One of the most impossible jobs in sports is following a legend. Frank Wren has been around baseball long enough to understand that, for he began his career as an outfielder in the Montreal Expos’ farm system in 1977. However, Wren has willingly put himself into that position this season. Wren is in his first year as the Atlanta Braves‘ general manager, taking over for the legendary John Schuerholz, who took on the role of club president last October. Wren, who spent seven years as Schuerholz’s assistant, is replacing a man who has 16 division titles, six league championships, and two World Series crowns to his credit in 27 years as a GM with the Kansas City Royals and Braves. Yet, Wren does not feel any trepidation in following Schuerholz. In fact, he is in a comfort zone.
“I didn’t think twice when John asked me if I would be interested,” Wren said. “Normally, you might step back and give pause about replacing someone as great as John. However, we’ve worked together so long and have the same ideas about how to run a baseball operation that it just seemed like the logical step to take. There was no reason to hesitate. I’m an extension of John and I just want to continue on the great legacy he left as GM.”
This is Wren’s second GM job, as he also served in that role in 1999 with the Baltimore Orioles. However, Wren left Baltimore after one year because he was given little autonomy to make baseball decisions with the ultra-involved Peter Angelos running the show from the owner’s box.
“That was such a different situation than I’m in now,” Wren said. “It was a great learning experience but it is also tough to walk into an organization where you don’t know anyone. It’s hard to know who to trust. Not so much from a standpoint of trusting them as people, but trusting their baseball judgment and learning whose evaluations you should rely on. “This is completely different. We’ve been a team in this front office for a long time. We all know each other and trust each other. It’s as seamless a transition as you can make.”
That is not to say Wren’s charge is easy. The Braves’ magical run of 14 straight National League East titles ended two years ago and the postseason is no longer automatically on the schedule in Atlanta. Wren also isn’t able to spend as freely as Scheurholz once did, as Time Warner began running the Braves more like a business than a hobby after the conglomerate bought the team from Ted Turner. The Braves changed hands again last year, and Liberty Media, too, has a closer eye on the bottom line.
Further complicating matters for the Braves is that the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies have increased their payrolls in recent years. Those increases have paid off, with the Mets winning the NL East in 2006 and the Phillies capturing the division crown in 2007. The Washington Nationals have more revenue now that Nationals Park has opened, and the Florida Marlins are finally supposed to get their new ballpark in Miami in the early part of the next decade.
“The division has gotten a lot better,” Wren said. “It hasn’t been easy for us the last couple of years and it’s been very tough to sit at home in October and watch other teams play post-season games. But we’re still the Atlanta Braves and we have a lot of pride. We’re not in this just to try to get better this year. Our objective is still to win.”
Sensational pitching was the Braves’ hallmark throughout nearly their entire run of division titles, but they ranked sixth in the NL in runs allowed last year, giving up 4.52 a game while finishing 84-78. Wren would like to get the Braves pitching staff back to where it once was. “One of the things we’ve gotten away from, for a variety of reasons, is having that pipeline of good young pitching coming through our organization,” Wren said. “We have some good veteran starters that we feel will enable us to contend this year. Hopefully, they will all stay here and be productive for years to come, but, at some point, they are going to have to be replaced, and we are starting to add pitching depth in our farm system again.”
The top five prospects in the Braves’ system, as ranked by BP’s Kevin Goldstein, are all position players. However, pitchers make up five of the final six spots in the organizational top 11, starting with Jair Jurrjens at No. 6 and followed by Julio Teheran at No. 7, Tommy Hanson at No. 8, and left-handers Cole Rohrbaugh at No. 9 and Jeff Locke at No. 11.
Jurrjens, acquired from Detroit in the Edgar Renteria trade during the offseason, will make his Braves’ debut Wednesday night when he faces the Pittsburgh Pirates at Turner Field. The Curacao native will attempt to help the Braves notch their first victory of the season after two defeats. Scouts who saw Jurrjens in spring training raved about him. “We’re very excited about what Jair can do for us,” Wren said. “It wasn’t an easy decision to trade someone like Edgar Renteria but we felt it was something we had to do because we really wanted Jurrjens.”
Jurrjens is the one youngster in a rotation that includes four veterans, in right-handers Tim Hudson and John Smoltz (who both had a WARP of 6.7 last season) and left-handers Tom Glavine (3.6)–who returns to the Braves this season after a five-year tour with the Mets–and Mike Hampton, who returns to the mound Thursday night against the Pirates after missing two straight seasons with injuries.
While Rafael Soriano (3.7 WXRL last season) is back as the closer and Peter Moylan (3.0) returns as the set-up man, the back-end of the bullpen could be a problem this season. That was evidenced on Monday night, when the Pirates scored 10 runs off Braves relievers in a 12-11, 12 inning win. Renteria (.306 EqA last season) has been replaced at shortstop by Yunel Escobar (.298), and the Braves are taking a flyer on Mark Kotsay (.212) in hopes that he is over his back problems. Atlanta acquired Kotsay from Oakland to replace Andruw Jones (.259), who left for the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent, in center field.
However, the rest of the Braves’ lineup is the same as the one that averaged 5.00 runs a game last season to rank third in the NL: third baseman Chipper Jones (.348), first baseman Mark Teixeira (.343 with Atlanta), second baseman Kelly Johnson (.294), left fielder Matt Diaz (.302), catcher Brian McCann (.270), and right fielder Jeff Francouer (.276).
The always-optimistic Bobby Cox is excited about the Braves’ chances this year. In fact, after openly talking about retirement last season, the 66-year-old future Hall of Fame manager has shelved that idea. “I get excited at the start of every season and I’m as excited about this year’s club as I’ve ever been,” Cox said. “I like this team a lot. I think it has a chance to be pretty special. I really do.”