What’s The Braves’ Next Move

 

LetsmakeadealThe annual second half chess game is underway. This is the game where GMs try to do in the last two weeks what they weren’t able to do in the previous year, put together a team to win a championship. Rumors are being strategically leaked, injuries take players off the market before they were really on it and the new CBA changes what clubs will give for a rental on the chance that he might make a big enough difference to justify the trade. For Braves’ GM Frank Wren this year is a particularly important one. After the September Surrender and promises that steps would be taken to keep it from happening again the Braves enter the second half virtually unchanged from the 25 who finished last year so badly.

Making The Right Move

This morning Fredi Gonzalez and crew are in second place three games back of the revitalized and contiguously improving Nationals and two and a half games ahead of a Mets team that refuses to go away in spite of being comprised mostly of AAAA players.  While the Nats have figured it out and the Mets are full of fight the Braves are about as frustrating as a team can be. Pitchers alternately have superb outings then act like they’ve forgotten the basics. Hitters are either scorching hot or glacially cold with Bourn and Prado the only real exceptions. Defense is either tight as a drum or reminiscent of the Bad New Bears. Fans regularly  scream for the head of the manager who after five plus years in that role regularly gets strategically blind sided by his opposite number.

With that as the backdrop and the added angst caused by Brandon Beachy’s elbow injury, a sudden rash of dislocated fingers and the non-waiver trade deadline approaching, Braves’ fans want things done turn the roller coaster ride’s sharp peaks and  valleys into an undulating but enjoyable trip to a division title.  To win they need to do significantly better within the division in the second half. Make no mistake, winning must be the target. If when it’s all said and done the Braves end up in the wild card shootout that’s a different story. But suggesting that a one game playoff is acceptable is unrealistic bravado. If the Braves want to play in October they need to win the division. And, not to put too fine a point on it the Braves need to win now, in 2012, because things change dramatically in 2013

Why Now?

Lots of factors come together after this season that make this the time to push for the finish line.

  • Chipper Jones departure at the end of the season leaves a void that will not be easy to fill. The team will not only miss his bat but also the leadership he provides when the team struggles. When Chipper leaves who will provide that?
  • Michael Bourn is a Scott Boras free agent who owes no allegiance to the Braves and has made it pretty clear he likes the look of the Nationals. While many have screamed ‘ sign Bourn at any price,’ that isn’t likely nor are the Braves known for giving 20% of the payroll to a man not named Chipper Jones.
  • Next year is Brian McCann’s walk year and he’s another $17-20M/year player. Will he be extended or traded to replenish the minor league system?
  • Speaking of the Braves farm system, it’s pretty barren and needs replenishing. We have no significant arms anywhere near ready beyond Teheran and the outlook for our everyday players was summed up by Keith Law over at ESPN: “It’s telling that the major question on every position-player prospect in their top 10 is whether he’ll hit.”.   This lack of depth is easy to see and means there’s little hope of significant help coming from there next year.

Based on that, this year seems to be our best shot. If the trade deadline moves are done right we can challenge and win this year as well as smooth out the ride for the next 3 years or so. Making that happen is up to Frank Wren.  What he does between now and the end of the trade deadlines (non-waiver July 31 and waiver August 31) will determine the quality of player skipper put on the field and quite possibly whether they he and Skipper Gonzales keep their jobs in 2013.

What We Need

On July 3rd a Baseball Prospectus article “What Contenders Need” (subscription required) placed Braves playoff odds at 54%. That percentage goes up and down with streaks and injuries so the 54% number itself isn’t as critical as its proximity to a coin flip.  Kevin Goldstein and Bradley Ankrom  agree with everyone else that the Braves need starting pitching. I’d go farther and suggest that the pitcher needs to be a number one starter because with all due respect to our pitchers, there’s not a number one amongst them. What the gentlemen at BP and most others didn’t mention and everyone seems to ignore is out bench strength, aside from David Ross it’s awful.

  • Eric Hinske got a big hit yesterday but he’s been bad. In June his slash was .130/.200/.261.
  • Matt Diaz hits lefties well (.278/.333/.417/.750, 2 homers 12 RBI) but against right handers he’s pathetic (.107/.161/.143/.304 with 3 RBI). He’s a better outfielder than Hinske but both are at best replacement level.
  • Jack Wilson can’t hit the side of a barn from the inside. although he hits right handed pitchers better than Diaz.
  • Wilson’s injury spurred yesterday’s trade for Paul Janish.  Janish has a great glove but last year hit .214/.259/.262 and hasn’t played a major league game this year.

Our bullpen has been okay not great. But except for Craig Kimbrel, everyone has struggled at times. Peter Moylan may be back in August but our five inning starters will by that time have worn out the arms down there. So optimally I’d add a bullpen arm as well.

I would argue that our real needs in order of priority are:

  • (1) A number one starter
  • (1A) Bench Bats
  • (2) Bullpen help if possible

What can the GM really do?

Track Record

The Baseball Prospectus folks were kinder to the GM than I’ve been. In the article noted above they said.

“Frank Wren has made neither decidedly brilliant nor unfathomably foolish moves in his tenure as Braves general manager, with most of his wheelings and dealings falling comfortably near the break-even mark.”

I can name a couple of unfathomably bad moves but that’s another post entirely. Whatever he’s done in the past, he has a chance to wipe all the bad stuff away (until he screws up again of course.)  It’s time to for him to put on his big boy boots and kick GM tail to set the Braves up for continuously good seasons.

Build For 2012 AND The Future

Anyone who’s ever managed anything long term will tell you that planning for this year in isolation is strategy that will eventually find you unemployed.  Wren has tried in the past to look longer term though those attempts were unsuccessful. Perhaps as a result of those missteps his usual approach is not to do anything too outside the box. That isn’t the way his mentors played the game when they were successful and I don’t think that’s what he really wants to do.

Be The GM You Really Want To Be

Wren learned to be a GM under Dave Dombrowski and John Schuerholz. In my view he thinks of himself as that type of GM; a quiet behind the scenes dealer who spots an undervalued player or an opportunity to snatch a long term quality asset and considers the price paid an investment. The trouble with trying to catch lightning in a bottle like that is that it’s lightning and not catching it means you may get fried. Even though he’s been singed badly a few times he must shrug that fear off and go for it now. It’s time to be bold again, time to think outside the box, unbutton the collar and swing for the fences.  And, he has the wherewithal to do just that, or so he told Chris Vivlamore  in a Q&A for the AJC on Friday.

We have flexibility to make a deal. I think we have the kind of talent that other teams want in our system. We have flexibility in the payroll to add a significant piece if we think it’s justified.

Wherever he suddenly got the money, the GM just removed his biggest excuse. Not only does he have the trade chips, he has money. So, what are we waiting for Frank?  Let’s do this deal!

The Big Deal

possibleThe big, franchise defining, career making deal is not always there and when it is you should grab it. JS is still praised for signing Fred McGriff  and that was a simple free agent deal. even though he made some not so good ones as well.  Since the money and the right trading chips are available, if the deal is there now is the time to make the deal.  I believe that a big deal or perhaps three variations of big deals are possible right now.  The question really is, does Wren see the deal and if he does see it does he have the ability to pull it off? After all seeing it and making it happen are two different things.

I hear you screaming. ‘what deal’? Okay if you insist I’ll give you one ‘for instance’ of a deal that could change the franchise’s future.  Before I start let me identify the obstacle to such a deal; narrow focus and the inability to see things that might be.

Common wisdom says that the Braves’ lineup is pretty good and getting an every day bat not the right move. The GM echoed it in the same AJC blog post..

How do you make your team better? Arguably, we have one of the best outfields in baseball . . . It’s hard for me to quite figure out where we’d plug a bat in. . . . I’m not sure where we would add a bat but we are open to evaluate the team all the time. (emphasis added)

The first two emphasized statements are what holds back change; the change maker just doesn’t see it. If however the last statement is true there’s hope.

Prior to starting my flight of fantasy a caveat. I do understand that trades are rarely simple. I do understand that multi-team deals are harder than most. I am not privy to any inside information and I don’t believe it’s this easy for a GM to put something big and meaningful together.  I am not advocating for this player above all others – okay I am a little – there are others I think could be handled in a similar and perhaps less expensive and convoluted manner.  What I’m suggesting is that contrary to Carlos’ nice piece explaining why the Braves aren’t players for Justin Upton, a deal might just be possible if there’s a vision that looks past August 31 2012 and a willingness to take a chance.

Suspend your disbelief in my evaluations of various parties in this situation and remember it’s the CONCEPT not the details Im advocating.

Background

In various trade stories and interviews it’s been suggested that:

  1. The Diamondbacks are looking for a major league ready third baseman and a couple of pieces – like relief pitching – in exchange for Upton. We have that. (Don’t get ahead of me)
  2. The Tigers are looking for a second baseman who can hit his weight. We have that.
  3. We need pitching  The Tigers have that.
  4. We really could use a good right handed bat that get’s on base and has some pop. Upton is that.

So what about . . .

Calling his old boss in Dave Dombrowski in Detroit and offering Dan Uggla to the Tigers for Rick Porcello.

Calling Kevin Towers and suggesting Juan Francisco is there major league ready third baseman and that given a chance to play every day he will hit. ( During September of 2011 he played 22 games for the Reds and finished with a triple, seven doubles, 3 homers 13 RBI and 9 runs scored. His slash was .270/.299/.514/.812 and a BAbip of .340) Tell Towers we’d send him with bullpen help in the form of Zeke Spruill and maybe another player for Justin Upton and Willie Bloomquist. (That may or may not be enough but minor league pieces are movable here with maybe three exceptions. Give Towers what he needs – within reason – to make the trade.)

If completed your everyday lineup now looks like this:

Bourn CF

Prado 2B

Heyward RF (Freeman 1b)

Upton LF

Freeman 1B (Heyward RF)

Chipper 3B

McCann C

Simmons/Janish SS

Pitcher

Okay Okay calm down. I can hear everyone and I know what some of you’re saying so let me reply

Would the Tigers trade Porcello for Uggla?  Actually they might just do that. Porcello has been erratic this year and the have a genuine need for a second baseman.  They sent Jair Jurrjens to Atlanta for Edgar Renteria – yes we paid part of Edgar’s salary and might have to do that for Uggla – but the that trade allowed Yunel Escobar to play shortstop and this one would clear $13M from the books, a boom or bust hitter who’s aging from the lineup and a defensive liability from the infield.

The D’Backs owner has decided that Upton isn’t trying hard enough though June may have eased his position. Upton’s been injured like Heyward last year he tried to play hurt then he decided he needed to be healthier to play well. That lag was a blip not a trend. He’s an MVP caliber player and a future superstar. Upton in left makes the best outfield better and solves the outfield platoon issue because his left/right splits are almost the same. He’s controllable and affordable through 2016. He could well play center if Bourn leaves and if you want to rest Jason Heyward. Upton plays right with the best of them. He’s 24 years old and one of the best talents in the game. There should always be room for talent.

Bloomquist simply provides a backup with a bat to play third, short, second or the outfield if needed. Bye Jack,

Prado is a superb second baseman. Putting him back in that spot tightens the infield up. It’s true we lose Uggla’s home runs but we lose his K% as well. In June Upton’s line was .333/.392/.437/.829 2 homers and 14 RBI. He more than fills Uggla’s place in the lineup and the all around defense improvement makes our pitching better.

Porcello isn’t a number one starter but he’s a at least a two. His consistent 50%+ ground ball rate makes him a fit. His 4.47 ERA may look bad but his FIP is 3.84 and with our defense and against National League lineups he’d  lower both numbers. As a 23 year old (24 in December) who’s under control until 2016 he’s a perfect guy for the Braves. If however you chose not to keep him Porcello might just entice Francisco Liriano away from the Twins, Zack Greinke away from the Brewers or with another arm Felix Hernandez away from the Mariners.

Moves like this would put the Braves on solid footing for the next 3 years and allow time to rebuild the farm system.  If we can’t find the third baseman we like we might find another second baseman during the post season and slide Prado back to third.

That’s A Wrap

Okay we all know that isn’t going to happen. There are too many moving parts and too many hypotheticals. But remember this isn’t a “gee let’s trade Jack Wilson for Josh Hamilton” post.  It’s merely an illustration of a concept I believe essential to our success this year and in the next few years.  Rather than thinking something can’t be done because you don’t see the options, we should consider what could be done then see how close you can get to making it happen. In the end this is all down to Frank Wren. I don’t see him as this kind of dynamic outside the box thinker.  But if he intends for the Braves to win now and be viable into the future – not to mention enhancing job security – it’s the kind of plan he needs. If he pulls it off I have a freezer load of crow and lots of salsa to make them palatable.

Tags: Chipper Jones Frank Wren Michael Bourn Trade Rumors Trades

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