Archive for Braves

On Frank Wren

With the collapse of the Furcal-to-Atlanta deal, Frank Wren has been getting a lot of criticism. I’m not sure it’s warranted, but I think now is a good time to pass along a few thoughts related to the Braves GM.

  • I heard Frank Wren on the the radio this morning (790 The Zone podcast), and he’s not happy about the Furcal situation. He stated a few important points that I want to pass along.
    • Furcal’s agent left a voice mail asking for a “term sheet” and stated “we’re good.” Wren emphasized that “we’re good” was a direct quote, and that in a business where face-to-face meetings are rare this constitutes a done deal.
    • He stated that he had talked to Furcal about moving to second base, and Furcal indicated that he was fine with the move.
    • Furcal’s agent did come back with further demands, but the terms were ones that the agent knew the Braves would reject, including a no-trade clause.
  • Frank Wren is a good interview. He is nothing like his predecessor in this area. He responds in detail to questions, giving more than the minimum. He’s emotional, but conveys rational thoughts even when expressing emotions. John Schuerholz always sounded to me like he had other things to do and was annoyed by questions.
  • I’m not sure you can say that Wren has performed differently from Schuerholz. My impression is that the Braves front office is a brain trust that still includes Schuerholz. When Wren was an assistant GM, he probably had a lot more power than most GMs. As a GM, I think that he has a little less power relative to other GMs. That doesn’t mean that Wren isn’t the leader, but I think the transition from Schuerholz to Wren hasn’t changed much about the organization. I recall that Schuerholz had considerable trouble working with agents.
  • Recently, I referred to Frank Wren as a stat-head. The stat-head designation was meant to be humorous, and I did not mean for it to be taken seriously. Since that post, I have seen several references to Wren being stat-savvy, and I think my post is partially responsible. I want to clear this up. I am sure that the Braves use statistical methods to help evaluate talent just as all ballclubs do. There is no organization that eschews quantitative analysis; however, some are more partial to stats than others. The information I have about Wren is that he is not a stat-focused decision-maker. From speaking with several sources regarding Wren, my impression is that Wren is somewhat hostile to quantitative analysis. Just because Wren used some DIPSish reasoning to defend a pitcher doesn’t mean that type of analysis is driving the organization. My guess is that ocular scouting played a larger role in evaluating Javier Vazquez than quantitative analysis.

Furcal Returns

According to Ken Rosenthal, Rafael Furcal is on his way back to Atlanta. On the radio this morning, I heard the terms stated as three years at $9-10 million per year, with an option for a fourth season. David O’Brien of the AJC agrees with the number of guaranteed years, but I haven’t seen any other reference to the dollars or the option year.

Furcal is a valuable player. He’s a shortstop who can play defense and hit, and he’s only 32 (we think). Over the next three years, I estimate his value to be $49 million ($16.33 per season). If the terms of the deal are correct, this looks to be a good deal. His health is a major factor here. If he’s healthy, he’s worth more; if he’s not he’s worth less.

The deal creates some new questions. The Braves now have three good middle-infielders. DOB suggests this may open the door to a Jake Peavy or Zack Greinke trade. Danny Knobler has a source who claims the Braves plan to move Kelly Johnson to left field. This conflicts with Frank Wren’s recent statements.

Displeasure with Yunel Escobar has been an item on the Braves off-the-record talking points for most of the off-season, so I think the best bet is that Escobar is moved in a deal.

As a fan, I’m a bit disappointed with this move. I understand that there is a distinction between what players do on and off the field. Furcal’s second DUI in the city that I live really soured me. At the time, I wanted the Braves to suspend him for the season. I don’t think he even got the night off. I find it amazing that Barry Bonds can’t find a job because of his association with performance-enhancing drugs, yet you don’t even see Furcal’s drunk driving issues mentioned. It hasn’t even been two years since Josh Hancock was killed in a drunk driving accident.

Don’t individuals deserve a second chance? Yes, he got one: that’s two DUIs. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have trouble rooting for this guy.

UPDATE: According to Mark Bowman, the Braves are planning to move Johnson to the outfield.

Where Furcal would be positioned defensively remains to be seen. But the Braves have no intention to trade either Johnson or Escobar. Instead, they are planning to move Johnson back to left field, a position he played before moving to second base before the start of the 2007 season.

The opportunity to have both Furcal and Johnson in their lineup proved more appealing to the Braves than any of the options they were evaluating in their search to find a power-hitting outfielder.

With Johnson, they feel they have a player capable of hitting 15-20 homers. Matt Diaz could also see some time in left field.

Uh, what about right field?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Apparently, it’s not clear that Furcal is coming to Atlanta. John Heyman sums up the saga.

So to recap, Furcal rejected a four-year deal for about $40 million with the A’s to talk to the Braves about a three year deal for $30 million with a vesting option (and according to the Braves, agree to that deal). And after allegedly wrapping things up with the Braves, he’s believed to be talking to the Dodgers, mostly likely about a two-year deal with an option.

If he takes a two-year deal with the Dodgers, he will be the first player ever to reject a four-year deal to take a three-year deal for a similar annual salary only to reject that for a two-year deal for a similar salary. If this keeps up, the next stop would be a one-year deal.

Missing Out on Burnett

I write this from the perspective of a Braves fan, but the analysis is relevant in general. On Friday, A.J. Burnett spurned the Braves to sign a five-year, $82.5 million contract($16.5./year) with the New York Yankees. In October, I suggested that Burnett should have accepted the Blue Jays contract extension, which would have been equivalent to a four-year, $52 million deal ($13.5 million/year). Shows what I know.

Supposedly, the Braves had a similar offer on the table, but Burnett picked the Yankees. I think this is good for the Braves. Over the next five years, I estimate Burnett to be worth $71.25 million ($14.25 million/year). On top of this, I think it’s an extremely risky value due to his injury history. If he continues to pitch as he did in 2008, then he will be worth his contract. If he pitches like he did in the preceding two years, it’s a disaster. Given the makeup of the Braves current roster, I don’t think it would have been a good risk for the team to take on at the rumored five-year, $80 million price.

What I do wonder is why the Braves are not expressing any interest in Derek Lowe? It seems to me that if you are in on one, you should be in on the other. Even though he’s older, I think Lowe is a better bet than Burnett.

Frank Wren, Stat-Head

A morning meeting prevented me from posting this earlier, but I heard two interesting interviews with Braves General Manager Frank Wren this morning on 680 The Fan and 790 The Zone (audio link). Here are some highlights. The quotes are paraphrased from my memory.

— On Javier Vazquez, Wren stated that using “sabermetric” methods—“taking into account park factors, defense, and other factors”—Vazquez should have won 16 games and had a sub-4 ERA last season. He repeated this in the second interview, both times using the term “saber”. So, I nearly crashed twice on my way to the office.

— On left field, Wren stated that there just aren’t many options on the free agent market. He stated that they want guys who can not only hit home runs but can play good defense. My translation: Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell are off the table. He also stated that Kelly Johnson would not be moving to the outfield.

— On the Jake Peavy negotiations, he made some curious comments. One interviewer asked him if having many GM-types in the Padres front office complicated the deal. He responded, “I’ll let you say that.” Another interviewer stated that it must have been difficult to discuss a deal with the San Diego front office leaking offers to the press. Wren’s response, “Thank you!” Though, he did qualify his remarks by saying he did not think the leaks came from the front office, but that the leaks were frustrating. He also said that he has a good working relationship with Padres GM Kevin Towers.

— On Mike Hampton leaving for the Astros, he said that he was not surprised. He said that he was aware of Hampton’s desire to move elsewhere for family reasons in September, and he feels no betrayal. This runs counter to some sentiments expressed by the local media.

He commented on a few other things, but these are the highlights. They were informative and candid interviews. I commend Wren’s willingness to speak directly to local fans.

Jeff Francoeur’s Head Is Still Up His Butt

This morning, Jeff Francoeur was the guest on the 790 “The Zone” morning show. During my drive in I heard part of the interview, and I was not at all happy with what I heard.

— He said he’s put last season behind him. He plans to start fresh and has already started hitting.

So far so good. Any player with a down season ought to have this attitude. Any human who has a bad year needs this attitude.

— He said last year wasn’t so bad if you take out about 80 games.

Uh, what? You know all my students would earn As on their tests if I didn’t count the questions they got wrong. You don’t get to pick the good and exclude the bad. When you look at the good and the bad from 2008, it’s an ugly season.

— He continues that it was just one bad season, and that he had over 100 RBI in 2006 and 2007.

Yeah, well it’s kind of hard not to when you have Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Edgar Renteria, and Mark Teixeira always on base in front of you. You’d think he might take a hint from their approaches.

The big issue here is not that RBI is a bad metric, it’s that he’s not identifying these seasons as poor (OPS+ of 87 and 103) and in need of correcting.

— He noted that both Pat Burrell and Michael Young had seasons in which they batted in the low .200s and bounced back to have good seasons.

What he failed to note is that Burrell does other things well despite his batting average, holding a career OPS of .852—100 points higher than Francoeur’s OPS. Burrell has a low average, but walks and hits with power. Young isn’t the on-base and power guy that Burrell is, but he hits for a high average—something Francoeur has never managed to do for a full season at any level above Rookie ball. In addition, Young plays a defensive position and is a good hitter relative to his peers at his position. I’m also concerned about his focus on batting average.

There was more to the interview, but I didn’t have time to sit in the car and listen to excuses. The point here isn’t that Francoeur had a bad year, but that he is still clueless as to what his problem is. I’m amazed at his level of denial. You need confidence to succeed, but what Francoeur has is hubris.

Peavy for Braves GM

As a Braves fan, I’m happy that Jake Peavy seems to understand the opportunity cost of giving up an everyday player versus a prospect.

The subject of Escobar came up Thursday morning between Peavy and his agent, Barry Axelrod. Less than 12 hours earlier, Axelrod had met with Padres General Manager Kevin Towers to get an update on trade talks that had taken place the previous three days at the GM meetings in Dana Point.

“Escobar’s a pretty good player,” Axelrod said. “To be honest, Jake and I have said, ‘If that kind of trade gets made, who plays short for them?’”

“One of the things we will want to look at some point is, ‘Who are you giving up? How much are you weakening your team to make this deal?’” Axelrod said. “If Team X trades three starting pitchers and a starting shortstop to get Jake Peavy, that lessens their chance of being a successful team.”

I don’t like the idea of trading Yunel Escobar or Kelly Johnson for Peavy. You improve your pitching, but at the expense of your hitting. It sounds like Peavy wants to play on a winner. Maybe these players can be replaced with free agents in a way that Peavy cannot be, but I am wary of a team that isn’t yet competitive giving up major-league players.

Robert Parish

For most fans of a sports team, the fact that the general manager has a large free agent budget is a good thing. The Braves supposedly have $40 million of payroll to add free agents. I agree that bigger budgets are better than smaller ones, but this offseason I’m feeling a sense of anxiety that I haven’t felt in 14 years.

I used to be a huge basketball fan. I devoured college and NBA games. I find the game a bit boring these days, but my passion for the Charlotte Hornets was once strong. I actually skipped class to wait in line for playoff tickets, and was disappointed when I didn’t get any.

Before the 1994-1995 season, the Hornets were on the edge of something great; or at least, fans of the team felt that they were. The team needed another big man, and the front office let the fans know that they would be in the market for the best big-men in the league. That year, Horace Grant and Danny Manning were considered to be the prizes of the big-men free agents. But it seemed that before the free agent signing period had even started, Grant had signed with Orlando and Manning with Phoenix. What were the Hornets to do?

The team seemed to be on the verge of success after advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 1992-1993. The 1993-1994 team didn’t make the playoffs, and my memory is fuzzy as to what exactly went wrong. But, the nucleus of the team was still in tact, and the front office promised that they would fix the problems and make the team into a contender. With Grant and Manning off the market, there was nowhere else left for the Hornets to turn…. Or, so we thought.

The Hornets weren’t going to leave the market empty-handed, and so they signed 41-year-old Robert Parish. Robert Parish was once a good player, but not from 1994-1996. How devastating. I remember sitting with a friend at a game later that season and he turned to me and said, “Robert Parish is the worst player in the entire league.” He would also embarrass the team off the court with allegations of spouse and drug abuse.

My impressions of his play are probably exaggerated, and maybe Parish wasn’t as bad as I remember. But, the point is that sometimes GMs spend money because they can, and the results aren’t always good. Though more money is preferred to less, sometimes the best strategy is not to spend. Don’t be afraid to put that money in the bank and earn some interest. What you get in return could be a lot better than zero—think double-zero.

The French God of Walks Revisited

Congratulations to Dave B. for correctly predicting that Jeff Francoeur would walk 39 times this season. The early-season part of The French God of Walks contest was won by the first entrant, and David B. was the second entrant. Also interesting is that the first entrant, Jack, would have won if Francoeur had taken the same number of plate appearances as he had in 2007. Basically, Francouer’s walk total would have been identical to his 2008 total of 42. The lessons here are that Francoeur’s walking eye didn’t change a bit and that winning Sabernomics contests requires entering quickly.

The season was a disaster for Francoeur; not because of his overall poor performance, but because he didn’t improve where he needs improvement. In fact, I think much of Francoeur’s 2008 struggles can be attributed to bad luck, and then adjusting for bad luck in a way that made things worse. At season’s end, Francoeur’s PrOPS was .726, which isn’t too far off from his career OPS of .746. I agree with most people that Francoeur will bounce back to the player he was. The problem is that a mid-.700s OPS from a corner outfielder isn’t good.

Francoeur’s walks, strikeouts, and hitting power were quite similar to his 2007 performances. His strikeout rate was a little lower (17% versus 18.5%) and his isolated power was down a bit (120 versus 151). His base-stealing remains abysmal. He attempted one steal and was caught. How is it possible that a man recruited to play safety for several major college football programs is unable to steal a single base in a season? Brian McCann, who runs like turkey flies, stole five bases without getting caught.

On top of this, his defense—the area where he had been good—declined significantly. After winning in a Gold Glove in 2007, Francoeur was an absolute disaster in the field in 2008. According to John Dewan’s Plus/Minus ($) Francoeur was the sixth-best right fielder in 2007, making 10 plays more than the average right fielder. In 2008, he ranked 28th among right fielders, making 17 fewer plays than the average right fielder.

Many commentators have blamed Francouer’s 2008 on a weight-training program designed to increase his hitting power. This, they say, accounts for his decline in the field and the bat. While I might be willing to buy the explanation for the fielding—though he didn’t appear to get any better after shedding the weight—I think it had no impact on his hitting. If anything, he should have increased his power as he expected. One thing we have learned in recent history is that increasing muscle mass does not hurt bat-speed. That myth went out the window with late-80s Oakland A’s. And furthermore, Francoeur’s fundamental holes are the same ones he has always had. The reason his power didn’t improve is that you can’t hit the pitches he’s hitting (non-strikes), or not hitting, any harder.

I expect Francoeur will improve until his late-twenties before plateauing and declining in his early-thirties like most players. At his peak, I expect he will be an .800 OPS hitter, which is about average for the position. That is, at his best, he will be average for his position. And the peak will occur after he is no longer controlled by the Braves. 2005 was a fluke, and people just need to accept that.

A Divorce on the Horizon?

Terance Moore reveals some infighting within the Braves organization involving some guys at the very top.

When Hank Aaron leaves you a message to call his southwest Atlanta home as soon as possible, you dial his number even faster than that. Said the man who is baseball’s legitimate home run king instead of that other guy, “Something has just been bothering me, really. I don’t mind other things, but somehow, some things need to be spelled out correctly.”…

“I was listening to something [last week] on television where Bobby was talking about how, when Chipper came to the team, he took him aside to tell him what we did to get him here, and I was stunned, really,” said Aaron, before recalling a conversation he had with Braves officials in 1990 when they owned the No. 1 pick before that June draft. By the time of the draft, Aaron had been promoted to senior vice president.

Said Aaron, with a sigh, “I told Bobby. I told them all, and I told them, ‘Y’all better go and get Chipper Jones.’ “

That was opposed to pitcher Todd Van Poppel, Cox’s first choice, according to Aaron. “I talked to Van Poppel’s daddy, and he told me that he wasn’t going to sign with the Braves, but that’s who Bobby wanted with that first pick, because he always was into getting pitching.”

Cox looked perplexed when informed of Aaron’s remarks, saying, “Well, we had a lot of people see [Van Poppel], and they liked him. Some other [Braves scouts] went to see Chipper, and they liked him a lot. I can’t remember if I had Hank talk to Van Poppel’s father or not, but [Van Poppel] was unsignable. And we needed to know that beforehand. So that’s why it really was an easy decision to take Chipper. He wanted to sign. He wasn’t playing games with the college thing. It was simple. I mean, Chipper was the guy.”…

If this sounds like a conflict between Aaron and Cox, now the Braves’ field manager, well, you make the call. Said Aaron of his relationship with Cox, “I just talk to him, you know. What bothers me is that when he became general manager [in 1985], there absolutely was no connection between the two of us.

I’m not surprised with a clash of egos, but I am surprised that this has gone so public. Aaron wasn’t caught off guard by a good question. He called a columnist at the AJC and gave him something to put in his column. It sounds like Aaron does not plan to continue to work with/for the Braves. I’m surprised that Aaron’s participation in an ownership group seeking to purchase the Cubs has gotten little media attention.

One of my favorite things about being a sports fan is reading between the lines. We don’t know what front office personnel do behind closed doors, and it’s fun to speculate based on actions that we can observe. This season, a few events have caused me to believe that serious rifts exist within the Braves management.

First, we had the demotion/promotion of Jeff Francoeur. He spent three games in Mississippi, where we were told he would spend a few weeks. His immediate recall, following vocal on-the-record comments blasting Braves management by Francoeur, was completely out of character for the Braves. It was only a few years ago when John Smoltz had to apologize for calling John Schuerholz a “homeboy”. Frenchy said much worse and never backed down nor apologized; yet, his starting right field job was waiting for him after his brief hiatus. Frank Wren glossed over Francoeur’s comments as fiery competitor talk. In other words, Frank Wren may have the title of GM, but he’s not calling the shots on his own. Someone changed his mind—or wasn’t in on the initial demotion discussions—after Francoeur was sent down. Also, evident is that though Bobby Cox was in on the demotion discussions, he did not agree with the decision as Frenchy returned to the starting line-up immediately upon his return.

Next, we had the rumors of Bobby Cox’s retirement. Several sources close to the Braves reported that Cox’s return to the Braves next season was in doubt. There was open speculation that several coaches were on the hot seat. Reading between the lines, inside sources were telling reporters off the record that either: there was a high probability that Cox and some members of his staff would not be back or tensions between the front office and the managers were escalating. Cox put a stop to the rumors by declaring that he would be back, and the Braves soon released a statement saying that all the coaches would be back.

And now we have Hank Aaron making comments about decisions that were made two decades prior. Does it really matter what happened? Do these guys have memories good enough to remember exactly what went down? This was a personal shot.

Some sort of conflict is going on within the Braves organization. I’m not sure what it is, but all signs point to an agitated group. It looks like Hank Aaron will be leaving soon, and I won’t be shocked if others follow him out the door.

You Can’t Blame Frenchy for the Braves Woes…Or Can You?

From David Pinto.

One thing that amazed me during the writing was how much Jeff Francoeur hurt the Braves this season. The Braves have only been outscored 612-590; they should be around a .500 team, not a .435 team. With any kind of decent power from Francoeur, the Braves likely add 30 runs. With all the one-run losses, those 30 runs could be huge. Instead of looking to build a team for next year, they’d likely be in the Marlins spot, on the edge of the playoff race.

Here is a link to his article in Sporting News. Thanks to Tom for the pointer.