The Braves fired general manager Frank Wren on Monday, marking the first time that one of baseball’s most stable organizations has fired a GM or manager in nearly a quarter of a century.
Wren, in his seventh season as GM, was fired one day after the Braves were eliminated from the National League wild-card race with their eighth loss in nine games. Former Indians and Rangers general manager John Hart, a Braves senior advisor, was named interim GM.
Fredi Gonzalez, who has also drawn much criticism from fans during the second September collapse in his four seasons as manager, was spared the ax, at least for now while a search for a new GM is underway. At a minimum, there are expected to be several changes made to Gonzalez’s coaching staff.
Wren, 56, was in his 15th season in the Braves organization, including eight as an assistant to legendary former general manager John Schuerholz, whom he replaced after Schuerholz moved to his current team president post following the 2007 season. Wren was fired from his previous major league GM position with the Baltimore after one season.
Hart, who was hired by the Braves as an advisor in November, will handle GM duties until a permanent replacement is hired. The Braves formed a three-person transition team of Schuerholz, Hart and longtime former manager Bobby Cox to conduct the search for a permanent GM.
Hart, 66, also works as an analyst with MLB Network and isn’t believed to have interest in returning to a GM position.
Wren got a contract extension of unspecified length during spring training. It was believed to have been for two years.
The Braves offense has struggled mightily with the roster Wren assembled, including too many swing-and-miss hitters who don’t seem interested in changing their approach in situations that demand it, regardless of their hitting coaches’ suggestions.
With a 4-14 record in September, the Braves have plummeted to 75-78, a year after winning 96 games and the NL East title. They now sit a stunning 15 games behind Washington, which clinched the NL East title last week at Turner Field, and only a half-game ahead of the third-place Mets. The Braves were a half-game behind the Nationals on July 29.
Some Braves officials have said the team suffered from a lack of veteran leadership, after failing to acquire any players with personalities like recent Braves veterans David Ross, Eric Hinske, Martin Prado, Tim Hudson and Chipper Jones, guys willing to step up and call a team meeting if necessary, or to straighten out a situation with another player individually behind closed doors.
As Braves GM, Wren was credited with making several highly successful trades, waiver claims and under-the-radar free agent signings. However, his biggest-ticket moves have been major disappointments: He signed center fielder B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract that was the largest free-agent deal in team history; gave Dan Uggla a five-year, $62 million contract extension before the second baseman had ever played an inning for Atlanta; and signed Derek Lowe to a four-year, $60 million contract after the Braves were spurned by other free-agent pitchers earlier that winter.
The Braves agreed to pay $10 million of the $15 million in the last year of Lowe’s contract as part of the trade that sent him to Cleveland, and they ate about $19 million of Uggla’s contract when they released him this year at midseason with 1 ½ seasons left on the deal. Upton has been one of baseball’s worst hitters for two seasons with the Braves, and they’ll try to dump him this winter even if it means eating much of the approximate $46 million left on his contract.
Wren also signed pitcher Kenshin Kawakami to a three-year, $23 million deal. The Braves got an 8-22 record from him in two seasons before banishing him to Double-A for the final year of his contract after Kawakami refused a trade to a Japanese team.
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. Cox, in his last three years as manager, didn’t have the same harmonious working relationship with Wren that Cox had with Schuerholz.
Wren is the first Braves GM to be fired since John Mullen, who was dismissed after the 1985 season and not long after giving reliever Bruce Sutter what was then the richest contract in baseball history. Sutter soon got injured, the Braves’ went sour, and frustrated owner Ted Turner turned the GM reins over to Cox after the ’85 season.
The last Braves manager fired was Russ Nixon, on June 22, 1990. He was replaced by Cox, who would hold both GM and managerial duties for the rest of that season, until the Braves hired Schuerholz away from the Royals. Schuerholz and Cox would go on to make history as a GM/manager duo, winning 14 consecutive division titles (and one World Series) through 2005.
Wren replaced Schuerholz in October 2007, and Gonzalez replaced Cox after the iconic manager retired following the 2010 season.
Wren spent one season as Orioles general manager, sandwiched between his eight-year stints as assistant GM with the Marlins under Dave Dombrowski through 1998, and with the Braves under Schuerholz.
Wren’s coaching hires have produced a mixed bag of results. Roger McDowell, one of baseball’s best pitching coaches in his nine seasons with the Braves, was hired by previous GM Schuerholz, also the one who intervened last winter to keep McDowell from jumping to the Phillies.
Wren removed Terry Pendleton from the hitting-coach position and shifted him to first-base coach after the 2010 season, replacing him with Larry Parrish. The Braves went from first in the National League in on-base percentage (.339) and fifth in runs (738) under Pendleton in 2010 to 14th in OBP and 10th in runs (641) in 2011 under Parrish, with almost the same lineup.
Parrish lasted one season before he was replaced by the tandem of hitting coach Greg Walker and assistant Scott Fletcher. The Braves finished seventh in the league in OBP in 2012 and were fourth in 2013, the year they also led the league in home runs and were fourth in runs. But Braves hitters collectively took big steps backward this season, and the team is ranked 10th in the NL in OBP, next-to-last in runs and 12th in homers, despite bringing back every key hitter from 2012 except Brian McCann.
Since Wren took over after the 2007 season, the Braves are seventh in the majors in regular-season wins with 604, topped by the Yankees (643), Angels (626), Cardinals (625), Rays (625), Phillies (609) and Dodgers (607). All but the Rays have spent considerably more money on payrolls in that span than the Braves, whose payroll has usually been a modest $84 million to $90 million during Wren’s tenure, ranked 15th or 16th among major league payrolls most seasons in that span.
The Braves raised their planned payroll limit to $100 million this year, then allowed Wren to go well over that to close to $110 million in order to sign starting pitcher Ervin Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million contract during spring training, after starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy both had season-ending elbow injuries on consecutive days in Grapefruit League games.
All six teams ahead of the Braves in regular-season wins during Wren’s tenure have also won at least one playoff series in that period, with all but the Angels having won two or more postseason series. The Braves last won a postseason series in 2001, and in Wren’s seven seasons they’ve only advanced to the postseason three times, losing division series in 2010 and 2013 and losing in the Wild Card game in 2012.
Following their unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles through 2005, the Braves failed to advance to the postseason in each of Schuerholz’s final two seasons as GM and in Wren’s first two seasons in 2008-2009, then made it in as a wild card in 2010 and lost to the Giants in the first round.
Wren, an Ohio native, was former Montreal Expos minor league outfielder who reached the Double-A level before his career was ended by injury. Went on to coach in the Expos minor league system before becoming a scout and working his way up to director of Latin American scouting.
Wren’s brother, Jeff, is a Braves major league scout and special assistant to the GM.
Wren’s three sons include Kyle, 23, a Braves center-field prospect and former Georgia Tech standout honored at Turner Field this weekend as the high-Single A Lynchburg Player of the Year. Kyle Wren split the season between Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi and batted .290 with a .350 on-base percentage in 132 games, with eight triples and 46 stolen bases in 60 attempts.
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