Wren faced an unenviable challenge exiting the ’08 season
With Derek Lowe’s tenure in Atlanta now complete, it’s still obvious that the Braves were fortunate that Jake Peavy opted not to accept a trade that would have allowed him to play close to his family and friends in Alabama.
And some of you might be of the opinion that the Braves were fortunate that there was not a Bullet Train available to conveniently transport A.J. Burnett’s wife back and forth between Atlanta and the family’s Baltimore-area home.
Once Peavy refused to waive his no-trade clause in San Diego and once Burnett opted to take the extra millions the Yankees were offering, the Braves suddenly found an interest in Lowe. (Yes, you’ve since heard Lowe was at the top of the wish list all along. And over the next few weeks, you will also once again start hearing about that Santa dude)
Because it’s fresh, some of you regard the four-year, $60 million contract given to Lowe as one of the worst ever provided by the Braves. This is a short-sighted belief. In fact, it wasn’t even the worst contract the organization presented a pitcher within the first two weeks of 2009. That distinction goes to the piece of paper that made Kenshin Kawakami $23 million richer over the past three years.
Kawakami spent this past summer living the American Dream at the Minor League level and doing his part to spark the Pearl, Miss. economy with the last of the dollars the Braves provided him to go 8-20 with a 4.30 ERA in 41 starts over two Major League seasons.
The Braves paid Kawakami $2.875 million per win, $94,391 per inning and $560,975 per start.
With the $55 million they ended up giving Lowe, the Braves paid $1.375 million per win, $95,569 per inning and $544,554 per start.
Their respective costs per inning and per start were eerily similar. But that is where the comparisons should end. Kawakami will be remembered as the guy who struggled to get run support, but ended up outdueling both Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw during the 2009 summer.
Lowe will be remembered (and cursed) for many things, including the fact that the Braves would have never made the playoffs had he not gone 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his final five starts of the 2010 season. Of course they also might have made the playoffs had he not gone 0-5 with an 8.75 ERA in his final five starts this year.
But had either Tommy Hanson or Jair Jurrjens been healthy to pitch the last month of this past season, there’s a pretty good chance Lowe would not have still been a part of the rotation during what proved to be a disastrous September.
Now three years later, those who criticized Wren’s decision to give Lowe a four-year deal find themselves patting themselves on the back and saying, “Told you so.”
It’s very easy to now criticize Wren’s decision to sign both Lowe and Kawakami. But it’s much easier to understand his reasoning once you account for all of the unexpected obstacles he encountered dating back to the early days of the 2008 season.
Truth be told, Lowe exited the 2008 season with the assumption that he would not get anything more than a three-year deal. In fact, he was not happy when his agent Scott Boras began asking clubs for at least a four-year deal. The pitcher felt this would just scare teams away. The agent knew the desire to win would eventually lead one team to provide a guaranteed fourth year to a 35-year-old pitcher.
Fortunately for Boras, he brought Lowe to Atlanta when Wren found himself six weeks from the start of Spring Training and with the desire to add two more experienced pitchers to his rotation. This was a product of the disastrous 2008 season during which the pitching staff was severely damaged by injuries and disappointing developments.
Wren had no idea that John Smoltz’s shoulder was going to blow out in April of ’08. Nor did he know that Jo-Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton would both provide less reason for confidence as the season progress. But the crushing blow came in late July when Tim Hudson blew out his elbow and learned he would miss most of 2009 rehabbing form Tommy John surgery.
This led Wren to exit the 2008 season with Jurrjens as the only pitcher he knew would be part of his team’s rotation to start the 2009 season. Jurrjens was coming off a 13-win rookie season.
Wren’s most valuable acquisition during that offseason was Vazquez, who along with Boone Logan was acquired from the White Sox in exchange for Brent Lillibridge, Tyler Flowers and two other prospects. This is a trade the Braves likely could not have made had they already used Tommy Hanson, Yunel Escobar or possibly some of these same prospects to land Peavy, who had been pursued in November.
The White Sox trade is still providing potential dividends. The Braves sent Vazquez and Logan to the Yankees the following winter to acquire Melky Cabrera, Mike Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino, who has a chance to be a productive member of the Atlanta bullpen for many years to come. Dunn was part of last winter’s trade that brought Dan Uggla to Atlanta.
Considering he has totaled 51 starts over the past three seasons, the injury-plagued Peavy would have been a far more damaging acquisition than Lowe or even the much-cheaper Kawakami. From a prospect standpoint, the price to get him to Atlanta would have at least initially looked a little like the package used to bring Mark Teixeira to Atlanta.
Once the potential Peavy disaster was avoided, Wren set his sights on Burnett until the Yankees gave the hurler a five-year, $82 million contract. Burnett has posted a 4.79 ERA while making $49.5 million and totaling 98 starts over the past three years in New York
You can argue Burnett would have been far more impressive in the National League or been much more comfortable in Atlanta. But you can’t necessarily guarantee that he would have been significantly better than Lowe was over the past three years.
Wren definitely hoped to get more from the $78 million he used to sign Lowe and Kawakami. But based on the options that were available during that eventful winter, it can be said he did all that he could once he chose to navigate the always-dangerous free agent market for starting pitchers.