The Atlanta Braves were once a model franchise. Under the brilliant guidance of John Schuerholz, the team featured a dominant pitching rotation with players like John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. These superstars led the proud franchise to a ridiculous 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005. The Braves in the 1990s were like the Backstreet Boys: They just kept coming up with big hits. But now, again like the Backstreet Boys, they only make headlines when they screw up.
Brilliant Schuerholz moves, like the acquisition of Fred McGriff in 1993 and the 1999 trade deadline acquisitions that helped the Braves reach the World Series, sustained this mid-market franchise. They dominated the National League East not by outspending the other teams, but rather by out-thinking them. Schuerholz consistently fleeced the league like Yale dining halls rob Yale’s visitors.
Toward the end of Schuerholz’ regime, the wheels began to fall off. The Braves failed to win the title in 2006 … and 2007. So Schuerholz passed the torch to Frank Wren, hoping that Wren could revive the Braves, who were fading fast. One of Wren’s first big moves was trading Mark Teixeira to the Angels for a package headlined by Casey Kotchman. It was a return on investment — the players the Braves traded to the Rangers for Teixeira — comparable to my current return on investment in the stock market (hint: I’m broke). Trading Teixeira for Kotchman is like trading your Babe Ruth rookie card for three Pogs and a Meowth Pokémon card. It’s a nice return, but think about what you gave up to get that rookie card in the first place. At least six Pogs and a Charizard.
Wren found himself needing to rebuild the once-fabled Braves rotation this winter. He responded by landing Javier Vasquez, a nice pitcher but no dominant force. Vasquez managed to finish four games under .500 on a relatively good White Sox team that made the playoffs and posted an ERA of 4.67. But Vasquez posted a worse ERA last season than Jamie Moyer, and still made $11.5 million, $5.5 million more than Moyer.
But why is Moyer relevant? He had better numbers than Vasquez last year and is cheaper. Perhaps most importantly, however, Moyer could have come at no price to the Braves’ franchise — he was an unrestricted free agent. The Braves, in trading for Vasquez, parted with three top prospects including Jo-Jo Reyes, a young 24-year-old with an ERA about a run worse than Vasquez. Few doubt that in two years Reyes, improving each start, will outstrip Vasquez, a mediocre pitcher over the course of his career who is only getting older. The other two prospects the Braves traded, including shortstop Brent Lillibridge, will also become nice pieces.
Wren is like a bachelor who went to Vegas looking for a wife. He sold his house and bought a two million dollar ring to land that chick he met the night before. Sure, he found a wife. But he could have found a better one, or at least paid less for the one he got. And now he has no house and a wife with a gambling problem. And Schuerholz can’t get the Braves out of it.
So Wren swung and missed again, trading crucial, promising young talent for a mediocre and overpaid starter when he could have signed a comparable free agent for less money and no players. Now his rotation, weak at best, depends on stellar performances from a chronic underachiever. And his organization lacks top prospects like Jo-Jo Reyes because he traded them away. Wren is no Schuerholz. And for that reason these Braves barely resemble the Braves of a decade ago. Instead of battling for the title year in and year out, they fold by the trade deadline and enter rebuilding mode, something manager Bobby Cox thought he’d never have to understand. Wren, by building his team wrongly and by straying from Schuerholz’ model, is undermining what it means to be the Atlanta Braves. For the next few years, call them the Atlanta Cowards.
Collin Gutman is a junior in Pierson College.