In assessing the Braves at the All Star Break, my prevailing sense is “how is this team 16 games over .500?” The pitching has been phenomenal, but it’s painful to look at the current batting lineup, where most of the starters are hitting under .250 (and not drawing enough walks to make up for their low averages). As usual, the Braves are getting below-average production from the outfield spots, and this despite the fact that Nate McLouth has exceeded expectations. Martin Prado got off to a terrible start and then got injured as he was dragging his numbers back to respectability. Jason Heyward has been a major disappointment, struggling through injuries that raise the question as to whether he’s a German Tiger or Panther tank. (Awesome when functioning properly, but prone to breaking down and hard to repair when they do.) Jordan Schafer has had to fill in and his on-base percentage is below .300, which is something of a problem for a leadoff hitter.
The outfield seems to be the most logical place to upgrade the team, ideally with a new centerfielder so Nate McLouth can become the fourth outfielder and Jordan Schafer can go back to Gwinnett. If the Mets find themselves out of the race, then Carlos Beltran will be a logical option if Liberty Media is willing to add payroll. Fred Wilpon is certainly looking to shed it. Whether the Mets would be willing to help a division rival is an open question. Maybe Frank Wren can convince them that they are really screwing the Phillies.
The other obvious spot for an upgrade is the bullpen. The top of the pen is outstanding. Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, and Craig Kimbrel have all been outstanding this year. We should feel fortunate to be watching a modern incarnation of the Nasty Boys, although that happiness is tempered by the knowledge that all three pitchers are headed for a ludicrous number of innings and appearances because: (1) the Braves play a lot of close games because of the team’s weak offense; and (2) there is a huge drop-off from those three guys to the rest of the pen. Those three pitchers combined for a 6.2 WAR. In other words, they have been worth a tick over six wins to the Braves. The rest of the bullpen has been worth 1.8. By most other measures (ERA, WHIP, etc.), there is a major drop-off from those three to Scott Linebrink, George Sherrill, Scott Proctor, and whomever else is filling out the roster. In terms of gut feel, I just don’t have confidence that the Braves can win close games when the top three have been used. If we envision a meeting with the Phillies in October, Friday night’s game is a frightening prospect: a tight, defensive battle that is decided as soon as the Braves deploy one of their suspect relievers. Even Saturday was dicey, as Sherrill came dangerously close to losing the game in the tenth before the Braves’ offense could win it in the eleventh.
There are three potential solutions here. One is that the Braves use one or more of their mega-prospects in a Neftali Feliz-type role in September or October. Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino would both seem to be candidates for that task. It would be a nice introduction to Major League Baseball: get these three guys out in a massive situation in October. The second is that Peter Moylan and Kris Medlen will get healthy and fill roles. I would take either of them over the Scotts. Third, the Braves would acquire one or more relievers on the market. Relief help is usually easy to find on the market in July. What good does a top reliever do for a bad team when most relievers are on short-term contracts and their performance varies from year to year? Knowing Liberty Media, they will opt for options one and two. Regardless of what they choose, the goals are simple and achievable: (1) reduce the workload for the three top relievers by finding other options who can be trusted in the late innings of a close game; and (2) ensure that no one named Scott throws an inning of consequence in October.