The Braves have won one of their past six series and can do no better than halve this two-game set with Toronto. They’re 7-11 over that span, having slid from 3-1/2 games ahead in the National League East to one game behind. They haven’t hit a home run in five games. Two starting pitchers plus sometime starter Max Fried are on the disabled list. Their relievers have the 11th-best ERA in a 15-team league.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but they need help.
The trade deadline is 20 days away. The Braves will have six of those days off, four for the All-Star break. Still, of the 12 games starting Friday, 10 will come against teams above. 500. (Washington again qualifies.) There’s a real chance the tale of the 2018 season, a happy story thus far, could be told by month’s end.
Apart from the failed Jose Bautista experiment, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has allowed this season to play as it lies. He has made no major move, which can be considered a sagacious stance. Razing this farm system so soon after it was rebuilt – and especially with the John Coppolella/Gordon Blakeley penalties stripping the organization of the equivalent of half a minor-league team’s roster – would be the height of folly. This season won’t be the Braves’ last chance to win something. That said …
There is in every big-league clubhouse an expectation that, if the players lift the team into contention, those upstairs will take the cue. The Braves are smart enough to see what’s happening. Their rotation has stopped turning. Their bullpen isn’t good enough to sustain a playoff run. They’ve been outscored 43-23 in the past seven games, over which they’re hitting .172.
Yes, even the best teams endure bad stretches. Last year’s Dodgers were 91-36 and leading the NL West by 21 games Aug. 25. They lost 16 of their next 17 and saw their lead more than halved. (Still finished 104-58.) The 2016 Cubs lost 15 of 20 just before the All-Star break. (Still finished 103-59.) The difference was that those teams were coming off playoff seasons and knew how good they were. The only current Braves who were part of the 2013 East winners are Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran.
These Braves weren’t expected to be this good, and surely some among them have begun to wonder if water has begun to seek its level. At such a time, a pick-me-up from on high – meaning the front office, not the firmament – could assuage such fears. It doesn’t have to be a trade for Manny Machado, but some sort of move needs to happen posthaste, if for no other reason to keep doubts from deepening.
If none is forthcoming, or if all the Braves do, personnel-wise, between now and August is to land another middle reliever, this young and gifted team wonder if the organization indeed has its back. Here’s what Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel said last year when all Houston did before the non-waiver deadline was land the journeyman Francisco Liriano: “Disappointment is a little bit of an understatement. I feel like a bunch of teams really bolstered their rosters for the long haul and for a huge playoff push, and us just kind of staying pat was really disappointing.”
Coda: On Aug. 31, the Astros landed Justin Verlander in a waiver deal. They won the World Series.
The Braves can’t yet think in terms of the World Series, and the belief among baseball observers is that franchises shouldn’t risk much just to get into the wild-card game, which is essentially a coin flip. But the East is there to be taken. Philadelphia has the better rotation but a lesser everyday eight, and its bullpen likewise has issues. Washington is getting guys healthy, but Bryce Harper is hitting .215. With a couple of tweaks, the Braves can take this.
For all the talk about Machado – full disclosure: I contributed to the conversation, albeit back in May – the Braves need arms more. (And I’m not sure Mike Moustakas moves the needle; his seasonal WAR is 1.8, Johan Camargo’s 1.5.) They need a starter, and they need a reliever capable of working the ninth inning. Brad Hand of San Diego would fill the latter role, and he’s under club control through 2021. The starter, however, presents a tangle.
Would a team rebuilding around young arms want to sacrifice one of those to land, say, Toronto’s J.A. Happ, who’s 35 and will be a free agent come November? Would three months of Happ be worth 10 years of Kolby Allard or Ian Anderson? (The Blue Jays haven’t forgotten the object lesson of shedding 20-year-old Noah Syndergaard for R.A. Dickey. Anthopoulos made that deal.)
The Braves can hope that Brandon McCarthy’s knee heals, that Julio Teheran can work more than one good start in a row and that Sean Newcomb’s wobbles flatten out -- or they can mortgage a bit of their future in the effort to qualify to October. I’m torn here,and I imagine Anthopoulos is, too. But I keep coming back to those guys in the clubhouse, and I expect he’ll do the same. They’ve earned the right to be given every chance, but they need help. And they need it now.