Free-agent missteps led to demise of Wren

If you adhere to the quaint notion that winning records and job security go hand-in-hand, Frank Wren deserved a whole lot better than he got from the Atlanta Braves.

In the first five years of Wren's tenure as general manager, the Braves won 86, 91, 89, 94 and 96 games. During that same span, the franchise ranked 11th, 15th, 15th, 16th and 18th in Opening Day payroll among the 30 Major League Baseball clubs. So under the most fundamental of accounting measures, Wren helped the team improve in the standings even as his bottom line was progressively being squeezed.

But the Braves failed to win a playoff series and ended this season with a cringe-worthy collapse, and upper management didn't hesitate to make the general manager the first of what could be several fall guys for a disappointing narrative. The new world order in Atlanta became official Monday morning with the news that Wren has been dismissed, special assistant John Hart will replace him on an interim basis and the team will immediately begin a search for a permanent general manager.

Fair? Not hardly. But there's a reason Wren isn't the only baseball general manager with silver hair. The stress of the job is enough to make a man grow old before his time.

Speculation around Wren's future had been swirling since Aug. 23, when Braves CEO Terry McGuirk told Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "everyone is accountable" for the team's performance. If McGuirk was looking to provide stability or inspiration, the message failed to resonate. The Braves had just won seven of eight games when McGuirk gave his state of the team address. Since then, they've gone 8-18 and averaged a feeble 2.31 runs per game on the road to elimination.

Amid the Braves' sorry performance, it's hard to ignore the undercurrent of discord in the organization. When Bobby Cox gave his Hall of Fame induction speech in Cooperstown in late July and pointedly omitted Wren's name on the list of people he wanted to thank, it publicly substantiated the notion that the relationship between the two men was beyond strained.

Cox, whose personal biography appears on Page 179 of the Braves' media guide, has maintained a low profile in his capacity as special assistant to the general manager. But his presence on a three-man transition team with club president John Schuerholz and Hart lends credence to the rumors that he's bored with his current role and would like a more prominent voice moving forward.

Where do the Braves go from here? They have a ready-made internal candidate to replace Wren in assistant GM John Coppolella, a bright young executive with experience on both the scouting and analytical sides. Coppolella worked for the Yankees before coming to Atlanta, so he's eminently familiar with the rigors of life in a demanding market.

Other candidates are sure to surface in, oh, five minutes. On Sunday, Mark Bowman of MLB.com floated the name of Royals GM Dayton Moore, who grew up in the Atlanta organization before leaving for Kansas City in 2006.

As Wren relinquishes his Turner Field parking space, it's clear that his missteps in the free-agent realm paved the way for his demise. The Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami signings failed to pan out, and Dan Uggla gave the Braves two years of Uggla-caliber production before going south. He's gone now, but every painful swing and miss by B.J. Upton reminds Braves fans that the $46 million left on his contract are a sunk cost.

Amid those high-profile whiffs, Wren clicked on trades for Michael Bourn and Javier Vazquez, pilfered Justin Upton from Arizona and made a number of astute low- to moderate-level acquisitions. This year, the Atlanta rotation was decimated by spring training Tommy John surgeries for Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen and Gavin Floyd's season-ending elbow injury in June. The Braves also suffered a major body blow in February when Jim Fregosi, a charismatic presence and in many ways the glue of the front office hierarchy, died from complications after suffering multiple strokes. It left a bigger void in the Braves' leadership team than anyone can imagine.

Wren has never been one to mince words or dance around difficult decisions, and his personal style is perceived as abrupt by some people within and beyond the Atlanta organization. But he's a stand-up guy who was always "accountable," as McGuirk might put it, and he's going to make another team's front office better by joining it.

In the meantime, the Braves have a course to chart that extends well beyond Wren's replacement. How do they fix that pathetic offense in time for the 2015 season? And do they stick with manager Fredi Gonzalez, who's a bigger lightning rod for social media discontent than Wren could ever dream of being? Even if Gonzalez survives, it's a given that his coaching staff will have a markedly different composition next season.

It might give Braves fans a nice, warm feeling to see proven winners Cox, Schuerholz and Hart overseeing the bridge to a new regime. But the three wise men better make some prudent decisions moving forward, or it won't be long before the scrutiny begins to land on them. It's all about gratification in baseball. And even legends and Hall of Famers don't get a pass.