In this era of complex baseball economics, the job of major league general manager can be daunting enough. Following a legend such as John Schuerholz, maybe the game’s best executive since Branch Rickey, only adds to the pressure. But trying to retool a rapidly aging club without the benefit of a hefty payroll and without selling off the future or conceding the present has made Frank Wren’s job perhaps the most difficult in all of baseball.
Much ado has been made of this weekend home series against the Florida Marlins, and with some justification. The two teams entered the series deadlocked in a second-place tie in the National League East and third in the NL wildcard race. To lose the series would make reaching the playoffs a bit more imposing.
Even if the Braves fall short of the playoffs for the third straight season, it’s time to recognize what an exceptional job Wren has done. Wren has been criticized, chastised and called out in his 22 months on the job.
But when the time comes for those who vote on postseason awards, there’s no more deserving candidate than Wren for Executive of the Year. Here’s the bottom line. The Braves’ current 25-man roster includes eight players obtained since the end of last season and three who had never played in the big leagues. And that doesn’t count Nate McClouth, a midseason pickup who’s on the disabled list.
You could make a strong case for Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher who has rebuilt the Texas Rangers in a playoff contender. Their challenges have been almost opposite. Ryan had to create an expectation of winning; Wren had to manage it.
Consider the case for Wren. This has been a two-year process that began a mere 18 days after his promotion in October 2007. Wren traded Edgar Renteria, a productive shortstop, to Detroit for Jair Jurrjens, who has quietly developed into one of the best young starters in baseball.
Five weeks later, Wren traded a promising pitcher, Jose Ascanio, to the Cubs for a lefty specialist, Will Ohmann. But Wren refused to make the deal until the Cubs parted with a utility infielder, Omar Infante. Ohmann left after a serviceable year, but Infante has been all but indispensable.
The biggest blight on his first year was gambling on an aging starting rotation that included the return of Tom Glavine, reunited with John Smoltz, paired with the seemingly perpetually injured Mike Hampton. That gamble backfired, and Wren vowed not to repeat that mistake.
Now to the offseason of 2008-09. Wren refused to dive into the free agent frenzy or trade precious prospects — most notably Tommy Hanson — for a quick fix. Players Wren had targeted went either elsewhere (A.J. Burnett to the Yankees, Ken Griffey Jr. back to Seattle) or nowhere (Jake Peavy and Rafael Furcal staying with the Padres and Dodgers).
When efforts to land Peavy or Burnett failed, Wren traded Tyler Flowers, a promising catcher whose path to the big leagues was blocked by Brian McCann, to the White Sox for Javier Vazquez. A month later, Wren signed Japanese star Kenshin Kawakami and Derek Lowe to flesh out the starting rotation.
In sum, Wren added three starting pitchers and gave up just one top-level prospect in the process. Later, when he was rebuffed first by Furcal and then by Griffey, Wren added Garret Anderson, who has been better than Griffey and nearly as productive as Furcal.
Obtaining McClouth from the Pirates in June was close to larceny. Trading Jeff Francoeur to the Mets for Ryan Church has paid off for both clubs. Francoeur seems rejuvenated by the trade. Church has proved more than adequate in center.
Wren’s latest move — dealing Casey Kotchman to Boston for Adam LaRoche — seemed puzzling. Kotchman was the Braves’ hottest hitter. But LaRoche has been even hotter since, validating Wren’s hunch that LaRoche’s history as a second-half player would hold true.
If the Braves do reach the playoffs, they will do so with 11 players acquired by Wren. The near future looks even brighter with the development of Hanson and outfielder Jason Heyward, all accomplished on a payroll that affords them room to fill another hole or two.
Contact Guerry Clegg at email@example.com