Three Cuts: Braves enter All-Star break outside playoff mix
The Atlanta Braves wrapped up the first half of the 2017 season with a 42-45 record and soon-to-be-pressing questions regarding multiple pieces of the roster.
The improving Braves sit 9 1/2 games back of the Washington Nationals in the National League East race entering the All-Star break — and 22 days shy of the non-waiver trade deadline. Here are three observations from the first half and what lies ahead.
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Long-shot playoff hopes should not override Atlanta’s long-term strategy
At various points in 2017, the optimism surrounding the Atlanta Braves' improvement has shifted into well-intentioned hyperbole.
There are the surface-level, ill-conceived Worst-To-First comparisons. There is this persistent narrative — trafficked often by manager Brian Snitker — that this is top-tier offense that simply needs better pitching to keep games close, but the unit still ranks 22nd in weighted runs created plus and has won plenty of low-scoring affairs. This is still a roster with real flaws.
However, it's also impossible to ignore the steady march of progress — and to wonder what's next.
This was a 58-loss team at the All-Star break a season ago. The offense was in shambles, the lowest-scoring team in baseball (again). Atlanta's pitching numbers were below-average. Fredi Gonzalez had just recently been fired. The positive trend over the past calendar year is obvious.
However, the Braves are not there yet. One glance at the standings or the statistical resume hammers this point home — and the assumption here is that this is a smart and capable front office that understands the difference, and how to manage increasing expectations.
Despite entering Sunday’s action on the heels of a 13-0 rout of Washington — the first scoreless effort of the season for the Nationals’ dangerous lineup — Atlanta was still outscored by 44 runs in the first half despite playing one of baseball’s easiest schedules.
It is interesting to note that both sources give the Braves better chances at stealing a wildcard spot than catching the Nationals in the division race, which would still require the Braves being better than the Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Marlins and Mets in the second half while simultaneously hoping either the Diamondbacks or Rockies fall off a cliff.
So … they’re saying there’s a chance, particularly with the most productive hitter in the world over the past calendar year plugged back into Snitker’s lineup. There is a non-zero chance of the Braves participating in playoff baseball in 2017. Would you gamble a mortgage payment on those odds, though? If 36 of the 38 spaces on the Roulette wheel were red — splitting the difference in this analogy — how much should Atlanta’s front office bet on black?
Though this brutal 19-game stretch against the Astros, Nationals, Diamondbacks (twice), Cubs and Dodgers is viewed as a timely proving ground before the trade deadline, even an encouraging 10-9 record is unlikely to make up much, if any, distance in the standings. Barring an absolute tear after the All-Star break, the Braves will likely be staring (at best) at a six- or seven-game gap in the division and wildcard races with a negative run differential and decisions to make on stopgap pieces like Brandon Phillips, Jaime Garcia and R.A. Dickey.
And that’s if John Coppolella and John Hart elect to keep the band together that long.
Atlanta does not have to operate on the buy-or-sell poles, however. Middle ground does exist.
The Braves can move their short-term deals — Phillips and Garcia will not be given qualifying offers, meaning they will provide zero value past 2017, and it’s difficult to envision R.A. Dickey, who does come equipped with a 2018 team option, upping his trade value next season — while brandishing their prospect capital in search of young, controllable MLB assets. Fielding a top-five farm system has its perks beyond top talent bubbling up through the pipeline.
In other words, they can sell short and still buy long.
The rumor mill surrounding Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana is already swirling. Will Gerrit Cole or Chris Archer be made available? Would the Orioles entertain shopping a name like Kevin Gausman? The Braves have the buying power and flexibility, albeit not the necessity, to throw their hat into these rings.
(Throwing a wrench into this equation is the Julio Teheran situation. With the Astros, among other teams, reportedly interested in Teheran, whose career-worst season is tied directly to his home splits and who owns a .2.53 ERA and 4.35 FIP in road games, the Braves face an interesting question with the 26-year-old right-hander. On one hand, they would appear to be selling low on an affordable asset signed through 2020. On the other, if the World Series-focused Astros are pushing for a suitable alternative to the top pitching names on the market, a young pitcher boasting a 3.54 ERA and nearly 10 wins above replacement over his first five full seasons should still field a hefty price tag. With Houston’s productive outfield already locked in through next season, the asking price can start with one of the organization’s stud left-handed outfield prospects playing in the Futures Game and nearing the majors: Derek Fisher or, preferably, 2015 top-five pick Kyle Tucker.)
Coppolella and Hart have never wavered in their resolve that a franchise rebuild was the correct route, but the duo has openly worn the repercussions on its collective sleeve. Losing is not fun. Winning playoff games in the inaugural season at SunTrust Park is enticing for this organization. It is not probable, though, and certainly not worth simply adding ancillary pieces — say, expensive bullpen help — to the existing roster, upending a three-year process.
If the Braves are buyers, they should buy with an eye on 2018 and beyond. Regardless, selling and recouping value on a few short-term deals makes sense. In fact, it wouldn't make much sense not to.
Sean Newcomb’s official MLB welcome mat
The New York Mets stood opposite Sean Newcomb for his official MLB debut, but this past week offered his first “Welcome To The Big Leagues” moment and first opportunity to learn and adjust. After facing mediocre-to-disastrous offenses in the Mets, Marlins, Giants and Padres, the Braves’ electrifying rookie squared off against the two highest-scoring teams in baseball in a six-day stretch: the Astros and Nationals.
It did not go according to plan. Here are the results:
First four games: 24 1/3 innings, 1.48 ERA, 21 strikeouts, eight walks
Past two games: 7 1/3 innings, 13.50 ERA, nine strikeouts, six walks
“You definitely learn something when you go out there and don’t have a good start, makes some pitches that get hit,” Newcomb said prior to Sunday’s performance where he lost his command early and ran up his pitch count. “You kind of learn from those mistakes a little bit more than when you have a good outing. Because things went well, you don’t know what you need to fix.”
Now comes the adjustment period — and there are hazards ahead.
The Braves are altering their rotation exiting the All-Star break, and if Snitker sticks to the plan Newcomb’s first two games after the break will come against the Cubs and Dodgers, who are fourth in runs scored. Despite the Cubs’ first-half struggles, there’s a chance Newcomb does not face this level of production and talent in a four-game stretch in a long time.
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Sean Rodriguez’s pending return could provide front office necessary flexibility
Freddie Freeman’s rapid recovery from a fractured wrist sparked universal surprise. Sean Rodriguez heading to rehab assignments with Triple-A Gwinnett in early July should elicit a similar reaction. The utility star, who signed a two-year deal after a breakout season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016, was injured in a car accident involving his family in the preseason and eventually underwent surgery to correct a “three and three-quarter tear” in his left rotator cuff, labrum damage and dislocated bicep tendon. He's back on a baseball field less than six months later.
In two minor-league starts he’s singled and walked twice, and it appears he could make his Braves debut before the end of the month.
First and foremost, Rodriguez needs to show he’s healthy and capable of handling major-league pitching once again before the Braves can return to their pre-accident plans with the 32-year-old veteran who is capable of playing just about every position outside of catcher. (And even then, who can say?) But if he’s back up to speed, the front office might be able to take a longer look at a name that was not mentioned above: Matt Adams.
Freeman moved across the diamond in order to keep Matt Adams’ bat in the fold, but as the former Cardinals slugger’s bat has cooled off slightly — he was hitting way above his career rates in June — the Braves could put him on the market alongside Phillips with Rodriguez, Albies and early-2017 revelation Johan Camargo stepping in as viable options at second and third.
The Braves could hold on to Adams and continue this Freeman experiment at third, but there's a chance they miss out on Adams' pea value — teams like the Yankees could use his bat — and if he's not a starter in 2018 he will become an expensive bench option after his final arbitration.