Frank Wren, the general manager who was fired Sept. 22, 2014, and whose works the Braves have moved heaven and earth to undo, is widely considered the leading candidate to become GM of the Red Sox, one of the sport’s flagship clubs. Weird, huh?
In a personal sense, not really. Dave Dombrowski was just named Boston’s president of baseball operations. Wren worked with Dombrowski in Montreal and Miami. They’re pals. But would Wren-to-Fenway, even as a No. 2 man, make baseball sense?
In the 11 months since Wren was — to use the Braves’ cold-blooded word — “terminated,” the team has purged itself of nearly everyone valued by the previous GM. Only four of the players on this 25-man roster worked in the majors under Wren. Players once regarded as future fixtures — from Tommy La Stella to Christian Bethancourt to Jose Peraza to Alex Wood — have been traded or demoted. Wren’s brother Jeff, a scout, was fired. His son Kyle, a minor-leaguer, was traded.
Since the day of his firing, Wren has made no public comment about the Braves. He declined again Friday. He still lives in Peachtree City. He’s still being by paid by his corporate terminators.
Around the neo-Braves, Wren defenders are scarce. When his name is mentioned, it’s usually in the context of “good riddance.” Some of the plaints are beyond dispute: The contracts given Dan Uggla and Melvin Upton Jr. and Chris Johnson were awful; the farm system had indeed slipped, and Wren could be difficult to please. But here we ask: Did any or all of the above make him a lousy general manager?
Every GM has an awful contract on his balance sheet. Brian Sabean won three World Series in five years with the Giants; he also signed Barry Zito for $126 million over seven seasons. Theo Epstein won two World Series with the Red Sox; he also paid $103 million to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka. (And you thought Wren giving Kenshin Kawakami $23 million was bad.)
And yet: The 2013 Braves, who got next to nothing from their two highest-salaried players, won 96 games and the National League East. Could a poorly constructed team have done that?
From 2010 through 2014, Sabean’s Giants won 436 regular-season games. Wren’s Braves won 449. Each team made the playoffs three times. The Giants won it all whenever they got there; Wren’s Braves were gone in one round or one game. But which is the test of a GM — a six-month season or a four-week postseason?
Bigger question: Does a team ever win for long in spite of its architect? Ben Cherington’s Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, but finished last in 2012 and 2014 and are last again now. (Cherington resigned despite Dombrowski’s overture to stay.) Wren’s Braves went five years between losing seasons.
As for farm systems: They’re cyclical entities. Gifted minor-leaguers reach the majors and the parent club starts to win and winds up drafting lower. In 2013, Keith Law of ESPN Insider rated the Cardinals’ farm system No. 1; this January, Law ranked it No. 13. According to Baseball America, the Braves’ top five prospects in 2010 were Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Craig Kimbrel. Nobody was griping then.
As for Wren as a boss: I don’t doubt he was demanding, but it must be noted that he inherited a front office hired by John Schuerholz, who was silk to Wren’s flint. Some legacy employees mightn’t have cottoned to new and different management. (It’s also true that, in 1999, Wren was dumped by the Orioles after one year as GM.)
I won’t go so far as to say the Braves would have been better served keeping Wren. Even as I wonder if such sweeping rebuilding was absolutely necessary, I’m impressed by the way John Hart and John Coppolella have gone about it. But here’s one thing I do know: Had Wren had been in place, this bullpen wouldn’t have reeked.
Over his final six seasons as GM, the Braves ranked sixth, third, first, second, first and 11th in relievers’ ERA. These Braves rank 25th. As fate would have it, the Red Sox rank 26th. Were I Dombrowski, I’d hire Wren and say, “Frank, build me a monster bullpen.”