team. Those are all things over the next few weeks, as we start having our organizational meetings and we talk about how our team comes together, I’ll meet with Fredi and the coaching staff early next week and we’ll go through our team and evaluate our team and talk about their view of how we configure for next year. And we’ll start putting plans in place based on that.”
Could you see Prado as a leadoff option?
“I think he is your absolute prototypical No. 2 hitter. I think that’s who he is. I think he’s really good in that role. It would be … it would be OK [for him to hit leadoff], but it wouldn’t be great.”
What’s his best position?
“It would probably be in the infield, either second or third. I mean, the ideal situation for him. But that’s the hard part, because you don’t necessarily get to go out on the market and get the perfect guy for your team. So we’ll have to see how that all plays out.”
Could Jason Heyward be an option to play center field?
“For a few days. We think he’s arguably the best right fielder out there, and I think it would diminish him if we played him in center field. I think it would diminish his defensive value. And that’s one of the things we talk about a lot – we were really good in the outfield. We turned a lot of balls into outs, and part of that was his play in right field, and I don’t think it’s the same in center.”
Because he’s so big and muscular, is it better to not have him in center field where might be more likely to get hurt running around and diving so much?
“I just think Jason probably matured as a player more than anyone I’ve seen in a long time. And I think leaving him alone, putting him in a position where he excels and is performing at a high level, and know that’s his home, and not have to wonder where he’s going to play.”
Is it too early to say (backup catcher) David Ross will be re-signed, do you have to wait to see how that market develops?
“Rossy’s been a big part of this team for the last three or four years since he’s been here. A real valuable guy in that backup role, and we’ll continue to hopefully have him back. He did a heckuva job [in the Wild Card game]. Got us off to the lead, which, most of the time in a playoff game, you get off to that 2-nothing lead, with the way we’ve played most of the year, you’re going to win that game. And that’s really, I think, probably the biggest disappointment. We had that 2-nothing lead, now you get that double-play ball and you’re going to get through the big part of their lineup unscathed, and it doesn’t happen…
“I think the way he’s used [in the backup] role, he’s handled it really well. The thing about David, the days he plays he gives you a lift. He calls a good game, he obviously still can throw with anyone, as far as having a quick release and accurate, and has a knack of getting that big extra-base hit. Almost every time he starts, you’re looking for a double or a home run or something out of him. And if he doesn’t do that, he gives you a good bunt.”
Going back to McCann and the cyst in his shoulder, so there’s a possibility that can heal without having it removed surgically?
“From what we know today, it would not be a surgical repair. But because during the season we can’t do the MRI with [dye] injection — because you’re [sidelined] too long — once he has the MRI and we know totally and we get the medical report on it… But for what we know now, the prescribed treatment is rest.”
Between the shoulder and the knee he really struggled this season.
“He had tendinitis [knee]. He had an MRI the other day and the knee was clean. It was tendinitis, and if you get raging tendinitis in a joint, it can be very painful. And so he was battling that and he was battling the shoulder, and unfortunately with the shoulder, the only thing that can help it is rest. And during the course of the season you’re never going to get enough rest to get it turned around. We may find out with the MRI with contrast that there’s more going on in there. So that’s one of the things we need to find out.”
The Braves didn’t get Dan Uggla to be a No. 7 hitter….
“We got him to be a run-producer, and I think we always saw him as a 5 or 6 hitter. That’s what we hoped we were getting, that’s what we thought we were getting. And I think we feel like, in the course of the last month, some progress was made in helping him stay more consistent. And so if that’s the case, we’ll be in good shape. We really do feel like there were some diagnostics done as to what got him out of whack over that summer period. So hopefully that doesn’t happen again, but if it does happen again I think we can shorten the time.”
Fredi [Gonzalez] said all the coaches all being asked back. So they’ll all return?
“We’re going to offer them the opportunity to come back. If they choose not to … I can’t answer that.”
You’re at a crossroads with (struggling starting pitcher Jair) Jurrjens, but what about (Tommy) Hanson, is that case a little different?
“That’s different. I think with J.J. will have a determination this winter as to what happens with him. But Tommy won 13 games and pitched very well early in the season. At the end of the season his outings got a little shortened. If we can help him from a stamina standpoint, getting stronger, I think that would help correct a lot of that.”