November 6, 2012 at 2:06 pm by David Lee under Atlanta Braves
Frank Wren became general manager of the Braves in 2008. He inherited a team that was two years removed from its 14 straight division titles and was a combined 163-161 after the streak ended. The mediocre teams he inherited had taken a hit both in the farm system (to keep the streak alive) and in the payroll. (Teams were beginning to leapfrog the stagnant Braves payroll.)
Luckily for the entire organization, Wren is very good at producing a competitive team with a limited amount of spending money. And a major part of that is knowing how to field a solid bullpen cheaply.
In 2008, Wren pieced together a bullpen that made $5,395,000 among its top five members (determined by numbers, not money). Those five combined on a 4.10 ERA and 4.08 FIP. They were hit with injuries, as Mike Gonzalez returned from Tommy John surgery to throw 33.2 innings late in the season, and Rafael Soriano threw just 14 innings due to a host of right elbow issues that led to an eventual surgery.
That year, the Braves were a bit top heavy spending-wise in the bullpen. Soriano made the most at $2.5 million, Gonzalez made $2.3 million and Will Ohman made $1.6 million. (If you include Soriano in the top five, it’s $7,895,000 total.) Wren did not sign Ohman to that deal, however, as he was given a two-year contract by the Cubs and Wren acquired him for that price in one of his first moves as general manager.
In 2009, Wren received full years from Gonzalez and Soriano to make their contracts a little more worthwhile, and the top five relievers made a combined $11,010,000. The highest paid was Soriano at $6.35 million. The top five combined for a 2.94 ERA and 3.06 FIP.
The bullpen remained top heavy contract-wise in 2009, but 3-5 were more effective while making around the minimum. Thus, the beginning of how Wren pieces together effective bullpens.
In 2010, the top five relievers made $11,940,000. Wren stepped out of his zone a little by signing Billy Wagner to a one-year deal worth $6.75 million, giving him one last hurrah while still producing insane numbers as closer. It remains the highest money total given to a reliever since Wren became general manager. Peter Moylan received a raise from $410,000 to $1.15 million, and Wren signed Takashi Saito to a one-year deal worth $3.2 million. Saito gave the Braves very good numbers, but he managed just 54 innings due to a hamstring strain and shoulder inflammation.
That season’s bullpen spread the money out a little more than the first years of Wren’s reign after Soriano and Gonzalez departed, but the overall increase was minimal. Despite just a small increase in pay, the Braves’ top five bullpen arms produced a 2.32 ERA and 2.97 FIP.
In 2011, Wren’s bullpen spending in relation to effectiveness simply embarrassed the rest of the general managers. The top five arms combined to make $4,943,500. Yes, that’s the total. This marked the year of the emergence of the big three: Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. Venters and O’Flaherty both had good years in 2010, but this was the first season all three would put it together as a trio, while none of the three even cracked $1 million.
In fact, the two lesser arms among the top five made the most. Scott Linebrink topped the list at $2 million, and Wren even managed to get the White Sox to cover $3.5 million to unload Linebrink. George Sherrill made $1.2 million as a bloated LOOGY deal. Moylan’s contract continued to go up, reaching $2 million, but he only threw eight innings due to Tommy John surgery.
That season’s top five arms produced a 2.31 ERA and 2.84 FIP… for a little less than $5 million.
In 2012, it was more of the same but with small raises. The top five totaled $5,003,250. They combined on a 2.30 ERA and 3.06 FIP. (Thank Chad Durbin for the increased FIP.) The highest paid was O’Flaherty at $2.49 million. The trend continues.
So, essentially, this is what you have (top five arms):
Year – Total/Highest Paid/ERA/FIP
2008 – $5,395,000/$2.5m/4.10/4.08
2009 – $11,010,000/$6.35m/2.94/3.06
2010 – $11,940,000/$6.75m/2.32/2.97
2011 – $4,943,500/$2m/2.31/2.84
2012 – $5,003,250/$2.49m/2.30/3.06
Relievers are volatile creatures. Wren can’t afford to make a spending mistake in the bullpen. He knows both of these things and has done an outstanding job of keeping the bullpen spending down while taking advantage of what the farm system produced. Yes, Kimbrel and Venters came from the farm, but Wren deserves credit for piecing around them with cheap but effective arms.
The Braves’ ability to produce solid bullpens cheaply is compounded by the fact that other teams are throwing money at their pens. The Phillies are paying Jonathan Papelbon $13 million each of the next three years. Wren has never paid $13 million for an entire bullpen. The Dodgers are paying Brandon League a total of $22.5 million guaranteed with a chance to up that by nearly $10 million in vesting options. The Marlins paid Heath Bell $7 million in 2012 and is owed $10 million each of the next two seasons.
Wren has an interesting dilemma regarding Kimbrel’s future and O’Flaherty’s current earnings, but if history is any indication, he knows when to pay, when to part and how to take advantage of relievers coming through the system. His greatest test is soon arriving.
November 2, 2012 at 1:45 am by David Lee under Atlanta Braves, Transactions
Center field seems to be coming full circle in Atlanta, although maybe it’s not a complete circle.
The Braves claimed Jordan Schafer off waivers from the Astros on Thursday, giving Atlanta an option for fourth/fifth outfielder or Triple-A depth.
After getting sent to Houston in the Michael Bourn deal, Schafer returns to the Atlanta organization during the same offseason as Bourn’s projected departure for the free agent market.
If bringing back Schafer means nothing more than minor league depth, I don’t care about this move and it’s probably not even worth this post. However, if Schafer is signed as a fourth or fifth outfielder (depending on whether the Braves platoon left field), it does make a difference, if just a slight one.
Fourth outfielders do play defense from time to time, and Schafer isn’t very good at it. He makes bad breaks on line drives and takes bad routes to the gaps at times, and he relies heavily on speed. Schafer’s one advantage defensively – and perhaps his entire game – is his strong arm.
Defensive metrics back up my claims, as well. For his career, Schafer has been worth -24 defensive runs saved and -10.2 UZR. Someone will be quick to say he’s good defensively based on speed, but speed doesn’t equal good defense, and I’d like to think we’re beyond that line of thinking by now.
Schafer’s offensive struggles are well-documented. He owns a career line of .221/.305/.301 with a .274 wOBA and 68 wRC+. He’s also had injury issues, including separating the AC joint in both shoulders, fracturing a middle finger and left wrist surgery. At 26 years old, his potential is pretty much tapped out.
As I said, if the Braves are bringing Schafer back as minor league depth, this move means little to nothing. If they expect him to play defense in a pinch, or more if he has to fill in for an injured starter, his below-average fielding does not make this a worthwhile move. A lot of this depends on how the outfield will shake out by spring.