When Frank Wren assumed the role of master puppeteer in the fall of 2007, the Braves were coming off a season with a starting lineup that, in hindsight, now resembles some odd-looking creature sitting in a corner of Ripley’s.
Pencils ready? Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira/Scott Thorman, Kelly Johnson, Edgar Renteria/Yunel Escobar, Chipper Jones, Matt Diaz/Willie Harris-Andruw Jones-Jeff Francoeur. Starting behind John Smoltz and Tim Hudson: Chuck James, Buddy Carlyle, Kyle Davies. Closer: Bob Wickman. (Aaaggh! Sorry, reflex action.)
This was going to take a little bit of work.
“I think we all knew what was coming,” Wren said in reflection. “When John (Schuerholz) gave me the GM’s job, it came on the heels of a lot of talks that we had about the roster. We knew the core of the team was getting older, and we had to make some changes. The goal was to get younger and more athletic. This is really the first time in five years that we’ve been able to achieve that.”
The Braves officially unveil their new lineup in Monday night’s season opener against Philadelphia. For the first time since taking over in 2007, Wren has a roster that he had hoped for and envisioned.
Now he exhales.
Or maybe holds the breath.
This has the potential to be either the start of a great run for an organization that hasn’t won a playoff series in the past 11 years, or a stretch of seasons where Wren slaps himself on the forehead and thinks, “I’m stuck.”
It’s spring. Nobody has lost a game yet. So we will begin with lollipops and daffodils. The young core that Wren alluded to — Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton and B.J. Upton — is as good, if not superior, than any team in the major leagues. They will homer. They will drive in runs. They will run, steal bases and defend (possibly like no outfield this city has ever seen).
At any point, in any game, against any opponent or pitcher, those five players can do something to change a game. That’s rare. If there was a sabermetric known as “wow factor,” the Braves would dominate.
Now let’s put down the lollipop. This is where the stomach churns a little.
Wren has done a pretty good job making over the roster and keeping the Braves competitive despite the payroll mandates from a corporate owner. He dealt with some blubbery contracts (Kenshin Kawakami, Derek Lowe, Mike Hampton). Those are gone (save Dan Uggla’s).
But the money has been spent again.
B.J. Upton’s new contract: five years, $75.25 million. The remainder of Justin Upton’s contract: three years, $38.5 million. The remainder of Uggla’s deal: three years, $39 million. (Uggla’s original deal totaled $62 million. So far, think: a pretty one-acre lot with contaminated soil.)
There is a lot to like about the future. So many of the Braves’ key players are young and cheap: Heyward, Freeman, Simmons, Kris Medlen, Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran. But we’ve seen how even a few financial albatrosses can handcuff a team.
Wren acknowledged he felt some trepidation after the offseason deals for the two Uptons. He realized he was at the finish line. Also, there was a black hole at third base left by Chipper Jones.
“I had that feeling going into the spring,” he said. “I think it’s a natural when you’re putting a team together, but as I began to watch us in the spring, the uncertainty started to leave and the excitement came in. That’s where I am now.”
What excites him most?
“What jumps out is just how many players we have who can impact the game,” he said. “We have players up and down the lineup who other teams will have to think about. We haven’t had that depth here for years. We just didn’t have as many top performers.”
That’s the way it looks on paper, anyway.
If it helps the Braves’ cause, many still believe Washington is the team to beat — in the division, the league and the World Series. That’s understandable. The Braves have lost the benefit of the doubt, but Wren is OK with that.
“You either like your club or you don’t, and we like ours,” he said. “And in a lot of ways, I prefer to be in a division with somebody who’s picked to win the World Series. It allows you to just put your head down and charge ahead without that expectation.”
The Braves’ makeover is complete. Get used to the view because it’s not going to change for a while. But if Wren has guessed correctly, you won’t want to look away.
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