Wren created Braves’ problems, he needs to fix them

The Braves had a lot of good stories this season. They had Evan Gattis, who not long ago was living out of his car. They had a trade throw-in (Chris Johnson) almost win a batting title, a last-resort success story as a leadoff hitter (Jason Heyward) and an unexpected collection of reclamation projects and rookies.

Those kinds of feel-good stories are wonderful window dressing for a baseball season. But they seldom have a carryover to the next season. They’re not a part of a team’s foundation, which ultimately defines a franchise’s success. Which leads to the Braves’ problems: They have too much salary committed to players who were supposed to be a part of that foundation, and that’s going to make improvement problematic moving forward.

That falls on general manager Frank Wren.

Wren has completely overhauled this team over the past six years. In some areas, he and his scouting staff have excelled: player development, rebuilding the pitching staff and making the most of low-level trades and low-budget waiver pickups. But the mistakes have been major, the kind that handcuffs a team at a time of free agency and trade deadlines. Wren gave major deals to pitchers Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami, and both blew up. (Lowe was adequate, but not nearly to the level of his four-year, $60 million contract and ultimately was paid to go away.).

The current financial anchors are second baseman Dan Uggla and center fielder B.J. Upton, and, to a lesser degree, outfielder Justin Upton. Consider the three whopper salaries on the books for next season:

Justin Upton: $14.25 million in 2014; $14.5 million in 2015. He was the final out (strikeout) in Monday's 4-3 deciding playoff loss to Los Angeles. Despite 27 homers this season, he hit a disappointing .263 (15 points below his career average), .243 with runners in scoring position and a career-high 161 strikeouts.

B.J. Upton: $13.45 million in 2014, second year of a five-year, $75.25 million money pit. He hit .184 this season, .108 with runners in scoring position and struck out 151 times. (That's 18 short of his career high, but he had 187 fewer plate appearances than last season.) He lost his starting job, which generally is not part of the plan when a guy receives the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history. Upton's three playoff at-bats: three strikeouts.

Uggla: $13 million for each of two more seasons. He has hit .213 in the first three years of a five-year, $62 million deal. This season Uggla hit .179 and .137 with runners in scoring position, with a team-high 171 strikeouts. He lost his starting job. Manager Fredi Gonzalez was so fed up that he left Uggla off the playoff roster, even though the only other two options at second base were Elliot Johnson (waived by Kansas City) and Paul Janish (minor-league call-up).

These are mistakes with lasting ramifications. These are mistakes that prevent that conceivably could prevent the Braves from adding a legitimate No. 1 starting pitcher (a veteran is needed for a young staff). The 2014 salaries of Upton, Upton and Uggla combine for $40.7 million, which is 45 percent of a projected $90 million payroll.

Even if Wren convinces another team to take Uggla, the Braves likely would have to pay most of the $26.4 million he’s owed.

This is not a team that can afford to carry a lot of “dead money.” Liberty Media, the franchise’s faceless owner has made that clear.

It gets worse. The Braves have a dozen players headed for arbitration. Among those who will get big raises in their first year of eligibility are closer Craig Kimbrel, MVP candidate Freddie Freeman and starter Brandon Beachy, as well as Kris Medlen, Jason Heyward and Chris Johnson.

There’s no room to add salary. The situation created by Wren almost certainly will force the club to say goodbye to Brian McCann, an impending free agent. That’s a shame. He should be kept. He is one of the few leaders this team has. The contract situation has worn on him, even if he never made it an issue.

A lot of assumptions are being made about Gattis being ready to step into a full-time catching role and handling the pitching staff, or that prospect Christian Bethancourt is ready to make the jump. I’ll take McCann.

The Braves are a young team. They are set at several positions: first base (Freeman), shortstop (Andrelton Simmons), third base (Chris Johnson) and at least two outfield spots (Heyward and Justin Upton). But the contracts of Uggla and B.J. Upton may mean trading a valuable young pitcher or even Justin Upton to fill other needs (a veteran starter, a leadoff hitter, a reliable second baseman).

Some people want to blame Gonzalez for the playoff elimination. But those people are looking in the wrong direction. The Braves won a division despite some spectacular collapses in the lineup and significant injuries.

This won’t be an easy situation for Wren to fix, but he shouldn’t have to wonder who created this.