The seminal day of Frank Wren's tenure as Atlanta Braves general manager started with him whacking one of the greatest players in franchise history. Cutting an icon like Tom Glavine(notes), after he had thrown six scoreless innings Tuesday on a rehab start no less, takes a healthy dose of emotional detachment, and it signaled that Wren is finally committed to a clean break from the Braves' old identity.
Calling up the mega-hyped Tommy Hanson(notes) on Wednesday to take Glavine's presumed spot in Atlanta's rotation was enough to push ahead the new-and-improved message. Then Wren outdid himself early in the evening, acquiring All-Star center fielder Nate McLouth(notes) from the Pittsburgh Pirates for three prospects.
What looked like a melancholy afternoon, the old warhorse being put out to Elmer's factory, turned out to be an evening rife with symbolism – where the Braves want to be and, more important, where they believe they are now: square among the contenders in the National League East.
Which is … brave. Atlanta is 26-26 in a division with defending champion Philadelphia – playing as well as anyone – a New York team five games over .500 despite black-cat luck, and the capable Florida Marlins. As much as the McLouth deal shores up the Braves' black hole in center field created by Jordan Schafer's(notes) demotion to Triple-A, and as bloody brilliant as Hanson has been at every minor league stop, the Braves aren't in the Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz mold, not even close.
The good news is that there's little downside to this confluence of moves. Certainly the Braves are risking another disaster similar to the Mark Teixeira(notes) trade of two years back. Giving up Elvis Andrus(notes) was bad. And Jarrod Saltalamacchia(notes) made it worse. And Matt Harrison(notes) turned it into waterboarding. And if Neftali Feliz(notes) continues to throw 100 mph when Texas brings him up in a month, well, that would even make Cheney shudder.
Of the players the Braves shipped to the Pirates for McLouth, center fielder Gorkys Hernandez and left-handed pitcher Jeff Locke, both 21, provide the greatest such fear. Hernandez is a burner with questionable power that, if it develops, will make him among the best prospects in baseball. And Locke is a lefty whose fastball touches 95, and thus he is coveted. The third piece, right-hander Charlie Morton(notes), may crack the back of the Pirates' rotation eventually, but he's little more than a hittable command-and-control guy.
McLouth, on the other hand, will be around a while. He signed a three-year deal with Pittsburgh this offseason that includes a team option for $10.65 million in 2012. He won a Gold Glove last year – the sort earned more by spectacular plays than consistent gap-to-gap coverage, but still – and broke out with 26 home runs in his first full season. The power has stayed, and whether McLouth hits anywhere first through fifth, his addition is welcome.
Because an outfield of Garret Anderson(notes), Gregor Blanco(notes) and Jeff Francoeur(notes) wasn't getting the Braves anywhere. Wren this offseason signed pitchers Derek Lowe(notes) and Kenshin Kawakami(notes), and traded for Javier Vazquez(notes), to shake off the San Diego Padres snubbing his attempts to acquire Jake Peavy(notes). Atlanta's pitching staff has been excellent, its strikeout-to-walk ratio a major league-best 2.24-to-1 and its 4.04 ERA seventh in the majors.
The bats have stunk. Atlanta ranks 20th in runs scored. Only four teams have hit fewer than its 38 home runs. The Braves need pop, and while a lineup with McLouth looks respectable on paper, let's remember that paper crumbles, tears and is quite flammable.
Ultimately this comes back to pitching, which makes Hanson's promotion so exciting. He is the archetypal Braves scouting find, a powerful 6-foot-6 arm and one of the final draft-and-follow selections – in which teams chose a talented high school player headed to junior college in the later rounds and could sign him for an elevated bonus as the next draft approached – before baseball discontinued the process.
Finances are the only reason Hanson didn't break in with the Braves this season. By keeping him in the minor leagues past Memorial Day, Atlanta almost ensured Hanson would not accumulate enough service time to qualify for arbitration after his second season. He earned the promotion, and a while ago at that: Hanson struck out 90 in 66 1/3 innings with a 1.49 ERA at Triple-A and joins what is now the best rotation in the NL – and probably baseball.
Which is funny. Because in trying to push the Braves forward, Wren actually harkened to their past. Some organizations have philosophies. Minnesota preaches throwing strikes. Boston covets plate discipline. Philadelphia targets projectable athletes. The Braves win with pitching.
So as sad as it was to see the 43-year-old Glavine treated as he was – with the Braves saying it was performance-related, when it's obvious that it had more to do with the $1 million bonus he was due once on the active roster – it had to happen. This is a business. The old gets shoved out, the new ushered in and life goes on as it did before.
If the slight to the Hall of Fame-bound Glavine infuriated the tenured Braves to the point it affected their play, so be it. Wren deemed it a risk worth taking in a day of them. He has remade this team, and even though there's more to be done – the underachieving Francoeur's exit chief among them – Wednesday was the big one. Wren, like all GMs worth their salt, put his stamp on the franchise. It leads to one of two places.
The playoffs or the unemployment line.