The firing of Frank Wren: When contracts go bad


Sunday the Braves were eliminated from the wild-card race and pitcher Ervin Santana, who gave up five runs in five innings to the Mets, knew who to blame.

“As a pitcher, we have our confidence up, but you either have to throw a complete game shutout or something like that to get a win,” Santana said. “It’s very tough.”

Given that Santana has won 14 games despite a 3.88 ERA, it’s not run support he’s lacking. He’s low on self-awareness. (For the record Ervin, the Braves have scored 127 runs in your 30 starts, more than 4.0 per game. It’s the other guys they aren’t scoring for).

Monday the Braves aimed higher, and passed responsibility for this playoff-less season to general manager Frank Wren, the man who signed Santana to a one-year, $14 million contract this spring after pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were lost for the season.

Six months ago Wren was being lauded for committing to most of the Braves’ young nucleus — first baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, stopper Craig Kimbrel; four months ago he was applauded for signing emergency free agents Aaron Harang and Santana to replace Beachy and Medlen. Wren was someone who could act in a crisis.

Two months later, Wren is being faulted for the Braves’ 76-79 record, their worst since going 72-90 in 2008, Wren’s first season. The Braves were 14th in runs scored in the National League, ahead of only the AAA lineup the Padres put out. All Wren could do to augment the roster in midseason was add Emilio Bonifacio, who could play a lot of positions but couldn’t hit anywhere in the lineup unless a lefty was pitching.

Sometimes if you want to play with the big guys, you have to spend with them, and Santana’s signing already had the Braves about $10 million over budget.

Monday the Braves brought back Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox, reportedly no fan of Wren, and paired him with team president John Schuerholz and former Indians GM John Hart to create a search committee to find Wren’s successor.

“John Scheurholz is an unbelievable judge of talent,” third baseman Chipper Jones said when Wren was hired seven years ago.

On the field, Chipper’s right. Off the field, it was Schuerholz who groomed Wren and all but said Monday Hart could have the job if he’d just apply for it. The last search committee to come back and recommend one of its own was the one interviewing candidates to be George W. Bush’s vice presidential nominee. And look how that turned out.

Hart has a job as an MLB analyst and says he’s happy with it. It’s a smart man who knows it’s better to be the second-guesser than the second-guessed.

Wren had the misfortune to follow Schuerholz, who built the teams Cox managed into 14 straight postseaons. Wren’s team went 3-for-7 on postseasons, which isn’t bad, but isn’t Schuerholz.

As was once said about the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, you don’t want to be the coach who follows Wooden (Gene Bartow), you want to be the coach (Gene Cunningham) who follows the coach who followed Wooden.

Following Wren will be easier than following Scheurholz.

Wren’s record was mixed — one division title, two wild cards, five winning seasons, two losing ones — which the Braves implied matched his temperament.

“Beyond contracts, there have been personality clashes between Wren and some other prominent Braves officials over the years, and several valued employees from the baseball operations staff and Braves minor league system have left for other organizations in recent years,” wrote David O’Brien in his Atlanta Journal-Constiution story. “Cox, in his last three years as manager, didn’t have the same harmonious working relationship with Wren that Cox had with Schuerholz.”

Talk about a high, hard one. That almost makes the asides about Terry Francona’s marriage and alleged use of pain meds which accompanied his exit from the Red Sox sound like praise.

If the Braves wanted to explain firing Wren, they could have done so in three words and two initials: Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton.

Say no more. Of course, baseball is rarely that simple and neither is Wren’s record. He paid Derek Lowe $60 million and then paid $10 million of it for the Indians to haul Lowe away; he spent $23 million on Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami, who was 8-22 with a 4.32 ERA in 50 big-league games; and he spent $22.5 million on extending Chris Johnson through 2017, committing the Braves to a third baseman who can neither get on base (.295 on-base percentage) nor field (-1.5 defensive WAR).

Monday the Braves stopped Wren before he could spend their money again.

But Wren is also the GM who dealt for Justin Upton and wisely let the Yankees pay Brian McCann $17 million per year while the Braves pay Evan Gattis, a better catcher, about $16.5 million less, and groom Christian Bethancourt.

Yes, Wren signed Uggla and Upton, but no one was holding the Uggla contract up to ridicule when he hit 36 home runs in 2011 for the Braves or led the NL in walks with 94 in 2012. Upton’s signing was neither universally panned nor praised — he hit 28 homers and stole 32 bases in 2012, but fanned 169 times and had a .298 on-base percentage. No one complained when it landed Justin and B.J. on the cover of Sports Illustrated with model Kate Upton.

Of course, who knew Kate, whose boyfriend is Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, would connect with pitchers more than B.J. The latter hasn’t even performed up to the worst of his pre-Braves years — his .184 and .207 averages for Atlanta are career-lows, and the 20 home runs he hit in the last two seasons combined don’t equal either of the previous two single seasons.

Free-agent signings are fickle, and reviews — and this reviewer is as guilty as any — can change like a prima donna’s mood.

For all of Scheurholz’s accomplishments, the team Wren inherited had missed the playoffs two straight years and hadn’t won a series in six; it had Scott Thorman at first base, Andruw Jones slowing down in center, Chuck James, Buddy Carlyle (he’s still around, as Mets fans could tell you) and Kyle Davies in the rotation and Bob Wickham closing.

The team, if not the legacy, Wren leaves for his successor will be a lot better than the one Schuerholz left for him.

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