From ‘epic fail’ to the playoffs: Saluting Frank Wren’s wild year

Frank Wren on the day

Chipper Jones went down, but Frank Wren stood tall all season. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

One year ago today, Frank Wren consummated the trade that prompted this correspondent to write the geeky words “epic fail” and to describe it as “the worst thing I’ve seen all year.” (Not that you can actually see a trade happen, but I was so stunned I was thinking even less clearly than usual.)

It was, as I’m sure you remember, the Javier-Vazquez-to-the-Yankees swap, and two of the three acquired players (Melky Cabrera and Mike Dunn) have already been rendered ex-Braves. And the third, young pitcher Arodys Vizcaino, hurt his arm midway through the minor-league season. But you know what I’m calling Frank Wren 365 days later?

My man of the year in Atlanta sports.

The Braves broke a four-year playoff drought for many reasons — Jason Heyward’s flying start, Tim Hudson’s recovery, Troy Glaus’ month of May — but mostly they broke it because their general manager kept plugging leaks, of which there were many.  The lineup on Opening Day shared only two starters with the one that took the field for Game No. 162, which meant an awful lot had gone wrong. But the Zen of Wren in Twenty-Ten was his utter persistence in drawing up new plans.

The Braves’  relationship with Yunel Escobar finally soured, so Wren imported Alex Gonzalez to play shortstop. Glaus went bad after lifting the Braves to first place and Chipper Jones got hurt in August, prompting Wren  to pry Derrek Lee from the Cubs. At the trade deadline Wren acquired Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth from the Royals, and lo and behold they were the key figures in the Braves’ first playoff victory since Oct. 6, 2005.

That no single Wren move had the dramatic oomph of John Schuerholz’s trade for Fred McGriff in July 1993 only underscores the point: This GM wasn’t shopping with Ted Turner’s bankroll. Wren had to buy cheap and keep buying. It’s a cliche to say that baseball teams assume the personality of their manager, but this season offered a twist: The 2010 Braves actually took after their general manager. They were dogged. They were resourceful. They kept figuring out ways to steal a ballgame here and there.

At the end they had almost nothing left: Chipper was gone after hurting himself making the Braves’ second-best defensive play of the year, and Martin Prado got hurt making the season’s best defensive play. Glaus stopped hitting. Nate McLouth never started. Kenshin Kawakami won only one game and was replaced in the rotation by Kris Medlen, who hurt his arm. The Braves’ first two starters in a key three-game series in Philadelphia were the rookies Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor, the former making his big-league debut.

Somehow this incredible shrinking club made the playoffs, whereupon Billy Wagner was lost. And still the Braves were one strike from taking a 2-1 series lead on the team that would win the World Series — Eric Hinske, an offseason Wren find, had hit a stunning two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth — when the inevitable-in-hindsight collapse occurred.

Without Wagner, Bobby Cox turned to two rookies — first Craig Kimbrel, then Dunn — to try and close. Without Jones and Prado, the Braves were down to the third-stringer Brooks Conrad at second base. (Conrad had already made so many errors at third base in the regular season’s final week that he was moved across the diamond.) Dunn yielded the tying single to Aubrey Huff, and then Conrad made his third error of the most awful night any player has ever had.

“The worst loss I’ve ever had,”  Wren would say later, but in its way that wrenching Game 3 only showed how much the Braves had to surmount to get that far. The Phillies had a bunch of guys hurt, but they got well, and when in doubt Philly can always go buy another pitcher. (This July it was Roy Oswalt.)

To view the Braves in preseason was to think, “If all goes well, they’ll have a chance to make the playoffs.” Almost nothing followed the script, and still they made it. They made it because Wren was willing to try anything and everything — and did.

Oh, and Javier Vazquez? He stunk as a Yankee.

By Mark Bradley

137 comments Add your comment

Benjamin

December 22nd, 2010
12:35 pm

Best closing sentence ever, MB.

FIRST!

jdknipe

December 22nd, 2010
12:36 pm

Boom Roasted

Supes

December 22nd, 2010
12:38 pm

Mark…I don’t think you can still label th Vazquez trade to the Yankees a bust.

Arodys Vizcaino still has a lot of upside and folks within the organization are high on him…on the other side, do you think we get UGGLA from the Marlins without Dunn? We probably would have had to give up Venters (if they wanted a LH young arm) if Dunn hadn’t been on the team in result of that very same trade you lambasted last year.

and yes Vazquez flamed out in NY, just like many thought that he would b/c he had done it all before. Wren knew what he was doing…given that he couldn’t move D-Lowe due to his contract situation we were stuck with him. Javy had to go and so he went.

Until Vizcaino is proven “as a bust” the verdict for this trade is still out. Keep that in mind Mark.

Will

December 22nd, 2010
12:40 pm

Game three. Still hurts to think about it. Maybe always will. And I don’t think I’ve ever even been SECOND commenting on a MB blog.

braves gonna win it all in 11

December 22nd, 2010
12:41 pm

Herschel Talker

December 22nd, 2010
12:42 pm

MB:

Well said. I request both of these follow ups to this fine piece of work:

From #2 in the country to ‘epic fail’ against Colorado: Saluting Mark Richt’s pathetic tenure.

From the Eric Hinske clutch of all clutch HRs to blowing a game by leaving Brooks Conrad in the game and pinch running a catcher for a catcher: Saluting Bobby Cox’s pathetic tenure.

HT

Benjamin

December 22nd, 2010
12:46 pm

Supes with good points…

…personally, I’m very high on Viz. TJ surgery at his age isn’t anywhere near the death sentence it used to be, and he’s still a highly valued prospect. Re: the commentary concerning Mike Dunn, the Vaz trade ultimately led to the Uggla deal, imo. Dunn’s a solid young reliever, and as pointed out, without him, it’s likely we’re moving Johnny Venters.

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
12:51 pm

Mark,

After yesterday’s blog and my comment, you made a reference to Hinske’s homer in the playoffs. Thanks. :)

I’m sure it wasn’t because of me reminding you, but thanks to letting me think it was!

GO FALCONS!

Milt Famey

December 22nd, 2010
12:55 pm

Mark, You’re right about Wren. He did a fine job within his limited budget. The trade of Vazquez was prompted by that budget. It freed up money to sign Glaus and Hinske. It also provided a tradeable asset in Dunn and Vizcaino is still listed in the Braves top 10 prospects. Melky was a mediocre OF but overpaid for sure. Merry Christmas and look forward spring training.

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
1:01 pm

I also made comments about thanks to Wren for making a deal to bring back Hinske. Mark, I think we are on the same page. Any openings at the AJC? :)

Good work.

vmguru

December 22nd, 2010
1:01 pm

“the Zen of Wren in Twenty-Ten” – Great alliteration Mark – I like it. And I agree with you – Wren really has done a far better job than many of us (especially those on the AJC blogs) ever expected.

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
1:02 pm

I’ve always liked Wren. He does a superior job.

Mark Bradley

December 22nd, 2010
1:03 pm

You planted the seed, Keith. Thanks much.

Mark Bradley

December 22nd, 2010
1:04 pm

Kudos, Benjamin. And thanks.

JSS

December 22nd, 2010
1:05 pm

Only four people in Atlanta professional sports need to have been mentioned. Marynell Meadors, Kathy Betty, Rick Dudley “Doo Right!,” and Craig Ramsay all merit the collective Atlanta Sports People of the Year. If Betty owned the Falcons, they’d not have that big “?” mark hanging over their success.

The Braves are still a “collective” group of underachievers… Still I look forward to seeing how Heyward and Uggla progress in shedding the failures which taint the past Braves era…

Happy Holidays

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
1:06 pm

Wren is off to great start for 2011 season too.

JSS

December 22nd, 2010
1:11 pm

“Conrad made his third error of the most awful night any player has ever had.”
Nope, not worse than hanging sliders to either Chili Davis, Jim Leyritz, or Charlie Hayes!

Milt Famey

December 22nd, 2010
1:13 pm

Speaking of FW’s limited budget, I read his interview yesterday by DOB in which Dave asked him if he felt like the budget limited his management. Of course FW said the right things like always but he had to be thinking–’Duh,what do you think? If I had a 160M budget like the Phillies, we would have easily have won it all.’

Mark (a different one)

December 22nd, 2010
1:17 pm

Wren also appears to have thick skin and the ability to focus on the overall goal. Sometimes us fans can’t see that. Great article and I agree 100%.

I also believe Wren has done a great job setting us up for next year. Everyone has to work within a budget, and Wren doesn’t use that as an excuse. It is a fact for every business man, and at the end of the day he runs an entertainment business.

bvillebaron

December 22nd, 2010
1:19 pm

JSS:

Did you like actually watch any of the Braves’ games last year? Sure, some players like McLouth had terrible years, but as Mark chronicles in his article, the team overcame serious injuries to key players and managed to win 91 games and make the playoffs. Two years ago it had the 7th worst record in MLB. If anything last year’s team OVERACHIEVED. I also echo Mark’s comments about Wren; despite his many detractors, he has done an excellent job particularly given the budget contraints he works under.

Your Breath Smells like Fish Fry Tacos

December 22nd, 2010
1:33 pm

Hey Mark – I guess Frank’s solid year is why he is the GM and you sit behind your computer as a fish wrapper hack second guessing everything. Stick to your stories defending Cam. You are WRONG there too.

Steve

December 22nd, 2010
1:36 pm

I’m not a big Frank Wren fan but he does a decent job with the crappy ownership this team has been plagued with the last 12 or so years. I think if this team was owned by someone that didn’t view them as a “non-core asset” then they could really compete. Until they have ownership willing to spend $120-$140 million a year we will never go back to the world series.

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
1:37 pm

Just a hunch but I think Javier Vazquez is going to have a great year w/the Marlins.

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
1:38 pm

Steve did you DOB interview w/Wren about the owners? It was good.

Joe Tess Fish House

December 22nd, 2010
1:39 pm

Wren is a idot for sighing a loosing manager to repalce Bobby Cox.

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
1:39 pm

The Spirit now there is some crappy ownership.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Bradley, Joshua Taylor. Joshua Taylor said: Great article from @MarkBradleyAJC — http://bit.ly/euQbpi — he actually seems like a #Braves fan in this one [...]

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
1:40 pm

Joe you’re in the small minority on that one.

Lets Go Bravos

December 22nd, 2010
1:42 pm

MB, don’t you think it makes a GM a lot smarter to offer a $100MM contract like the Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox do? I was right on the train with you last year and thought the JV trade was one of the worst ever in Braves history. Frank Wrenn did prove that he could assemble a team with good depth on a hamstring budget and adapt at many times during the year. He also gets credit for choosing to keep Huddy and look at the year he had. D Lowe also produced big time the last month or two of the season pitching like a #1 starter when the playoffs were on the line. I still think the Braves are handicapped by the McLouth trade and centerfield could produce a 200 average again this year. At least the Braves have some good mix of young pitchers and veterans like D Lowe and Huddy and should be in good shape for a few years.

No Crying in Basketball

December 22nd, 2010
1:42 pm

You don’t mention that the biggest of the Vasquez trade was that it freed up something like $12 million in salary. Also not getting rid of D-Lowe was huge. It was a good year, and now we are headed in the right direction.

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
1:43 pm

Mark,

What do you want for Christmas? I mean besides Paul Hewitt’s head as we all want that.

lawzoo

December 22nd, 2010
1:46 pm

I met Frank Wren in Myrtle Beach in 2000 or 2001. Smart guy. Bravos are lucky to have him in today’s market(s).

stew

December 22nd, 2010
1:48 pm

At the time of the trade, Javy was probably the 4th best pitcher in the NL. That said any trade can be looked back on a year later. It was not the right move at the time. Melky stunk. Dunn’s whip was way too high. Vizcaino got hurt. Maybe, Vizcaino has an upside, But he’s still behind Teheran and Delgado. I don’t really think Gonzo, Farns, Ankiel, and Lee really made any great contributions. We rode Glaus’ month and a half into a wild card spot and actually blew a seven game lead over the Phils. Truth is we needed the last game of the year which the Phils played like an exhibition game to secure the spot. We almost blew that game as well. We were dead at the end of the year. We had many multiple error games. We couldn’t catch the ball.

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
1:48 pm

Lets Go Bravos “centerfield could produce a 200 average again this year” you could be right about that but it won’t all be McLouth. I think McLouth will only get a 4 to 5 week window to prove himself.

What does everyone else think? How long is McLouth’s leash?

Theron Sapp

December 22nd, 2010
1:55 pm

Mr. Bradley, props to you (or your headine writer) for the Tom Waits reference.

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
1:56 pm

Re: Stew

Actually, it was the right move at the time. And if you can’t judge a trade by looking back, how can you judge it then?

And the other half of your post has to do with a rash of injuries to all-stars and poor performances by players. No matter how good or bad you think wren was, no one could have influenced Conrad’s 3 errors or our bullpen letting Philly back in the last game.

GO BRAVES! :)

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
1:57 pm

Re: Ted M

Not sure about McLouth’s leash. I’d like to think he has a month to prove or we roll with another plug-in CF. However, that probably depends on how Fredi G will manage. Good question, though.

Starring Kam Fong as Chin Ho

December 22nd, 2010
1:59 pm

Herschel Talker is a pathetic blogger

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
1:59 pm

Mark,

NO problem!

I also planted a seed regarding a blog you wrote regarding how poor Sept play (and strong sept play, for that matter) doesn’t always result in a poor playoff showing…

I will take it from your silence on the issue that with the economy, AJC is not looking to hire a blog assistant. :)

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
2:01 pm

“no one could have influenced Conrad’s 3 errors or our bullpen letting Philly back in the last game.”

It was the Giants and Bobby Cox should have known his infield defense stunk. Cox should have stayed with Kimbrel he was and is a strikeout machine. You don’t have to worry about bad defense when pitcher strikeout everyone.

What??

December 22nd, 2010
2:03 pm

The Vazquez deal was made to free up salary to resign Huddy, not Glaus and Hinski. Vazquez for Huddy was a great trade.

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
2:03 pm

Kieth – My guess is McLouth’s leash will be shorter w/Fredi then w/Cox.

GW Bridge

December 22nd, 2010
2:04 pm

I am a recent transplant to Atlanta and a baseball fan – baseball, not the Yankees or Mets. In the time I have been here, it never ceases to amaze me how Braves fans are happy just being in the playoffs. In other cities, you have not had a successful season unless you win the Championship.

Are Braves fans so undemanding? Satisfied by mediocraty? Perhaps this explains why the Braves have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the last five times they made it?

Perhaps the new manager might bring a stronger desire to win and dissolve the status quo?

ET

December 22nd, 2010
2:05 pm

I see where some idiot called Wren an idiot. That has to be some kind of ironic literary conflabulation, don’t you think?

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
2:06 pm

Ted M

stew’s post: ” Truth is we needed the last game of the year which the Phils played like an exhibition game to secure the spot. We almost blew that game as well. ”

Keep up, Ted. That’s referring to the Phillies last game of the regular season. :) Did you even read the post I was responding to? hehe

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
2:07 pm

Re: Ted M

I agree with Mclouth leash.

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
2:07 pm

GW Bridge – your thoughts apply even more to Hawks then the Braves.

Ted M

December 22nd, 2010
2:10 pm

oh sorry, but I think Conrad’s only 3 error game was against the Giants. I think he had 7 errors in the week of the reg season though.

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
2:10 pm

Re: Ted M

But I’ll give you that I should have constructed 2 sentences and not lumped in the playoff reference and the last regular season reference….hehe

Keith

December 22nd, 2010
2:11 pm

Ted,

Yes, and yes!!! haha