Monday, April 13, 2015

Bill Shanks Gets It Wrong On How Ken Rosenthal Gets It Wrong

It's important when you write up an article to directly attack another article's findings to understand the scope of the latter article. After all, when you muddle the issue with a variety of findings that have nothing to do with the original article, you are destroying your credibility to simply focus on what is at hand. Today's example - Bill Shanks, of Scout.com, recently penned "Ken Rosenthall Gets It Wrong on the Braves." By its own description, it's a response to Rosenthal "defending the previous front office."

To start, there are perfectly reasonable things to attack in Rosenthal's column from Thursday titled "Eyes on new front office to spark Braves renaissance." That is actually a pretty strange title to the findings that follow. Rosenthal suggests that the Braves were not nearly as bad at developing talent that the current front office has made them out to be. Rosenthal cites a number that the Braves have produced the second-most players who have reached the major leagues over the last five drafts. Whether that is an important stat is debatable (many players reach the majors with the help of circumstance), but it surely is evidence that the awful farm system that John Schuerholz has bemoaned as reason enough to can Frank Wren may not be as awful as previously thought.

Where Rosenthal loses focus is when he questions other trades made this offseason, or as he puts it, the "lesser trades." While being fully supportive of the trades of Justin Upton and Jason Heyward - "neither of whom the Braves intended to re-sign" - Rosenthal attacks the trade to acquire Manny Banuelos, among others. I get the premise. The Braves bullpen, which despite its start, has considerable question marks attached to it could have used David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve, but relievers are, as Shanks does say, often "interchangeable." The trade was the equivalent of winning a hand of poker but going double-or-nothing. The Braves had something good, but cashed that in for the chance for something better.

Rosenthal also humorously questions the trade that sent David Hale to the Rockies, suggesting that without it, the Braves may have been able to avoid trading for Trevor Cahill. This ignores a key fact - the Braves never needed to trade for Cahill. Sure, he's a high-reward guy who the Diamondbacks are largely footing the bill on, but it was essentially like taking a salary dump to also get a draft choice, which Rosenthal mentions but doesn't expand on. Other deals Rosenthal attacks are the Tommy La Stella trade (it's unlikely La Stella would be starting over Jace Peterson), the trade of Kyle Kubitza to the Angels for Ricardo Sanchez, and losing J.R. Graham in the Rule 5. The first two moves were calculated risks. Trading TLS opened up some more international money and Sanchez is a high-value prospect whereas Kubitza ultimately profiles as a second-tier starter (who was replaced by Rio Ruiz anyway). Losing Graham was questionable, but Graham's chances of major league success took a significant hit over the last two seasons. If all he becomes is an okayish reliever like J.J. Hoover, I doubt anyone in Atlanta will be upset about losing him.

These observations by Rosenthal are perfectly reasonable to nit-pick with, but the thesis of the article, as told in the final line, is that while Wren and his team had missteps and may have needed to be replaced, "...when it came to producing young talent, the Braves’ previous one wasn’t so bad."

This thesis is then rationalized by Shanks in a variety of ways. He first cites where the Braves were ranked in Keith Law's system rankings when 2014 ended. I get why he does so - it certainly helps his argument. But Rosenthal doesn't argue that the Braves had a wealth of depth in the system. He only argues that they produced a lot of young talent throughout the years. So, let's look at that. Frank Wren took over as General Manager following the woeful 2007 efforts to make the playoffs in John Schuerholz's swan song. I'm including draftees and international signings that have either made the playoffs or are currently reasonably good prospects. I'm using Gondeee's Top 20 for prospects.

2008
Drafted: Zeke Spruill, Craig Kimbrel, Paul Clemens, Brett Oberholtzer, J.J. Hoover
Signed: Christian Bethancourt, Brandon Beachy
2009 *
Drafted: Mike Minor, David Hale
2010
Drafted: Andrelton Simmons, Todd Cunningham, Philip Gosselin, Joey Terdoslavich, Brandon Drury, Chasen Shreve, Evan Gattis
Signed: Mauricio Cabrera, Jose Peraza
2011
Drafted: Sean Gilmartin, Nick Ahmed, J.R. Graham, Tommy La Stella, Cody Martin, Gus Schlosser
2012
Drafted: Lucas Sims, Alex Wood, Shae Simmons
2013
Drafted: Jason Hursh
Signed: Ozhaino Albies, Dilmer Mejia
2014
Drafted: Braxton Davidson

*Important to note that this was Roy Clark's last year

Were there lean years? Absolutely. But that applied during Schuerholz and Clark's time as well. Now, Shanks attacks this in a few ways, but he does admit that the farm system was hurt in some ways by the Braves signing free agents and forfeiting first round picks. For the record, Schuerholz also forfeited first round picks for Class A free agents under the older system. It wasn't until the payroll started to decrease that became less frequent. What Shanks does a poor job of is saying who the Braves took over the next guy. For instance, the Braves chose Hursh over Aaron Judge and Ian Clarkin. Both Yankees prospects look interesting and surely the Braves would like either, but who knows who was #2 on their board at the time? Who knows if Hursh was ahead of either Judge or Clarkin for the Yankees? It's just not a reasonable argument to be made. Shanks makes the same mistake when bemoaning who the Braves took in 2011, Gilmartin, over who they could have taken, Joe Panik and Henry Owens. This attempt to smear the previous front office team is even more glaring because Shanks seemingly ignores that six picks separated the back-to-back selections of Gilmartin and Panik and the pick of Owens. Of those six, only Mikie Mahtook has made it to the majors or even been a decent prospect.

Let's look back at that 2011 draft for a second because Shanks focuses on it. He suggests that "to laud the 2011 draft is puzzling." The problem there, and the problem with Shanks' diatribe, is that he attacks Rosenthal for something Rosenthal never did. Unless I'm missing the special director's cut of the article, Rosenthal doesn't laud any particular draft over another. Shanks position is that the draft produced quantity over quality, which is fair but irrelevant. Rosenthal's overarching point is that the system produced major league talent. Whether all-stars or not, the 2011 draft and others during Wren's regime produced major league talent.

Shanks also tries to tear down the selection of Simmons. He argues that Tony DeMacio, the scouting director, wanted to move Simmons to the mound. He makes a confusing assessment that the Braves didn't know Simmons was going to turn out so well on defense because they were intrigued by his arm on the mound. Being able to hit 98 mph is pretty intriguing. However, he wouldn't sign unless allowed to play shortstop. So, the Braves were willing to allow that to happen as well. But Shanks argues that the Braves "lucked into it" rather than knew it would happen. Well, that's pretty common with all prospects, but Shanks suggests that had they known, they would have drafted Simmons in front of Matt Lipka and Cunningham. Seriously, Bill?

"There were more misses than hits in these drafts." Shanks is not dumb, but he does think his readers are when he makes a statement like this. Of course there were more misses than hits. That's the nature of drafts and Shanks knows this. He does the same thing with the international signings. Sure, Peraza looks good, but what about Edward Salcedo, Shanks argues. There were more misses than hits there. What about Glenn Williams? What about Luis Rivera? What about Wilson Betemit? What about Andy Marte? Prospects fail - it's kind of why they are prospects and not established major league players and Shanks is perfectly aware of that.

From there, Shanks leaves the scope of Rosenthal's article. That's depressing because Shanks wrote some 4300 words for this article and only half of which really covers what Rosenthal said and often, he stretched what Rosenthal said to make a point. The rest of the article is devoted to how difficult Wren was to work with, how he got away from "The Braves Way," how nobody liked him, and the many missteps of Wren. He could have called this article, "Why Wren Sucked," but lumps it into an article attacking Rosenthal for positions Rosenthal does not take.

Wren may have been ultra-difficult to work with, though what Shanks fails to attempt to do is to understand the other side of this, so allow me. One, Schuerholz hired Wren and promoted him to General Manager. You're telling me that Schuerholz didn't know what kind of person Wren was? That he didn't know how he would want to work? Wren's issue in Baltimore with "disrespecting" Cal Ripken Jr. is not difficult to find, though it was so blown over because it was Cal. But regardless, Schuerholz has to take responsibility for promoting Wren, does he not? For extending Wren last spring? Shanks reports on a few instances where Wren had dust-ups with both Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, leading the latter to "quit" in spring training of 2009 before Schuerholz talked him out of it. Yet, Schuerholz tabbed Wren as his guy. Schuerholz reportedly believed that firing Wren was three years into the making. Three years is a long time to make a decision.

Second, Schuerholz as president and overruling Wren is a double-edge sword. Wren reportedly wanted to fire Fredi Gonzalez, but Schuerholz, under the pleas of Cox, stepped in. Schuerholz also hired John Hart without Wren's involvement. Schuerholz stepped in then, but where was he when the Braves signed Dan Uggla to a long-term extension? Where was he when B.J. Upton was signed? Doesn't he also have to own some of the credit for that? It appears that Shanks, who wrote a book that no one should ever read about Schuerholz, is still trying to get Schuerholz to betroth a daughter his way or something because his love affair with the former GM, current President, knows no end. Schuerholz was on board with Wren and thought Wren was his guy. Maybe he found out Wren preferred to do things his way rather than the way Schuerholz wanted them done. Regardless, Schuerholz oversaw everything Wren did and could have made the move at any point.

Third, Shanks contends, as others also do, that Wren was a micro-manager. He probably was, though I think it's easy to understand why. Apparently, his every move was scrutinized by his boss and sometimes overruled.

Finally, the Wren and Fredi disconnect. This, to me, is where the biggest problem actually lies. What made the Braves so good in the 90's was less Schuerholz's moves or Cox's strategy or Leo Mazzone's masterful handling of the pitchers or even Clark's drafting. It was that, as I mentioned last week, everyone was on the same page. While philosophies altered, the faces didn't and when they did, the replacements were quickly on the same page. The problem with Wren's run is that he had two managers who weren't on the same page as him, had to push out his scouting director to rectify that issue, and seemed to have a president overruling him. Regardless of Wren's good moves or bad ones, you can't have that kind of relationship. Something had to be done and since Schuerholz wasn't about to let Cox's hand-picked successor get the boot, Wren had to go so that the Braves could finally be on the same page. Again, if this was three years in the making, Schuerholz took his sweet time making it happen and prolonged this mess until it reached ridiculous levels.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I have no problem with the firing of Wren, restructuring of the front office, the rebuild that followed, and even keeping Fredi. I may not agree 100% with every step, but I understand them and to improve the team, they are reasonable steps considering the overarching decisions that were made (Fredi stays, the pending free agents wouldn't be resigned, the hitting philosophy was flawed).

Shanks contends that the 2014 Braves were the worst team in franchise history. Well, he actually said 2013, but I imagine that's a typo and I make plenty so I won't make fun of that. Regardless, Shanks is himself off-base. The 2014 Braves were not a great team, but they had their moments. They were misused by a manager who strived for more contact out of a swing-and-miss group, but they still had Julio Teheran and Wood and Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman and Simmons. I won't even say Shanks needs to look at the 80's to find a worse team. He can look at the final two years of Schuerholz in charge when the Braves trotted out, with regularity, Chuck James, Horacio Ramirez, Kyle Davies, Jorge Sosa, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Lance Cormier. You want to find an awful and dysfunctional team? There you go.

In the end, the Braves made drastic decisions. Rosenthal argues that the Braves were not in such bad shape to need the massive overhaul. There's a real argument to be made that they weren't, but there's an argument that they were. Both are reasonable positions to take. What Shanks fails to do is address Rosenthal's point that the Braves were still producing a lot of of young talent even as Schuerholz complained that they weren't. Instead, he blames-blames-blames Wren for the failures that led to last season. I'm fine with that, but next time you write an exhausting article about how someone is wrong, at least focus on the content of the actual article you are whining about. Like I just did.

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