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David O'Brien

For now, Wren and Fredi G not signed beyond 2014

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With just over three weeks until Braves pitchers and catchers report for spring training, the team’s two most important decision-makers in baseball matters, general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez, are signed only through the 2014 season.

Fredi Gonzalez (left) and Frank Wren (center) chat with shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Fredi Gonzalez (left) and Frank Wren (center) chat with young star shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Now, maybe there is something in the works with one or both  that the Braves won’t divulge (I know that’s hard to imagine, the Braves keeping big plans private). Maybe before long, one or both of them will have a new contract. But at this writing, Jan. 21, both the GM and manager are the proverbial lame ducks.

Or maybe that’s a bit strong, as “lame duck” can have negative connotations. And I don’t know that this situation is anything more than the typical way the Braves have done these things in the past.

Wren, operating with organizationally imposed budget contstraints, has put together a roster good enough to keep the Braves in the playoffs, or at least in contention, most years. This despite a few questionable big-contract moves. Most notably: overpaying for Derek Lowe and Dan Uggla and giving the largest free-agent contract in franchise history (five years, $75.25 million) to B.J. Upton 14 months ago.

Let me state for the record: Those of us who follow the team understood the Lowe move – the Braves wanted to make sure they got a proven big-game pitcher after the Smoltz and Glavine departures weren’t handled well and after other free agents spurned the Braves previously that winter. And it should also be noted, Lowe put the team on his shoulders in one memorable September in which they wouldn’t have otherwise made the playoffs.

As for Uggla, I’m honest enough to admit I thought it was a good trade when the Braves made it. And while I thought they went overboard with the extension before he’d played a game in Atlanta, I also didn’t think it was a terrible contract because he’d been as consistent as any hitter in baseball over the previous half-decade with the Marlins and should still have been in his prime at the time, albeit in the final years of his prime.

None of us could have imagined he’d struggle like he has for most of the first three years of that $62 million, five-year extension that, at the time, made him the highest-paid second baseman in the game.

But B.J. Upton? I must say – you can look it up in my blogs after the 2012 season – that I never thought he was the center fielder the Braves should have pursued. Again, none of us would’ve imagined he’d bottom out like he did in 2013 in the first year of his contract, and I’ll also say it’s too early to judge that deal, just one year into it. But given Upton’s trending numbers before last season, with his average and OBP and most everything offensively except home runs in decline, I wrote that the Braves should’ve gone after Victorino, Pagan or Choo.

Still, let’s see how Upton rebounds in his second season before judging that deal. Dude is still young and undoubtedly has a load of talent. There was a reason that we once thought he’d be one of the next superstars in the game (after his tremendous postseason with the Rays early on).

So Wren, like every GM, has made some questionable deals. Some expensive ones. But he’s also “won” a lot of trades, in fact coming out ahead more often than not.

The Braves have also mined the scrap heaps, waiver wires and minor-league free agent pools better than almost any team in recent years. For example, just consider the relievers they’ve claimed off waivers in recent years: Eric O’Flaherty, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter. Wren and his assistants and fine Braves scouts, all doing good work there and with so many others, including some who could emerge this spring.

The one sticky situation, where I think the Braves may have missed the boat a time or two in the past few years, is by not getting Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman or Kris Medlen signed to multi-year extensions. With only two years left before free agecy, it might be too late now with Heyward. And if Freeman isn’t signed to a long-term deal before next winter, it could be too late with him for the same reason – with only two years until free agency, a player’s agent might explain to a big-time young talent that he’d be better off taking the risk of going on one-year deals for two more seasons and then breaking the bank as a free agent.

The reason that young stars ususually are willing to sign long-term contracts that buy out arbitration and some free-agent years is the security factor, knowing that if they have a major injury or performance decline early in the contract they’ve at least got the remaining years of that one big guaranteed deal and won’t have to hit the free agent market as a diminished player, after going year-to-year or being dropped during arb years when the price tag begins to climb due to the nature of the system.

Gonzalez and Wren are currently not signed beyond the 2014 season.

Gonzalez and Wren are currently not signed beyond the 2014 season.

Anyway, the Braves still can – and should, obviously — do do a long-term deal with superstar-in-the-making shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who won’t even be arb-eligible until after the 2015 season. And with Julio Teheran, who’s also not yet arb-elgible, and maybe with the first-year arb guys Freeman and Mike Minor. Also Medlen, if both sides want to. (Craig Kimbrel is a different matter – huge price tag, and teams with payroll constraints have to be particulary careful with relievers, who are always just one pitch away from an injury that changes everything. Cruel, but it’s the nature of the position.)

So on balance, most industry observers – not all, but most — would say Wren has done well given the Braves circumstances. This team doesn’t spend the money for top free agents like it did when it annually ranked among the top five or so payrolls in baseball during the Ted Turner sugar-daddy ownership days, and the first few years after he handed over control of the team. Ted ain’t walking through that door, folks.

Maybe when the Braves move to their planned new ballpark outside the perimeter, if their “ballpark village” of retail shops and bars and restaurants comes to fruition as they envision, they will have increased revenues and offset their weak TV deal to get back in the top third or so of major league payrolls. Maybe.

For now, as long as they’re going to run the team with a so-called “sweet spot” payroll target – about $90 million recently, closer to $100 million in 2014 — it forces them to develop their own top talent and get the most out of those players at the big-league level while they’re relatively cheap, and add affordable pieces via trade and occasional free-agent signings (though given their luck on big free-agent signings lately, I can see the reluctance to do any others for a while). All that takes a GM and a staff of assistants and scouts who know how to put together a team without splurging for the big, proven names that could give them a better chance of getting overe the hump.

Even if you’re among those who criticize Wren for not keeping Tim Hudson or Brian McCann this year, or Michael Bourn or David Ross last winter, and for adopting the current “file and trial” policy that is going to see three of the team’s top players – Heyward, Freeman, Kimbrel – get taken to arbitration hearings next month, apparently unless they cave to what the Braves already offered or unless multi-year deals are worked out (and as of Monday there was no indication any were being discussed), you at least should give him credit and acknowledge that the Braves have done far better in recent years than most teams with similar payrolls.

By the way, Wren finished fourth in balloting for MLB Executive of the Year for 2013, as voted by his peers. And Gonzalez was third in NL Manager of the Year balloting.

As for Gonzalez, feel free to offer your evaluations. Ha. I know many of you will.

We’ve discussed ad nauseum his reluctance or failure (however you want to put it) to use Craig Kimbrel in the eighth inning of the decisive Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the division series. Some of you hate his frequent lineup changes, or where he bats this guy or that guy despite this average or that OBP, or how he uses his bullpen in general or why he had such a quick hook with this starter or why he left that starter in so long, blah blah blah.

Not to downplay your evaluations or feelings about the guy, because I know some of you just don’t think he’s a good manager. That’s OK. Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, and some of his moves I’ve questioned myself. And until the Braves win a playoff series, the September Collapse of a few years ago, and the image of Kimbrel standing pissed off, warmed up and and feeling helpless in the bullpen after Carpenter gave up the homer to Juan Uribe in L.A., are things that aren’t going to be forgotten by many fans.

But again, on balance, most in the industry would say he’s done a solid job with what he’s had.  And if Gonzalez were to get fired or not extended, I dare say he’d have another managerial job before the following season began.

When I asked him this week about not entering the last year of his contract, Gonzalez, who’ll be 50 next week, said he wasn’t worried about it.

He has a 555-486 record as a big-league manager, including 3-1/2 seasons with the Marlins and three with the Braves. His Atlanta teams have won more each year, going from 89 wins in his first season, to 94 in 2012, to 96 – tied for the third-best record in baseball – and a division title in 2013.

If he doesn’t have universal support among the fan base, he has the strong support of his mentor, Bobby Cox. And believe me, that’s worth plenty, both in Atlanta and around baseball, should he ever need to find another job.

As for being a “lame duck” manager, if that’s what you want to call it, he’s in pretty good company right now, for what that’s worth. Five managers currently aren’t signed beyond 2014: Ron Washington (Rangers), Ron Roenicke (Brewers), Kirk Gibson (Diamondbacks), Clint Hurdle (Pirates), and Robin Ventura (White Sox).

Last year, nine managers entered the season unsigned beyond 2013, and Detroit’s Jim Leyland was the only one of the nine to reach the playoffs. He retired after the postseason. Others in that group who quit or were fired after the season included Philly’s Charlie Manuel, Washington’s Davey Johnson, and Seattle’s Eric Wedge.

Three others in the group had losing seasons but got extensions: Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire, the Mets’ Terry Collins, and Colorado’s Walt Weiss. And two others had winning records in 2013 and got extensions: the Yankees’ Joe Girardi, and Kansas City’s Ned Yost, another Cox protege.

Again, maybe Wren or Gonzalez, or both, have contract extensions already hammered out by the higher-ups, just sitting on a desk somewhere, waiting to be signed and announced between now and Opening Day. But if not, one has to wonder how those situations might possibly affect decisions during the 2014 season.

By that I mean, could either or both of those situations, with Wren and Gonzalez, potentially affect roster moves or patience with players who struggle early in season? Might they be less inclined to stick with a player if he struggles as mightily as Uggla and B.J. did in 2013, when neither was benched until midway through the season. I don’t think it’s unfair to wonder whether, if the GM or the manager feels a sense of urgency to win-or-else in 2014, then perhaps that could have some sway on a decision or two along the way. Right?

All stuff that will be interesting to monitor along the way, I think you’ll agree.

Then again, if the Braves announce in the coming weeks that both of those guys have been extended, well, then nevermind.

• Let’s close with one of the finest songs ever song recorded by one of the best post-punk bands. Title cut from an album that sounds as good today as it did 30-plus years ago. Click here to hear it. Great tune.

psychedelic-furs-1982-forever-now

“FOREVER NOW” by The Psychedelic Furs

A banker in a tired suit
Is counting in his head
He’s standing in your overcoat
He’s lying on your bed
President gas is tap dancing
For the banker he’s a thief
He isn’t very honest
But he’s obvious at least

You and I are walking past yeah
Having lost our way
We don’t count our money
We are giving it away
Yeah giving it away

This policeman is just sitting down
In sunglasses and dirt
Undercover now at least
So nobody gets hurt
They go through this pantomime
They do it everyday
They’ll be back again tomorrow
But they don’t play for free

You and I are walking past yeah
Having lost our way
We don’t count our paper
We are giving it away
Yeah giving it away

doesn’t this remind you
Of these things we’ve done before
Like counting all the times
We’ve seen ourselves in other scenes
Everybody’s busy
Listening and pulling blinds
This is all so stupid
We’re just shouting
I want you

You and I are walking past yeah
Having lost our way
We don’t count our money
We are giving it away
Yeah giving it away

Lets stay forever now

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