While Jack Zduriencik, and to a lesser extent, Ruben Amaro Jr., have been stealing headlines this offseason by wheeling, dealing, shuffling, and replenishing, Frank Wren is quietly assembling a formidable team in Turner Country.
For eight years, Wren was as an understudy to long-time Braves GM John Schuerholz, a man whose name is usually written in sentences that contain the words “genius” or “legendary.” After seventeen successful seasons as the General Manager of the Braves, Schuerholz, the architect of a team that won an unprecedented fourteen consecutive division titles under his watch, assumed the role of team president.
Wren took over then, but the club he inherited was more of a second- or third-place team in the NL East; the Braves had slowly fallen behind the Phillies and Mets in terms major league talent level, despite producing and sustaining an above-average farm system.
An injury-plagued 2008 season led to a 72-90 finish in Wren’s first year as GM. The Braves lost 14 of 18 games to the Phillies and ended the season with a record closer to that of the last-place Nationals than the Phils.
In 2009, the team fared much better, going 86-76 and winning 23 of 36 against the Phils and Mets.
But after watching the Phillies hit (and occasionally pitch) their way to two World Series berths, Wren has attempted to stockpile as much firepower as humanly possible through trades and free agency. And to make things even scarier for Philadelphians, he doesn’t seem to be finished piecing together his 2010 puzzle.
Wren got to work early by signing righthanded reliever and former Joe Torre-workhorse, Scott Proctor, to a minor-league deal. A week later, an agreement was reached that will keep Tim Hudson in Atlanta for three more seasons. On the second day of December, Billy Wagner sold himself to a third NL East employer by agreeing to a one-year pact with the Braves. And one day later, former Dodgers closer Takashi Saito signed a deal.
When the team’s 2009 closer, Rafael Soriano, agreed to arbitration, the Braves had a strange dilemma on their hands, as they all-of-the-sudden possessed a glut of late-inning relievers. Keeping Soriano and his $8M price-tag would have been difficult, so Wren shipped him off to Tampa Bay for Jesse Chavez, a righthanded reliever who pitched 67 solid innings for the Pirates in ’09 before being traded to the Rays in the offseason.
On December 11, the Braves and outfielder Matt Diaz agreed to terms, allowing the unquestionably underrated Phillie-killer to avoid arbitration.
Finally, on December 22, Wren and Yankees GM Brian Cashman worked out a trade that sent the great Javier Vazquez back to New York in exchange for outfielder Melky Cabrera. Reliever Boone Logan was also traded to New York, and pitching prospects Mike Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino went to Atlanta.
By trading Vazquez, the Braves lost an extremely effective starting pitcher who struck out ten batters per nine innings pitched in 2009, while walking only two-per-nine. Every single number Vazquez compiled last season was extraordinary (1.02 WHIP, 238 K’s in 219 innings,) as evidenced by his fourth place finish in the race for NL Cy Young. It’s difficult to call the Braves “winners” in a deal that loses them such a dominant starter, but the Vazquez trade benefits the Braves in multiple ways.
For starters, his $11.5M salary is wiped off the books. Secondly, it allows Atlanta to enter the 2010 season having a set rotation of Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, and Kenshin Kawakami. While the 2009 Phillies and Red Sox proved that you can never have enough starting pitching, the Braves had an excess at the position and used that advantage to patch up an ugly hole in the outfield.
Cabrera hit .274/.336/.416 last year with 13 homers and 68 RBI in 485 at-bats. His defense was just about middle-of-the-pack and he was worth 1.6 wins above replacement. The Braves outfield was terrible in 2009, but the addition of Cabrera solidifies it. If the outfield were to be left alone from this point forward, Cabrera would be flanked by Diaz (a player who deserves to play everyday) and Nate McClouth.
But, unfortunately, Frank Wren isn’t interested in leaving the outfield as is.
As a guest on 790 The Zone in Atlanta Tuesday, Wren dropped a few not-so-subtle hints about the Braves plans in the coming days. “There’s definitely some more things we’re doing,” he said, “We’re going to add a run-producer that’s going to round out our offense.”
Now, the “run-producer” Wren mentioned could be a guy like Adam LaRoche (re-acquired by the Braves in July of ’09,) or Marlon Byrd, but the Braves could also be players in the Jason Bay or Matt Holliday sweepstakes. Holliday will likely be too expensive for the Braves, but not Bay. He’ll get something in the vicinity of $64M over four years, meaning the Braves would only be paying a few million more in 2010 salary than they would have been with Vazquez on the team.
Bay would make much more sense with the Braves than the Mets, because the Braves appear to be headed in the right direction. Bay’s agent recently expressed the free agent outfielder’s disinterest in signing with a third-place club, which is what the 2010 Mets are looking more and more like each day.
Bay is not a superstar capable of single-handedly catapulting a team to greatness, but he is a .280/.376/.520 hitter that is projected to hit 32 homers next season. His defense is atrocious, but with all things included, he’d add about three wins to the 2010 Atlanta Braves. Considering this is the tail-end of Chipper Jones’ career, it makes sense to sign Bay and make the most of a 3-4-5 that would include the two sluggers and catcher Brian McCann.
The Atlanta bullpen was improved by the signings of Wagner and Saito, as was the outfield by trading for Cabrera. In dealing Vazquez, they gave up a surplus for a deficit, but locked themselves into a starting rotation that just about every other major league team should envy.
If Frank Wren can make one more splash by signing Jason Bay, those old foes from Atlanta could give the Phillies a run for their money in 2010, Roy Halladay or not.