By 92-9 The Game Contributor Nick Devlin (@nickdevlin):
There are no easy answers for Frank Wren.
With NL contenders like San Francisco, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and others ready to make a deal, the Braves general manager has a team in a less clearly defined position.
This much can be said: the Braves are again a contender. What gets decided now is what can be done to make the team better prior to the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.
USA Today baseball writer Bob Nightengale gave fuel to one pie-in-the-sky scenario when he tweeted that the Braves are one of four teams with the prospects to acquire Tampa Bay ace David Price. Then came Jon Morosi of FOX Sports on Friday with the cold water, saying on Friday that the Braves were not, in fact, looking to upgrade their rotation.
How much truth there is to either of those we don’t know, but even Wren would tell you that yes, the Braves are open to making a big addition…for the right price. And given the Braves’ needs, there’s a limited spectrum of moves that could be made.
It would take a major move to open a hole in the lineup. There’s the core of Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Andrelton Simmons. Chris Johnson just signed an extension, and between Evan Gattis and Christian Bethancourt, the Braves have in-house options at catcher for years to come. Whether Tommy La Stella is the long-term answer at second base is still unknown, but he carried a .292 batting average into the all-star break and has more than earned the right to keep the job for now.
That leaves center field. No one can blame fans for their frustration with B.J. Upton at this point, but he still has north of $50 million in guaranteed money remaining, is only 29, and plays a more-than-competent center field. He also entered Sunday hitting .273 in July. Maybe if he’s still struggling at this point in 2015, the Braves consider an Uggla-esque jettison, but it’s hard to see an upgrade coming right now.
What about the rotation? The previously enviable starting pitching depth was put to the test when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were lost before a meaningful pitch was thrown. A veteran starter, whether Price or a more affordable option, could easily slide in with Alex Wood, an adept swingman, heading back to the bullpen.
The issue with making a move is, despite Nightengale’s claim, the Braves’ minor league depth. Baseball Prospectus ranked the team 24th in minor league talent entering 2014, a ranking that may be generous at this point as top prospect Lucas Sims and 2013 first round pick Jason Hursh have both struggled through up-and-down seasons.
The one bright spot, second base Jose Peraza, is something the current lineup lacks – a high on-base hitter with speed and plus defensive skills. The Braves may want to hang onto him in case La Stella’s plus bat, his only above-average tool, falters.
That’s not to say the Braves couldn’t add a mid-rotation guy like A.J. Burnett or Ian Kennedy, but those are the types of pitchers they already have in spades. The marginal upgrade might not be worth the prospect toll.
So stand pat? They just may. After all, this is the roster that found itself in a first half dead heat with the Washington Nationals.
The worry there is that the Nationals are finally healthy. The lineup was without Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Wilson Ramos for large chunks of the first half, and the rotation did not get a full complement of starts from Gio Gonzalez or Doug Fister.
After Sunday’s game, despite the two teams being tied, Washington had outscored opponents by 64 runs on the year. That means in spite of the injuries above, the Nationals still put together the best run differential in the National League and the third best in all of baseball.
Meanwhile, the Braves sit at +13, the third-best mark in the NL East…one run worse than the Mets.
It’s part of why, in its playoff odds report, Baseball Prospectus gives the Nationals a 65.8 percent chance of winning the division versus 33 percent for the Braves, despite a tie in the standings.
All of this adds up to a Braves team with a little less firepower and a little less maneuverability than you’d like for a pennant tilt with one of baseball’s best teams.
Not to mention a lot of restless nights for Frank Wren.