Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed something out on Twitter, and it ruined my afternoon. The Braves have been the best hitting team in the National League since the All-Star break. We’re talking about just a couple months, here, so sample-size gremlins are still to be feared, but the contrast is remarkable. In the middle of May, the Braves had one win in Turner Field, fewer than seven other teams. It was possible to write an article rooted in funny Braves stats, especially considering they were on pace to go 37-125. They weren’t just awful. They were all-time awful.
They got better. There’s still a small chance they could lose 100 games with a well-timed losing streak, but they’ll also likely match their first-half win total in about 20 fewer games. They’ve already scored more runs in September than they did in April, May, June, or July, and there are still 10 games to go.
They just played the spoiler and mooned the Mets in New York. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps fans coming around last-place teams in September.
This momentum naturally leads us into the offseason. The Braves are moving into a new, controversial ballpark that already has something of a public relations problem. If there are any sort of hiccups with the opening — say, if the famed pedestrian bridge isn’t completed on time — a dreadful, sub-replacement team would make the air of failure exponentially worse. This is a team that could really use an improved roster and an exciting offseason. And now we have some sort of inclination as to what the Braves will do. ESPN’s Buster Olney talked with John Coppolella, the Braves' GM, and MLB Trade Rumors transcribed some of the more interesting snippets, including ...
"We have more money now than we’ve had in any of the 10 years that I’ve been a part of the Braves," said Coppolella. "Our biggest needs are going to be starting pitchers. We have a lot of good young starters, guys with great arms, guys that we still really like. They have been somewhat force-fed into opportunities because of guys getting hurt and/or traded. So part of what we want to do is get guys that are more stable — not that we’re going to write off any of our young arms, we still like all them very much — but if we could add two veteran starting pitchers, that would really help our team."
With Freddie Freeman hitting like an MVP candidate in the second half, Dansby Swanson emerging, and Ender Inciarte justifying the Shelby Miller trade on his own, it’s not out of the question to suggest the Braves might have a core to build around in the short-term rather than the long-term. They might be more interested in using 2017 as a bridge year to contending in 2018, which is a plan that usually gives the team that slight chance of shocking the world a year early, like the Astros and Rangers last season.
They would just need to shore up the roster a little bit.
With what, you ask?
... but if we could add two veteran starting pitchers, that would really help our team.
Seems logical. Get some bridge pitchers to help with the bridge to the next contending teams. The Braves should be focused on that bridge. Also, the other bridge. But we’ll talk about this bridge for now. The one to the next contending team. What kind of veteran starting pitchers are out there? To the free agent power rankings!
- Rich Hill
- Edinson Volquez
- Jeremy Hellickson
- Bartolo Colon
- Colby Lewis
- Doug Fister
- Ivan Nova
- Andrew Cashner
- Jorge de la Rosa
- R.A. Dickey
- Mat Latos
- Jake Peavy?
- C.J. Wilson?
Now cross-reference that list with the list of teams looking for at least one starting pitcher:
- All of them
Hrmm. This is something of a mess. You have a market in which Edinson Volquez, leading the American League in earned runs, might get $50 million, and that might be drastically underestimating his contract. It’s possible that the Braves could elbow their way into this scrum and use all of that piggy bank money to lock up Jeremy Hellickson. But that just brings up a famous baseball saying: When you spend all of your available money on Jeremy Hellickson, you’ve sure spent all of your available money on Jeremy Hellickson.
The other option would be to trade for a starting pitcher, but that doesn’t make sense, either. They’ve worked very, very hard to build one of the best farm systems in baseball, and they’re not going to want to break that up. Because you know the asking prices for even average starting pitchers is going to be nonsensical.
Now we get to the dilemma, the fascinating decision teased up top. We’ve established a few things. The Braves would like to at least be watchable next year, with an outside chance of making some sort of postseason chase. To do this, they would like to spend some of their newly found money on starting pitchers. Of which there are almost none worth acquiring Because there aren’t any starting pitchers, the rebuilding teams will get to trade their competent starting pitchers for outrageous ransoms.
Technically, the Braves are a rebuilding team.
They have a competent starting pitcher. Julio Teheran would be one of the best pitchers on the market.
The reason they’re doing much better in the second half is because they traded one of their competent starting pitchers for an outrageous ransom.
Teheran is also young enough and cheap enough to be a part of the next great Braves team, whether that comes in 2017 or 2020.
He’s also coming off a lost season in which it was fair to wonder if he had been sucked into the same vortex as Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, and Randall Delgado. If there’s a team that knows that young pitchers will break your heart, if there’s a team that knows the difference between the fastball in the hand and the fastballs in the bush, it’s the Braves. If there’s a team that has the best example of "Phew, glad we traded that guy a year too early rather than a year too late" in baseball, it’s the Braves.
Yet, here are the Braves in the middle of next June, 15 games under .500, with a cavalcade of goofballs giving up five or six runs in every start, trying to impress a fan base that needs to sit in an hour of traffic just to sit in their $60 seats, who in turn wonder about the grave mistake they’ve made. Whatever organization-building haul they would get for Teheran might not show up as quickly as Swanson and Inciarte did. That’s not always the turnaround time on those trades.
If they have Teheran, and he’s as good as he’s been this year, that’s another attraction for a team that needs attractions. He would be a reason to watch the 2017 Braves if everything goes right; the 2018 and 2019 Braves aren’t quite the point right now. The new stadium needs to be filled with something watchable.
The baseball answer is to Shelby Teheran away and scrooge-dive into the vault of prospects and young stars. This is the perfect offseason to leverage a pitcher like that into an unbelievable trade package.
The marketing answer is a little more complicated. It’s easy to watch Teheran pitch. He’s talented. He’s fun. Fun, talented players are going to be at a premium with the Braves’ new park. And if the franchise stumbles with this rollout, if they somehow foist an awful team on an unsure public when they have everyone’s attention, it could futz up the baseball answers of the future. So, the marketing answer is kind of a baseball answer, too.
The right answer is something in the middle, probably. Trade Teheran for something absurd. Pay too much money for pitchers who won’t set the new place aflame. Stay on track with the prospect pipeline, and make do with something watchable in the interim. It would be nice to keep the homegrown star, but maybe the goal should be a little more modest. Make the team watchable. They've done a great job in the second half.
The Braves aren’t nearly as far away as we thought in the first two months of the season, and that’s given them something of a window. Also, a dilemma. And it’s leading to the most fascinating decision from any team this offseason.