Oh, this day. If any one day led to Frank Wren’s firing, it was this one – even if it took years to happen.
First, let’s go with a history refresher. The Atlanta Braves lose 90 games with Bobby Cox at the helm in 2008. It was Wren’s first season after taking over from John Schuerholz. He inherited a roster with promise in the field, but weaknesses on the mound. Jair Jurrjens, who just 22 years old, led the team in starts and innings pitched after Tim Hudson went down with an injury. The rest of the staff? Jorge Campillo, Jo-Jo Reyes, Mike Hampton, and a not-ready-for-primetime Charlie Morton. The Braves finished with a 4.46 ERA – the third consecutive year the team had an ERA over 4 (hadn’t happened since the 70’s). There was little hope on the farm outside of Tommy Hanson. The Braves needed pitching and they needed it bad.
But that wasn’t the only reason Wren went kind of crazy on the free agent market. After adding Javier Vazquez to the rotation, the Braves were hopeful that would be the start of a big and booming offseason. However, they struck out on acquiring Jake Peavy, who would ultimately be kept and traded at the 2009 deadline by the Padres. They also struck out on Rafael Furcal, who was all but certain to return to Atlanta. They were trying to hammer out a deal for Ken Griffey Jr., who had reached out to them but were getting nowhere. Junior would ultimately sign with the Mariners. Wren, who was far more gifted at trading for players than signing them, felt the pressure to return Atlanta to prominence with an improved rotation. He targeted Lowe and went for broke on Kawakami.
In his defense, Lowe was coming off a 3.26 FIP in his final year with the Dodgers that included a sweet 3.27 K/BB ratio. The only problem was that he was entering his upper 30’s. Kawakami had a spent a decade honing his craft with Chunichi in the Central League from Japan’s Nippon Professional League. He did have some good seasons – especially in 2006, but was also 33 years-old.
One other thing to remember was the defection of John Smoltz. Many thought he would retire as a Brave, but Wren was not anxious to resign him for 2009. Smoltz had thrown just 28 innings in 2008, ending a streak of three consecutive 200+ inning seasons since his return to the rotation. Just months before his 42nd birthday, Atlanta waffled on a competitive offer for Smoltz. Wren seemed to utilize the “I want to save face, but I don’t want to sign you” philosophy John Schuerholz used on Tom Glavine. Smoltz would sign with the Red Sox one day before the deals for Lowe and Kawakami were made official.
Another thing to remember was how in demand Lowe was, especially by the New York Mets. The sticking point boiled down to a fourth year. The Mets were willing to include it as an option, but they would not guarantee it. The Braves panicked and gave it to Lowe on the condition he quickly signed. He jumped at it.
All told, the Braves agreed to a $60M contract with Lowe and a 3-year, $23M contract with Kawakami. Lowe started strong but was prone to complete crapfests (6 R or more in 5 starts). As the season progressed, his ERA ballooned to 4.67. Durable as usual, he was basically a worse Russ Ortiz in 2009. Kawakami was…okay. 4.21 FIP, 1.34 WHIP, 156.1 ING. He could have been worse. We’d find out how worse.
Lowe was better in in 2010. People have a misconception about Lowe’s time with Atlanta. it wasn’t great, but his 3.89 FIP in Atlanta was just 0.12 worse than his time with the Dodgers. It was just that when he was bad, he got really bad. When he was good, it never seemed like $60M good enough. One problem for Lowe was his sinker was losing sink and his control – so pinpoint with the Dodgers – was only very good rather than excellent. For a pitcher reliant on a limited skillset not eroding, age was getting to him. Still, Lowe finished strong in 2010 and even started two postseason games. He pitched well, but not good enough as the Braves depleted roster just lacked the firepower to beat the Giants.No matter what we might say about Lowe, he was still better than Kawakami. In 2010, things just got ugly for the Japanese import. Win-loss record should be killed, but you have to suck to get to 1-10 usually. The Braves jettisoned Kawakami to the minors in July. He would make two appearances in September and finished the year with a 5.15 ERA in less than 90 innings. In 2011, injured and ineffective, Kawakami never pitched above AA ball. Mississippi fans wished he hadn’t been there all the same.
Lowe’s 2011 was bad – though again his other peripherals weren’t terrible. He was declining at a steady rate and at a rate that wasn’t hard to imagine considering his age. After 2011’s 5.05 ERA, the Braves paid $10M on the remaining $15M just to trade him to the Indians.
In the end, Wren’s free agent decisions in the winter of 2008-09 overshadowed pickups like Vazquez and Eric O’Flaherty, also acquired that winter. The 2009 Braves finished short of the playoffs, while the 2010 team – infused with Jason Heyward, Jonny Venters, and Kris Medlen – were good enough to go to the playoffs. 2011 would see the Braves collapse down the stretch and miss the playoffs completely. Lowe lost his last five starts, including 7-1 in the season’s penultimate game against the Phillies. He gave up five runs in four innings that night. His last pitch was on a single by Jimmy Rollins to open the 5th. A batter later, Hunter Pence homered off Arodys Vizcaino to put the Braves down 6-0.
Lowe would be out of baseball by the end of 2013 and Kawakami returned to Japan in 2012, pitching three more brief years for Chunichi. Expected to be a strong middle-of-the-rotation arm for three years, he finished with just 243.2 ING in the majors.
As for Wren, the signings of Lowe and Kawakami, along with Melvin Upton Jr. and the extension for Dan Uggla would lead to his dismissal near the end of the 2014 season. The 2008-09 offseason, especially, was particularly damning. The near signing of Furcal, not being able to add Peavy, settling for Garret Anderson after Griffey went back to Seattle, Smoltz leaving…all of these things were PR nightmares, but their lasting effects were minimal. Nobody could say the same about Lowe and Kawakami.