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