Three Cuts: Braves exercising caution as trade deadline approaches
Sunday fireworks — from no-hit bids to Cooperstown additions — diverted attention away from the Atlanta Braves’ midsummer struggles, but July has not been kind to Brian Snitker’s group in the National League East standings. The Braves enter the final series of the month owning a 22-24 record since the start of June and they’ve won just one series, a sweep in St. Louis, since June 18. It’s a treading-water type of stretch that puts focus on the front office's outlook and the trade deadline:
Will Atlanta’s midsummer slide alter front office’s trade deadline strategy?
If Alex Anthopoulos were to keep his organization’s stockpile of prospects in a warehouse, the sign on the front door would read “Handle With Care.”
After inheriting one of the game’s best farm systems when he took over Atlanta’s baseball operations department this past offseason, Anthopoulos quickly downplayed his wheeling-and-dealing reputation, preaching patience and waiving the need to make a splash for splashes’ sake. Other than a financially motivated blockbuster with his former organization to make Atlanta a player in this winter’s free-agent class, that has held true. Even as the team jumped out as a surprise contender with well-documented needs, the Braves held on to their prospects.
With two days remaining before the non-waiver trade deadline, that stockpile remains intact. Will that be the case on Aug. 1?
The Braves made two quiet bullpen additions at the expense of only international bonus pool funds sent to Tampa Bay and Baltimore in exchange for former All-Stars Jonny Venters and Brad Brach, low-risk maneuvers addressing relief depth. Though Venters will be hard-pressed to recapture his elite status from his first stint in Atlanta, he’s holding left-handed hitters to a .241 weighted on-base average and he steps into a relief corps that owned the worst numbers against lefties among the remaining contenders. Brach is an experienced right-hander who could use a change of scenery outside the American League East.
“We needed to add some bullpen,” Anthopoulos said. “We had talked about Brach on and off for a while. Look, he’s not having the year he’s had in the past. We think there’s some upside there. There’s been some bad luck. If you look, batting average on balls in play and things like that are a little high. There could be some things with his mix that we looked at. There could be some tweaks there.”
The moves raise the question: Has the 22-24 slide, relinquishing the division’s top spot, altered the front office’s trade-deadline calculus?
The Phillies have the pitching and the division lead, but the Braves still own a 40-run advantage in run differential. The Nationals are a sub-.500 team that could become surprise sellers. The NL East is there for the taking. But will this two-month slide — featuring an 8-13 record in July — make the front office more wary about matching the shock waves around the league, about becoming overly aggressive when this roster's best days could still be ahead? The moves are piling up. Manny Machado, Brad Hand, Zach Britton, J.A. Happ, Asdrubal Cabrera, Mike Moustakas, Joakim Soria and Jeurys Familia are all off the board.
“We want to make the team better. That said, we’ve also been clear we cant force a move and do something that’ll hurt us long-term," Anthopoulos said. "It’s hard to find that area."
The Braves’ reported focus on players with club control still makes the most sense; if the team continues to falter, the acquired piece(s) can help in 2019 and beyond. Rentals like Venters and Brach can provide value, but they also skirt the risk of losing a future building block. Will the front office's patience prevail for the next couple of days?
The All-Star break seems to have rejuvenated Sean Newcomb’s status as a frontline-caliber starter
Sean Newcomb pitched like one of baseball's top left-handers through early June, keeping company with the likes of Patrick Corbin, James Paxton and Blake Snell. Then, with the Midsummer Classic and a potential All-Star nod looming, the wheels started falling off.
Over seven starts from June 10 to July 14, the 25-year-old left-hander posted a 5.45 ERA with even worse peripherals, most notably in forgettable starts against the Dodgers, Yankees and Brewers. His strikeout numbers dipped and the control issues returned. He gave up eight home runs during that stretch. As the innings started piling up, the productivity waned.
But the All-Star break seems to have helped Newcomb return to his early-season form — and that was readily apparent in his career-best outing against the defending National League champions.
Newcomb joined Shelby Miller as the only two pitchers in franchise history to lose a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning, although unlike Miller's 2015 outing against the Marlins Newcomb pushed the Dodgers to within one strike of Atlanta's first no-no since 1994. In two second-half starts, he's allowed just two runs with 13 strikeouts and five walks against the Marlins and Dodgers, providing much-needed help for a rotation that's seen All-Star Mike Foltynewicz fall into his own lull, Julio Teheran continue to struggle and Mike Soroka and Brandon McCarthy on the disabled list.
Bullpen concerns rule the day for Atlanta's roster moves so far, but the starting rotation is teeming with question marks. Sean Newcomb pitching like a front-of-the-rotation arm would go a long way to addressing some of those second-half concerns.
Have the Braves made their choice of the next left-hander in line?
Kolby Allard and Luiz Gohara were intricably linked on Sunday afternoon.
Allard was scratched from his start to make room for Gohara, who reportedly showcased his arsenal for the Texas Rangers in a 10-strikeout effort. Meanwhile, Allard could join the big-league rotation for his big-league debut as early as Tuesday. So if multiple national reports are correct, the Braves are willing to move Gohara (for the right price) and Allard is set to join the parent club. Does that mean the Braves have decided who the odd pitcher out is?
The two top-100 prospects have had very different paths to this point.
Gohara was one of the most impressive rookie arms in baseball last season after catapulting up through the minors, putting up a 2.75 FIP and one win above replacement in five starts. The 21-year-old appeared poised for a breakout 2018 campign before a tumultuous offseason featuring personal loss and multiple injuries. He's bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the majors this season while trying to find his footing. Allard, who turns 21 next month, remains one of the top minor-league arms around, compiling a 2.80 ERA and 3.40 FIP in 18 starts for Triple-A Gwinnett.
In Gohara, Allard, Newcomb and Max Fried, the Braves possess a stable of young southpaws who could become rotation mainstays. There's also only so many roster spots available and, as evidenced with the likes of Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler, sometimes a player's trade value will never be higher than when he's a hyped prospect.
The non-waiver trade deadline could provide the best glimpse yet at who Alex Anthopoulos & Co. envision carrying the franchise's pitching into the next decade.