Give Wren a hand for not overreacting to the Braves’ collapse

"And the award for most patient general manager goes to ... " (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

"And the award for most patient general manager goes to ... " (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

On Aug. 24, 2011, the Atlanta Braves awoke having won 78 games. Only one major-league team (Philadelphia) had won more. They led the wild-card race by 9 1/2 games with 32 remaining, and the in-house question wasn’t, “Are we going to blow this?” Instead, it was, “Can we win it all?”

Thirty-five days later, the Braves lost Game No. 162 in 13 innings and failed to qualify for the playoffs. They finished with 89 victories, having dropped 21 of those final 32. The collapse was so comprehensive that it took Frank Wren, the general manager, a few weeks just to be able to view baseball again, and his wasn’t a solitary response. Speaking with fellow Braves employees, uniformed staffers among them, he found they couldn’t watch, either.

But then it changed. By the end, Wren was watching — watching as the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that chased down the Braves, celebrated a World Series title.

“We did not play well in September,” Wren said this week, stating the obvious. “We had a really bad month.”

But now it’s a new year. Distance can’t erase what happened in September 2011, but distance has enabled Wren to see what was, to many eyes, obscured by the debris of a good season gone rotten. Yes, the Braves had a historically bad month, but that’s not the same as being a bad team.

The same Wren who has made trades hand over fist in other offseasons — and in the middle of seasons, too — has consummated only one significant deal this time, that being the sell-off of Derek Lowe to Cleveland. This absence of visible activity from a GM who tends to be hyperactive has left some Braves fans to wonder how a team-builder could fail to shore a team that failed so miserably. The answer is that Wren doesn’t believe the Braves of September were the real Braves.

Said Wren: “Once the disappointment fades, that’s the approach you have to take.”

And if the 2012 Braves do come north in April with this roster, how would Wren feel? “We’d feel like we had a chance to be an even better team than we were last year.”

We pause here for your scoffs: Team flops, team adds nobody of consequence, team expects to improve? Well, yes. The starting rotation, which lost two key men (Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson) to injury down the stretch, stands to be healthy again. The bullpen, which was the best part of the 2011 Braves, stands to be even deeper. And a man who arrived not long before last season came undone figures to have an outsize influence on 2012.

For years, Braves fans have demanded a True Leadoff Man. Wren found one, at not much cost, at the trading deadline. “Michael Bourn alone will change our offense,” Wren said. “He sets us up very well to take the current roster into the season.”

Last season the Braves’ offense stunk on ice. So long as the starting pitchers went deep into games and Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel held every lead, the wins kept coming, but when Jurrjens and Hanson went down and the overtaxed relievers began to wobble … well, that’s how you lose 21 of your final 32. A full season of Bourn — and a new hitting coach in Greg Walker — should help the offense, but Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward and Martin Prado have to hit better, too.

Wren: “People have to bounce back. [Some guys] have a lot to prove.”

For the moment, Wren sounds as content as Wren ever gets. “We don’t have to move players for financial reasons. We don’t have to make a move because we have big holes to fill.”

If Prado and Heyward return to All-Star form, the corner-outfield issue gets tabled. Shortstop is another matter, but the Braves have hopes for the rookie Tyler Pastornicky. Unless you were a huge fan of Lowe and/or the departed Alex Gonzalez, if you liked the Braves’ chances heading into last season you should like them again now.

“If everyone bounces back, we’ve got a good ballclub,” Wren said. “We don’t have a major need.”

There’s not apt to be a big trade coming this spring. (”As a practicality, that’s probably the case,” Wren said.) And here we have to salute this GM for resisting the mighty urge, in the backwash of an epic fade, to do something, anything, everything. What happened was bad, but the worst thing Wren could have done was to take one bad month as cause to wreck a team poised for a run of many good years. He didn’t. He got it right.

By Mark Bradley

252 comments Add your comment

Tom

January 19th, 2012
3:04 pm

Beg to differ with the bullpen but In Wren We Trust.

ChopAttack

January 19th, 2012
3:06 pm

Heyward is the key in 2012. If he doesn’t bounce back the Braves have some real headaches. As long as the rookie SS fields his position well the Braves can live with whatever production he offers, but the Braves need Heyward to be the guy everyone thought he would be.

Mr. Phil

January 19th, 2012
3:08 pm

good grief Bradley.I guess next we gotta give credit to rick Sund for not panicking.

Mark Bradley

January 19th, 2012
3:08 pm

Uggla has to hit, too, ChopAttack. Those are the two determinants, IMHO.

Najeh Davenpoop

January 19th, 2012
3:10 pm

Can’t give credit for not overreacting unless that decision is proven to be correct. Wait until midseason at least and see if the Braves are playing at a high level before applauding him for his decision.

ChopAttack

January 19th, 2012
3:11 pm

Without a doubt… but Uggla (despite his horrible start) did hit over 30 HR last season.

Tim

January 19th, 2012
3:12 pm

Right on Mark. I also give him credit for not having a knee jerk reaction when Philadelphia improved their bullpen and the Marlins their Bullpen, infield, and starting rotation.

Trojan

January 19th, 2012
3:14 pm

Great and timely article, Mark. Heyward must simply produce, Prado must be healthy and all of a sudden the Braves are back!

As it stand, (and I have been critical of FW) we have a good team going into spring training and we still have all of our prospects to either develop or to trade.

Good job FW.

Mark Bradley

January 19th, 2012
3:14 pm

The worst reason for doing something is because some other team just did something. The Len Barker trade was a response to the Dodgers getting Honeycutt, you might recall.

Raleigh

January 19th, 2012
3:14 pm

The problem is teams like the fish have gotten better, and the phillies have the best rotationin baseball since glavine smoltz and maddux. Braves will be great again though, just stay healthy. Go braves!

PMC

January 19th, 2012
3:15 pm

I have steadily supported Frank Wren’s handling of the team since he’s been the GM. I understand that due to their financial constraints its going to take longer to get to where they want to be as a team. I think it’s way too premature to give him credit for anything when this team has not played a single game yet and the only thing we have to go on is an abysmal hitting team and an epic September collapse.

Top Dawg

January 19th, 2012
3:17 pm

All this from a man who decided to send his sons to tech to play baseball. Hmmmmm….

megan

January 19th, 2012
3:18 pm

All I have to say is 14 years… only one world series championship…For God’s sake even Boston broke the curse of the Bambino to win 1 in since the days of the dinosaurs?

PMC

January 19th, 2012
3:18 pm

Most of the team was set last year. He dumped Derrick Lowe who was becoming more of an anchor with his salary situation. That was a big move. He kept them out of arbitration with several players probably saving money. It “should” be a pretty decent team if everyone stays healthy, but it’s still going to take luck to get these guys to produce enough runs to win enough games to get into the playoffs.

fred

January 19th, 2012
3:19 pm

I could not disagree more! We will only get worse based on our current construction. No SS, an old broken down 3B and no power in the OF. Frank Wren is either an idiot or a puppet of Liberty Media.

Gumbo

January 19th, 2012
3:19 pm

Can we give Mr. Wren a hand for under-reacting Mr. Bradley? Wow – the worst case of “homer” journalism i’ve ever seen. Good Lord, they collapsed – no offense and a shaky bullpen – and have done nothing in the offseason to remedy that, and somehow you spin that as a virtue. UGH!

S

January 19th, 2012
3:20 pm

Overreacting? They’ve done nothing. Imagine if the falcons did nothing. Funny they needed to make moves but the braves haven’t and that’s fine. No wonder this city is known as loserville in sports.

ChopAttack

January 19th, 2012
3:21 pm

The Braves had the best on base percentage in the NL in 2010 and the worst in 2011. I would expect that in 2012 that the Braves are someone between those two extremes in 2012.

Supes

January 19th, 2012
3:22 pm

Mark, where is the piece on WREN sitting back and “waiting” while EVERY OTHER team in the NL EAST (aside from the MUTS) is getting better?

OK maybe next week…

For now “Wren” is the genius who “is sitting back and waiting” :)

G

January 19th, 2012
3:25 pm

What ATL really needs is a new owner who is not a corporation and who will take a real, personal interest in the team……

eastbound and down

January 19th, 2012
3:26 pm

based on your assessment, the braves have an “if” at LF,RF and SS. Hanson’s delivery looks like a sports surgeon’s dream… we will see…

ChopAttack

January 19th, 2012
3:28 pm

Supes… the jury is out on whether those teams are better. The Braves added Uggla and on paper should have been better last season. The team took a step backward.

George Stein

January 19th, 2012
3:28 pm

I feel relatively certain Fredi will find a way to screw this team up again.

PMC

January 19th, 2012
3:30 pm

Our team is the king of oddities.

The Catcher and 2nd baseman are probably the two best hitters on the team. The outfielders have been abysmal at the plate collectively since probably the Clinton administration.

Do we have a plan for matriculation at 3B?

PMC

January 19th, 2012
3:31 pm

I should say the 2nd baseman and catcher are probably the 2 best “Power” hitters on the team. Uggla obviously doesn’t hit for average.

George Stein

January 19th, 2012
3:31 pm

Our genius manager doesn’t care about OBP, ChopAttack. He’s more into scrappyness (or scrappiness?). His dream is to manage a team of David Ecksteins.

Burned

January 19th, 2012
3:32 pm

What about the letter from Scherholtz promising the fans they (Braves FO) would not take the collapse laying down? You telling me that a new hitting coach and dropping some fat (Lowe, Mclouth, and Kawakami) is the answer? I don’t think so.

jimmya

January 19th, 2012
3:32 pm

if the season starts off like last august and sept by june its time to do some firing

Abnerish

January 19th, 2012
3:32 pm

Wren is being very optimistic with his outlook. Only time will tell if he is right or wrong. He needs a lot of things to go right for these Braves to succeed:

- Jurrjens and Hanson need to recover fully from injuries. Personally, I don’t see Hanson making it to the All-Star break and Jurrjens arm seemed to be as much of an issue as his knee. Most people seem to forget that after the break, he was barely topping out at 88mph. Perhaps the two were related, but I’ve heard that they were.

- Heyward and Prado need to rebound from disappointing seasons. Prado has more of a track record so I think that is a good bet. Heyward really hasn’t impressed since the middle of his rookie season. He has to prove he can adjust.

- The bar set for Pastornicky is pretty low, but he still must be a serviceable hitter and an above average defender. Another major question mark.

- McCann and Uggla need to be more consistent. Can O’Ventbrel perform anywhere close to last year?

Bottom line, a lot of question marks for a team that probably needs to also deal with a damaged psyche, too. I think they needed a jolt of a major acquisition to boost their confidence, but that’s just me. Then again, Manny Ramirez is still available. Come to think of it, so is Barry Bonds.

Greg

January 19th, 2012
3:35 pm

I buy what Mark says. We have good reason to believe we will be as good as we were, or a little better, at the beginning of last year. But is that enough? Our competition has been making moves to actually significantly improve. Why didn’t we work on a sure upgrade at SS? LF? Why just “hope”? Why not improve team speed? Why not buy some high-quality insurance for RF? After all, Jason may not work out! We all want him to, but maybe he’s going to go bust. It wouldn’t be the first time in baseball, you know.

ChopAttack

January 19th, 2012
3:36 pm

I don’t think there’s a damaged psyche. When your two best pitchers are lost for 1/2 the season that’s what happens. The Braves had very little room for error since they were a terrible hitting team.

ChopAttack

January 19th, 2012
3:36 pm

btw… anyone who blames Fredi doesn’t know anything about baseball.

George Stein

January 19th, 2012
3:40 pm

I think I know a little bit and Fredi was culpable for a lot of things, ChopAttack. I can point to his abuse of his bullpen, his inability to set a lineup, his obsession with bunting… Shall I continue?

Cecil34

January 19th, 2012
3:40 pm

OK, Mark, we will see which way the wind is blowing when we see a whole bunch of Braves’ fans camouflaged as empty seats next season.

If that occurs, then their opinion of Wren and the organization will differ from yours.

If this team is several games under .500 by the first of June, then you might want to re-visit this column.

We shall see!

STRETCH

January 19th, 2012
3:42 pm

So….basically the same team that depended so much on the pitching to carry them?

On offense that didnt know how to do the simple things like bunt and move runners over?

A team that was 26th in the league in batting avg and slugging? LOL!!!

PMC

January 19th, 2012
3:42 pm

The new CF has already improved team speed. Pastornicky improved team speed. The OBP was much better collectively the year before last. A fresh approach from a somewhat proven hitting coach and not whatever they had last year should help. Not to mention CF is not a black hole and the leadoff hitter is somewhat proven.

Tha Real Brave

January 19th, 2012
3:43 pm

So when we miss the playoffs again this year then what?

Abnerish

January 19th, 2012
3:44 pm

We’ll see about the damaged psyche. It seemed in September that they found new and exciting ways to lose every time out. Almost like they were expecting to lose. 2010 was completely different. That team knew they were in every game, no matter the situation.

No excuse not to trade JJ

January 19th, 2012
3:45 pm

Braves were fine to not do much but there was no reason to not trade JJ.

Very clear Braves vastly overvalued JJ. Minor already projects better than JJ and Teheran would very likely equal his production, but the Braves overreached trying to get a Greinke deal when JJ is nowhere close to as good. ERA is one of the worst ways to judge a starting pitcher because it fails to take into account too many things like fortunate batting average on balls in play. Most clubs have moved into a new age of better analytics and weren’t taken with the con.

Braves has a great chance to replenish their farm and deal away a growing cost that doesn’t add much value to their team but failed because they don’t understand his true worth. Braves need to desperately modernize their player evaluation or they will never maximize their team.

George Stein

January 19th, 2012
3:46 pm

I think a lot of Bourne’s value is on the defensive side, PMC. He certainly had a nice year hitting last year, and I hope he replicates it. But our defense was brutal out there with McLouth (when healthy).

Stinger

January 19th, 2012
3:47 pm

This article is a good job of kissing up to Wren….Give him credit for doing nothing…awesome.

George Stein

January 19th, 2012
3:48 pm

Very rational post, No excuse. I agree completely. They have a position of depth – pitching – and a lack of hitting on the major league level. There was no reason not to make move, assuming they could have gotten a reasonable return.

Puma

January 19th, 2012
3:49 pm

If Prado and Heyward return to form, we will be fine, if not, we are f****. I am pretty sure Prado will be fine, Heyward…I don’t know, he seems a little messed up confidence wise.

I am a little worried about the rotation though. The reason the bullpen broke down was because most of our guys never got past the 5-6 innings, with the exception of Hudson. Those younger guys, Hanson and JJ in particular, need to start pitching into and past the 7th innings. But I am much happier to be handing the ball to Medlin and Vizcaino in the 6th than Proctor or Linebrink, that’s fo sure.

PMC

January 19th, 2012
3:51 pm

Not having McClouth in CF is one big reason for positivity. Here’s hoping Bourne can save some runs at least in part the way Andrew used to do.

Puma

January 19th, 2012
3:53 pm

Also – those saying we should have traded JJ have no idea what kind of return we may have gotten. If he can somewhat replicate what he did in the first half of last year, he will be worth much more around all star break than now. If not, I do not think we will get anything less than we could now.

dawg tired

January 19th, 2012
3:54 pm

Other teams have worked to get better. What have we done lately? Gotten older?

Ryan

January 19th, 2012
3:54 pm

Most importatnly, if the starting pitchers start landing on the DL, their young replacements gained valuable experience last year and should be ready to perform.

rpidge

January 19th, 2012
3:55 pm

What a joke. If this team doesn’t pick up two more bats with one being an outfielder then the Braves will finish behind the Phillies, the Nationals and the Marlins (not necessarily in this order) at the end of the 2012 season. You can take that to the bank. Also, you are not going to get more than 120 games from Chipper, if that. If Wren thinks a tweak is all we need, he needs to have someone remove the blinders.

John in Atlanta

January 19th, 2012
3:56 pm

“If Prado and Heyward return to All-Star form”…
“If everyone bounces back,…”
Don’t forget “If maybe’s and buts were candy and nuts, what a great world this would be!”
No answers to the problems, just cross your fingers and hope for improvement. What a great management style! How do you get that job, or better still, how do you get to keep it????

Kelly

January 19th, 2012
3:58 pm

Oh…so the Sept. Braves weren’t the “real” Braves. Who would that have been…the Braves that played before the All Star break?

This is a bad excuse and crappy ownership.