You might’ve missed it in the flurry of runs and wins over the weekend, but the midpoint of the season came and went while the Braves were sweeping the Cardinals at steamy St. Louis. It’s a place where recent Atlanta teams have been on the other side of such outcomes.
But as we should realize by now, these Braves are not like those of recent vintage.
The Braves have the National League’s best record (48-34) as they enter a three-game series against the Yankees, the team with the majors’ best record (54-27) starting tonight in New York. It’s about hot and muggy as St. Louis was, with the temperature already at 95 as I type this at 1:30 p.m. and the heat index expected to reach 105 this afternoon.
Not that the Braves care too much about the weather right now. They’re rolling again, having put an unimpressive homestand behind them by starting off the most difficult road trip of the season – 10 games against the Cardinals and a pair of division leaders, the Yankees and Brewers – with a sweep.
But it must be noted, they swept in spite of the bullpen, not because of it, which brings us to today’s topic: the need to fix the ‘pen this month before the trade deadline.
First, let’s reflect a moment on the weekend and where things stand.
Remember how the 2-4 homestand last week against the Orioles and Reds brought out the familiar skeptics and doom-and-gloomers, some of whom opined that, at the least, the Braves were due for a correction toward .500. At worst, the team had begun a descent that would soon have them looking up at the Nationals and possibly the Phillies.
Remember? That was a mere three games ago.
But after a sweep at St. Louis, the bandwagon is getting crowded again, with some national pundits now identifying the Braves as the team to beat in the NL.
And maybe they are. Lineup is strong. Rotation is solid and seems to take a no-hitter to the fifth inning once a series. Team chemistry is exceptional. Youthful energy is never-ending, especially now with the phenom, Ronald Acuna, back from the disabled list (he homered in his second game back, which was such an Acuna thing to do).
The bullpen, however, continues to raise flags. It’s a problem. Especially on a team that doesn’t have the kind of aces in its rotation that can be expected to go seven or eight innings, or a team philosophy that is likely to give them much chance of going seven or eight. (More on that in a moment.)
The bullpen had a 5.46 ERA with 14 walks in the homestand against the Orioles and Reds, blowing three leads in those six games. At St. Louis, Braves starters allowed no earned runs in the series while the bullpen had a 9.64 ERA. That pushed the season number to 4.28, ranking the relievers 12th in the NL before Monday. Their 142 walks were third-most in the league.
Atlanta starters’ 3.31 ERA is the second-best in the majors, trailing only Houston’s 2.95, with Cleveland third at 3.39. But it must be noted that Braves starters have pitched 451 innings in 82 games (5.5 innings per start), compared to the Astros’ 536-1/3 innings in 86 games (6.24 per start) and the Indians 517-1/3 in 82 games (6.31 per start).
In other words, Astros and Indians starters have averaged more than two additional outs over Braves starters.
Also, in terms of fielding-independent pitching (FIP), a measurement of performance that strips away the role of defense and luck, Braves starters rank sixth in the National League at 3.90, behind the Dodgers, Phillies, Nationals, Mets and Cardinals.
Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz have been the keys to a Braves rotation that has surpassed most reasonable expectations, but this rotation isn’t dominant enough to cover the bullpen’s shortcomings.
The disparity in average innings per start between the Braves starters and other major league starters’ ERA leaders is significant over the long haul and puts more stress on a bullpen that’s not particularly deep, especially after shoulder woes landed Jose Ramirez on the disabled list for an extended period (he’s still there) and put Jose Vizcaino on the DL for the past 11 days (he’s expected to be activated in New York).
Don’t discount the Ramirez injury; he was expected to be a key setup man this season after his breakthrough in 2017 (3.19 ERA and 1.194 WHIP in 68 appearances with 56 strikeouts in 62 innings). Dan Winkler and Shane Carle picked up the slack and then some with their terrific work in the first months of the season. However, Winkler has been a lot more hittable since the beginning of June and Carle appears to have hit a wall.
The recent progress of A.J. Minter has been a much-needed positive for a weary Braves ‘pen. After struggling with command issues in the first two months, Minter has a 1.35 ERA and .119 opponents’ average in 14 appearances since the beginning of June, with 15 strikeouts and one walk in 13-1/3 innings. Through the end of May he had .266 opponents’ average in 23 appearances with 21 strikeouts and 13 walks in 21 innings.
He’s looking again like the dominant setup man and potential closer the Braves projected. But Minter’s been the exception in a bullpen that’s bended and broke frequently in recent weeks. And that’ll need to be fixed if the Braves are to give themselves a good chance both to maintain their division lead and then to advance in the postseason.
Carle went from pitching at an All-Star level, posting a 0.69 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 20 appearances through May 19, to struggling mightily with a 6.35 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in his past 15 appearances, including four hits and three runs allowed in 1-1/3 innings of Sunday’s 6-5 win at St. Louis.
Left-hander Sam Freeman, another who was being counted on this year after a career-best 2017 season, has a 5.03 ERA and 18 walks in 34 innings, and in his past seven appearances he’s produced an 11.05 ERA and .321 opponents’ average including three appearances with multiple runs allowed in less than one full inning.
Veteran sidearmer Peter Moylan, after churning out 79 appearances in 2017 while pitching to a 1.096 WHIP and .189 opponents’ average (.163 by right-handers) with the Royals, has a 1.846 WHIP and .310 OA this season including .315 by righties. The 39-year-old Aussie has an 8.38 ERA and four homers allowed in 9-2/3 innings over his past 14 appearances including a homer Sunday at St. Louis.
Then there’s this: Without saying it, the Braves have clearly been trying to control the innings for starters such as Newcomb and Foltynewicz, neither of whom has ever pitched 160 innings in a season at any level.
Veteran Brandon McCarthy, who looked so promising in the role of innings-eating veteran early on, has dealt with several nagging injuries since then, serving as a reminder that he never pitched as much as 100 innings in the three injury-plagued seasons before this one.
Top starter prospect Mike Soroka is on the DL for the second time with shoulder problems and rookie Luiz Gohara has been a season-long reminder of why young prospects can’t be counted on to perform on a consistent basis until they’ve done it. Or, a reminder of why major league rotations aren’t dotted with a lot of 20- and 21-year-olds.
In addition to the desire to keep the likes of Foltynewicz and Newcomb healthy, it’s been apparent the Braves are following an analytics-driven approach that was used by the Dodgers last season for most of their pitchers not named Kershaw. It means, in many cases, get the starter out of the game before he faces an opposing lineup a third time. GM Alex Anthopoulos spent the past two seasons as one of the top baseball-operations executive in the Dodgers’ progressive-thinking front office.
And that strategy has proven to be effective – if the bullpen is up for it. This bullpen, as currently constituted, is not up for it.
Which is why I think the Braves will add at least one reliever and more like multiple relievers before the trade deadline, and perhaps not wait until the end of the month to do it (on the other hand, they could even wait until after the trade deadline and add a reliever via a waiver deal).
When the National struck early by trading for Kelvin Herrera from the Royals last month, some wondered why the Braves, with their rich farm system, didn’t make a better offer than the trio of prospects Washington sent to Kansas City in that deal.
Anthopoulos told me a couple of weeks ago that money hasn’t been the main deterrent in any potential deal the Braves have considered so far this summer (and they at least checked into Herrera), but rather the “prospect capital” that a deal would cost has been the drawback.
The Braves don’t want to trade away 5-6 prospects in a couple of trades, if they don’t have to. But at some point, they might have to, unless they deal a current player or two that’s perhaps expendable, or they do a deal for a pitcher with an expiring contract with a price that comes down as the deadline nears or even after it passes.
Among the many relievers who are either reportedly available or believed to be potential available: the Reds’ Raisel Iglesias, David Hernandez and Jared Hughes; the Tigers’ Shane Green (though he just went on the DL); the Orioles’ Zach Britton and Brad Bach; the Marlins’ Adam Conley, Kyle Barraclough and Brad Ziegler; the Padres’ Brand Hand and Craig Stammen; the Mets’ Jeurys Familia; the Blue Jays’ John Axford, Aaron Loup, Tyler Clippard and Seunghwan Oh, and the Rangers’ Jake Diekman and Keone Kela.
Will the Braves pay the cost to bring in one or more from that group? If the cost is multiple prospects, I think it’s clear the Braves will do that only for a reliever they’d have multiple years of control over, not a two- or three-month.
“Funds are definitely going to be part of it,” Anthopoulos said, speaking in general terms about trades and not specifically for relievers. “No. 1, there’s not that many pure salary dumps at any time. Maybe in the month of August you see some, but you very rarely see those guys dumped for money. So money’s not really the driver; it’s part of the equation, there’s no doubt, but I think the biggest challenge for us is the prospect capital we would have to surrender. There was a lot of pain that people went through to put this thing together, to have some of these great young players, and we’re very mindful of not depleting that. You want to go out and (fill) three, four, five spots, rarely are you talking about trading one for one. So now you’re talking about trading three (prospects) for one, four for one. You do that three or four times, it’s 12 guys (traded away). That can really take a hit.
“For those most part, those (acquired) are guys you keep for two months. ... I think people like to focus on the dollars. Obviously there’s already been some deals made. I can tell you, I can’t speak specifically to guys that have been traded, but I feel like we’ve been on top of everyone that has been available; people that have been traded we’re aware of what it would have cost the Braves to go out and do it. We elected not to make any deals now, and I can tell you the stumbling block for us has not been money, though that’s certainly part of it. But more so it’s been the players that we would have to surrender and the number of players that we would have to surrender.”
“Dollars are always going to be a factor, but my concern right now more so, because we are a mid-market club and we need our zero-to-2 salary players to make it all work and depth is going to be important for us, we have to be careful how many of these guys we trade. So we better be sure that we’re addressing the right area.”
In addition to cutting significantly into the current stockpile of talent in their minor league system, the Braves are also keeping in mind that they lost 13 young prospects in the scandal last fall that led to MLB’s lifetime ban of former general manager John Coppolella. In the coming years the Braves won’t have those players arriving like current lineup regulars Ozzie Albies, Acuna and Johan Camargo, who were all signed as international free agents at age 16.
They also lost a draft pick and the draft-dollar slots that would’ve allowed them to sign more international free agents for a couple of years, meaning the Braves aren’t likely to add any significant international free agent before 2020.
Former GM Frank Wren signed Albies, Acuna and Camargo. As Anthopoulos noted, “They’re just now getting here and impacting us. So these two classes (international free agents of 2018 and 2019) would have impacted us maybe seven years from now, and now we’re starting (again) in 2020, that’s another seven, eight years from then (before those signees are likely to impact the major league team).
“That’s a pretty big hit there, and then you have the draft. So we really have to be mindful to preserve our depth.”
But before you start thinking that means the Braves won’t trade prospects to help the current team, keep in mind Anthopoulos’ final thoughts on the subject during our conversation last month.
“That’s where the job gets a little bit complicated,” he said. “We have a really good, competitive club right now, and we owe it to the guys in that clubhouse and the fan base, and to ownership and everybody in the Braves organization, to do what we can to try and win as many games as we can.”