When the Braves extended the contracts of general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez before this season, they chose not to disclose the length of the deals. In Wren’s words, “We didn’t want that to be the story, whether now or in the future. We’re not the story. The story is right there on the field with the players.”
There’s some truth there regarding the players’ role, but Wren’s comments also were incredibly naive.
Franchise builders and coaches are always a story. They make decisions that directly impact the product. When teams win, builders and coaches stand center stage and bask in the adulation, and they should. When teams lose, they get fired, and they should.
Wren doesn’t bat for Dan Uggla or B.J. Upton, who too often have been at the intersection of .200 and $13 million. But he brought them here. So welcome to the story.
With that, this seems like a good time to look at the three general managers of Atlanta’s major pro sports teams and pose the question: Who has the most difficult job today: Wren, Thomas Dimitroff of the Falcons or Danny Ferry of the Hawks? All face unique challenges and are at different stages of the building process.
Here’s my ranking on their current job difficulty:
He has less roster flexibility than the other two because of the fat contracts he handed out. He committed to a core that hasn’t produced a postseason series win, and there’s not a lot happening to suggest this October will be different.
Uggla might soon be released, even though he still has about $20 million and 17 months left on a five-year deal. Rookie Tommy La Stella is the starting second baseman, and Uggla, in a rare start at Arizona the other night, was 0-for-4 with two errors. What does it say that the biggest move Wren can make is cut an expensive mistake?
He maintains, “There are always things you can do,” to fix a team. But if you look at the Braves’ lineup, he seems pretty locked in. Players generally fit into one of two categories: They’re deemed either too valuable to trade or not considered valuable enough in the trade market to return a great asset.
Wren is in his seventh season since taking over for John Schuerholz. He has completely remade the roster to his liking and hired Bobby Cox’s replacement. But in the postseason, he’s 0-for-3 in series and 2-for-9 in games. Roster improvement is needed, but that’s going to be difficult before the winter.
His job just got tougher. Sean Weatherspoon was one of the defense’s most important players, and the news Tuesday night that he has been lost for the season with a torn Achilles means Dimitroff must try to find an adequate replacement. It’s June — good luck.
Dimitroff inherited probably the most difficult job in the NFL in 2008. The Falcons were coming off a 4-12 season, Hurricane Petrino and all of the wreckage associated with Michael Vick. They never previously had consecutive winning seasons and had made the playoffs only eight times in their 42 seasons.
Dimitroff’s first five seasons: all winning records and four playoff berths. But he and coach Mike Smith are 1-4 in the playoffs and coming off a 4-12 season (helped by a calamitous string of injuries). Owner Arthur Blank gave Dimitroff and Smith one-year extensions in January. He gave team president Rich McKay, who oversees the new stadium project, a four-year deal. Read into that what you will.
Dimitroff overhauled the franchise in his first two to three years. The question is whether he and Smith can take the Falcons to the next step. They fired offensive and defensive line coaches (again). They spent most of free agency and the draft trying to improve the lines. If protection, run blocking and the pass rush don’t improve, it’s either on him for personnel decisions or on Smith for direction.
Dimitroff’s two biggest leaps need to pay off: quarterback Matt Ryan, who signed a six-year, $113.75 million extension, and Julio Jones, who needs to stay healthy, given he’s the team’s next best player and Dimitroff gave up so much for him. Success this season means Jones staying healthy and the Falcons winning in the playoffs. If those two things don’t happen, there’s a chance that somebody will pay the price.
Ferry is similar to Dimitroff in that his most difficult work was done in the first two years. Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Josh Smith are gone. Coach Mike Budenholzer looks like a smart hire.
Ferry has managed to change the team’s identity in a short amount of time and begun to change the narrative from, “They’ll never win with that ownership,” to, “They’re kind of fun to watch.”
His next challenge: elevating the Hawks to serious contenders. That’s not easy, but Ferry is in better situations than most general managers. He has salary space, movable contracts and a franchise that suddenly doesn’t project as a nuclear-waste dump. Jeff Teague looks like a point guard to build around, and the roster has unselfish players.
Ferry has a number of options. Wren, not as many.
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