Written by Skye Paul (@BravesFromLA on Twitter), June 26th, 2021
Atlanta Braves frustrations reaching boiling point after falling to 36-40 (6/26)
The Braves 2021 season has undoubtedly been a disappointment, with the team still unable to reach a winning record through June. Pre-season expectations placed on the team by fans, players, and coaches alike were astronomical, with many believing the Braves would be serious contenders to win the World Series. To think this same team may not be buyers at the trade deadline is a complete shock to all, even Fangraphs and PECOTA projections, who weren't kind to the Braves, didn't have them lower than .500. I could go on for hours about how and why the Braves have been a disaster, however that will not be the focus of this article. The past is behind us, and the Braves currently hold a 36-40 record, seated 3rd in the division, six games back from the 1st place New York Mets. How should the front office approach the upcoming trade deadline?
First, let's analyze the Braves current roster needs:
Not One, But Two Quality Outfielders
Outside of Ronald Acuña, the Braves are clearly lacking production from their outfield. While Abraham Almonte and Guillermo Heredia have been nice additions to the club and have played decently, they are not players you can rely on down the stretch and during the postseason as everyday players. Potential trade options include David Peralta, Adam Duvall, Max Kepler, and Robbie Grossman, all of which would be solid additions and would cost the Braves next to nothing if they take on the entirety of the contract.
Lots of Bullpen Help
I mean lots. The Braves bullpen ERA currently ranks as the 5th worst in baseball. While there are some nice pieces down there in Will Smith, AJ Minter, and Tyler Matzek, they're not nearly enough to carry the workload. Many other teams are searching for bullpen help as well, so finding multiple quality arms at a reasonable price will be a difficult task. I'm afraid Anthopolous will continue to shop the waiver wire and see if something sticks, which clearly has not been an effective strategy.
A Middle of the Rotation Starting Pitcher
While the Braves have decent starting pitching depth, injuries have significantly degraded the depth, and with Tucker Davidson landing on the 60-day IL with a shoulder strain, the Braves don't have anyone to cover the back end of the rotation. Fried, Morton, Anderson, Smyly, and Wilson/Muller is serviceable, but leaves no room for injury or under-performance. Someone like Jon Gray would be a nice pickup and would ease most of the depth concerns.
A Bench Bat
Braves fans may not want to hear this, but the Pablo Sandoval magic has run out. The Panda has a .133/.235/.133 slash line and 13 wRC+ since May 11th. Adrianza hasn't cut it either, A lefty power bat that could pinch hit and play some left field would be a great addition to the club, say DJ Stewart.
It's clear that the Braves are several pieces away from being competitive, and even with these various additions, I still don't think they would win the division, and certainly would't be taking down the Dodgers in the postseason. These moves would also be costly in terms of payroll, although Alex Anthopolous remains adamant that the team has significant money available.
While the organization will most likely take this route instead of re-tooling for reasons I will discuss later, I believe selling some assets and aiming towards 2022 would be more productive. By selling off temporary assets at the trade deadline, the Braves could replenish some prospect depth and get salary relief to better their odds at extending Freddie Freeman.
If the Braves were to re-tool at the trade deadline, let's see which players they could sensibly trade away for value:
Considering that Morton is a free agent at years end and has been a productive pitcher in most outings, he would be extremely valuable to a contending team. His 15 million dollar salary eats up a lot of his trade value, Baseball Trade Values has him worth only 3.6 points, however his advanced numbers show Morton has underperformed this season, and therefore has more value than the results show. I bet a team like the Yankees, who are desperate for starting pitching, would give the Braves a significant prospect for Morton's services.
While the Braves bullpen has been atrocious this season, there are still some valuable pieces down there with team friendly deals. Chris Martin, Shane Greene, and Tyler Matzek would be nice additions to a competing club, and as usual, there is a lot of demand for reliable relief pitchers on the trade market. Although Will Smith is on a somewhat bad contract, his value is enough to cover most of the 27 million he's owed where it's conceivable the Braves could trade him for significant salary relief.
This one is a bit tricky, since D'Arnaud suffered a major injury and is not slated to come back until mid-to-late August. One month of play plus postseason production wouldn't hold much trade value, however D'Arnaud is an above average bat and a decent defender, which is extremely valuable as a catcher. A team like the Astros would love to have him, and could deal one or two mid-level prospects for him. With William Contreras and Shea Langeliers taking over the catching position for the Braves in the near future, dealing D'Arnaud at the deadline would make a lot of sense, if the package is right.
Ok, this one is a little out there, but hear me out. I think most Braves fans agree Dansby Swanson is not the long-term answer at shortstop. His inconsistent bat and good but not great defense at shortstop is a major league caliber player, but certainly is not a key player to a championship winning roster. Swanson is having a poor 2021 season, currently holding a .289 OBP and a 94 wRC+. Considering how loaded the 2021-2022 free agent shortstop class is (Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, etc.), the Braves are going to have to make a decision about whether they want to keep Swanson. If they are in a position to sell at the deadline, they could conceivably sell Swanson earlier to maximize his trade value, and attack the free agent class this winter. I doubt this happens, but if management is truly willing to go all in on adding payroll, a Swanson trade is possible.
Both buying and selling at the upcoming trade deadline are reasonable strategies, but we must remember that the team image is on the line in this decision. While selling might be more productive in extending the Braves competitive window, selling off assets would be a really bad look for executives who believed the Braves would be a World Series contenders. I imagine Alex Anthopolous is looking for every reason to add to the team at the trade deadline in order to avoid potential scrutiny from fans and ownership.
While the team will almost certainly buy, I am not convinced this will be productive to the organization as a whole. Adding to the current roster will obviously make the team better, however I highly doubt it will propel the Braves from mediocrity to World Series contenders overnight. The team has too many holes for one trade deadline to fix, and the team is already significantly behind in the playoff race, The Padres and Giants have essentially locked down the two Wild Card spots. The Mets will be getting significantly stronger with Syndergaard, Conforto, McNeil, and possibly Carrasco returning to the team over the next few months, along with trade deadline acquisitions of their own. Re-tooling may not yield significant prospects, but the salary relief provided would better the odds of extending Freddie Freeman and would allow the team to dive deeper into the free agent market.
To conclude this somewhat negative article, I'd like to remind fans that the 2021 season is not a "do or die" year for the Braves. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies are here long term along with good prospect depth in Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, William Contreras, Michael Harris, and more. The future is bright in Atlanta.