Today marks 37 days until the July 31st Major League non-waiver trading deadline. With teams closing in on the actual halfway point in the season (the 81st games coming later this week) and the All-Star break right around the corner, the time is right for teams to start considering trades to fill their holes for the stretch run this summer. At this point, the bottom-dwellers are making peace with the reality of their situation and are reluctantly starting to accept phone calls. But for the first time in recent memory, the Braves find themselves needing very little at this point in the season.
The Cubs are leading the way here, having put out the word that they are “ready to sell” their players, and have made it known that they will use their major league talent to fuel a strategy of loading up on high-ceiling young players. The White Sox are likewise close to admitting their own failures, and with one of the worst farm system in baseball, they NEED to sell their assets to have any hope of improving their longer-terms fortunes. By contrast, the Blue Jays – who can’t seem to pass up a waiver claim (excepting one named Jordan Schafer) – are loaded with AAAA players… but still can’t win. That notwithstanding, their farm is also ranked fairly low.
Atlanta is actually floundering in several areas offensively, but there is likely only one specific hole they aim to fill via trade: the bullpen. Here’s why:
- Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty. Lost for the year with ligament replacement surgery… the second time for Venters.
- Luis Ayala. working back through anxiety issues slowly. Return not imminent
- Alex Wood. Filling in admirably, though the Braves would prefer him to be a starter, and to continue his development in the minors.
- Cristhian Martinez. Injured early. Has not returned.
It is indeed a testament to this patchwork group of pitchers that despite all of this adversity, the bullpen staff actually has the best ERA in the majors. We’ll also do a shout-out to the starting five since the bullpen has also been required to throw the fourth fewest innings in the majors… exactly what the Braves were hoping for this year. Nonetheless, you do have to wonder if the starting staff can possibly keep up this incredible run that they’re on (4th in baseball in ERA; tied for second in most innings pitched; only one game using a 6th starter).
Here are three ways that Atlanta can help the bullpen out down the stretch:
1. Help from the Offense. Sounds strange, but Atlanta is only 18th in run scoring in June, and only 21-21 since their 13-2 start! Justin Upton wasn’t hitting much this month, but now he’s battling a hand injury. The woes of others are well documented in these pages. Clearly, better run support takes that pressure off the pitching staff and makes their efforts a lot easier.
2. Help From Within. Brandon Beachy could help – clearly the team wanted him to start, but between the performances of the starting staff and his own recent setback, a Medlen-esque bullpen stint would seem to be a reasonable solution for all concerned. Also, if Luis Ayala can be returned to form, that would also help a lot.
3. Help From a Trade. Here’s where things get interesting. There are actually a LOT of possible candidates that are highly ranked. But here’s my top fifteen:
Jesse Crain. White Sox. There are fears that he is being over-used (35 innings thus far), but he’s giving up nothing: 0.52 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, lots of K’s. Contract Status: free agent at end of year; $4.5m this year. I would also inquire about Matt Lindstrom ($2.3m this year; $4m option for 2014 w/$500K buyout).
Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers. Has returned to his former form. The Braves just saw this first-hand. 0.59 ERA. Dirt-cheap deal (uncertain numbers, but likely under $3m; free agent after this season).
- Selections from the Marlins’ Pen. Specifically LOOGY Dan Jennings (0.71, only 13 innings), or Mike Dunn, though there are others of possible interest.
- Almost Anybody in the Blue Jays’ bullpen. Brett Cecil (39 ip; another guy whose arm could fall off), Casey Janssen, Neil Wagner, Steve Delabar (36 ip), Aaron Loup (36 ip), Darren Oliver. Only Oliver has an ERA above 2.10, and his is 3.0.
- Bring Home Somebody from KC? Atlanta is in Kansas City for the first time ever today, and (briefly a) former Brave Tim Collins would be an interesting pickup (2.33 in 27 innings).
About Trading for Relievers:
- Affordability (cash considerations). Atlanta has plenty in reserve to pay for anybody named above. No problem.
- Affordability (trading prospects). This will be trickier. Two philosophies:  When you trade sooner, you get the guy you want; have time to see if the problem is really solved  When you trade later, the price might drop. I’ve listed 15 names above (and there are more). Relievers should not cost that much to acquire, and the supply should keep the price down to a reasonable mid-level prospect. This should especially be the case for end-of-contract guys, though I expect that Crain and K-Rod will nonetheless cost a lot.
- Trading Partners. This is actually good, since the General Managers with the “goods” are traditionally excellent to deal with. Alex Anthopolous (Blue Jays) has never seen a trade he didn’t like. Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein of the Cubs are definitely interested in improvements via trade (and the Braves talked with them a lot last year). The White Sox (Rick Hahn now) have ‘blown it all up’ before… and likely should now. This is not Kevin Towers (Diamondbacks) we’re talking about here. Then again, others will know this, too.
Thus, I would personally like to see Atlanta get a deal done sooner than later (no later than the All-Star break). I would not expect a bigger name, as the Braves’ farm system is a little thin now, but I do have one bold move to suggest…
The Bold Move:
Make AA Catcher Christian Bethancourt available to the highest bidder. He’s been on something of a power surge (for him, at least) lately and this might be his ‘sell high’ moment. The emergence of Evan Gattis makes him ‘touchable’ now, and this is the time to consider moving the almost-22-year-old.
I do not see anyone being traded from the major league roster. Though there is clearly room for improvement, there is too much risk in doing so (risk that replacements would not perform well enough to justify the move). Any thoughts that people might have had about maybe moving a starting pitcher to make room for Beachy were dashed by the reality that you truly can never have enough starting pitching… a truth underscored by Beachy himself.
In terms of position players, Uggla isn’t going anywhere (and who knows? maybe the contacts will help). Chris Johnson is actually a very highly ranked 3rd base threat… there’s truly no place to even find an upgrade for him. The rest? Nope.
The bench is actually as solid as it has ever been, with Schafer, Gattis, and Pena all taking lead roles. If anything else were to happen, then it could be in the form of a LH bench bat (which could require the release of Reed Johnson).
But even this LH bench bat need represents a minor consideration: the only true issue with the Braves’ roster is the need for bullpen help. Aside from this, the outfield bats really need to get going and improve on that .500 record since mid-April.
Let’s see your ideas!