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