It’s hard to complain about how the Braves have kicked off their 2020 regular season, especially after Friday night’s big comeback win against the Mets at home (featuring a bases-clearing, go-ahead double by catcher Travis d’Arnaud in the 8th).
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) August 1, 2020
With 3-straight victories, including two in a row against a damn good Rays team earlier this week, the overall results have been great, and they have a half-game lead in the NL East over the Marlins (who have only played three games and are missing more than half their roster)
However, there are a few issues currently holding the Braves back, perhaps preventing the team from being as good as possible. And with this season’s trade deadline set for August 31, GM Alex Anthopoulos will have an opportunity to fill those holes before it’s time to prepare for postseason play.
Here’s a look at the Braves’ most obvious need heading into this year’s deadline and the various challenges that Anthopoulos will face while attempting to set the team up for a successful run down the stretch.
Pitching, pitching… and more pitching
Other than a slow start from several of the lineup’s key contributors — guys like Ronald Acuna (currently hitting .152), Austin Riley (.087 AVG), Ozzie Albies (.188 AVG) and Ender Inciarte (.105 AVG) — the Braves’ most critical need at the end of this month appears to once again revolve around their starting pitching. Poor hitting to start the year was generally expected heading into this shortened 2020 season, and it’s not just a Braves problem either… the entire league is dealing with some underwhelming performances at the plate (Craig Edwards at FanGraphs provided evidence of just that this past Wednesday). Plus, I don’t think the Braves are planning on replacing the likes of Acuna or Albies anytime soon, so perhaps it’s best we remain patient and allow the young studs time to get their rhythm. They’ll be fine. The Braves’ starting rotation, though… that’s a whole different story.
I know you’ve seen the struggle, but here are the final lines for all 8 of the Braves’ starts thus far, ordered Games 1 thru 8:
- Soroka— 6 IP, 4 H, 3 K (ND)
- Fried— 5 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 K (ND)
- Newcomb— 3.1 IP, 3 H, ER, 2 BB, K (ND)
- Folty— 3.1 IP, 4 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 3 K, 3 HR (L)
- Wright— 2.2 IP, 4 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 3 K (L)
- Soroka— 5.1 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 K (ND)
- Fried— 6.2 IP, 3 H, ER, BB, 7 K (W)
- Newcomb— 4.1 IP, 6 H, 6 ER, BB, 4 K, 2 HR (ND)
As you’ve probably noticed from simply watching the team play, Soroka and Fried have essentially carried the rotation on their backs through the first two turns. That’s not surprising news itself, but perhaps these numbers are:
- Soroka & Fried combined: 1.95 ERA
- Rest of rotation: 13.76 ERA
I don’t have to tell you… that’s a major problem for the Braves and has already cost Folty his job, as he was DFA’d immediately after his start this past Monday, when he couldn’t make it out of the 4th inning (fortunately for Folty fans, he went unclaimed and was assigned to Gwinnett on Thursday, meaning he could possibly return to the Braves’ staff).
But a resurgence by Folty isn’t going to be enough. The Braves are already missing lefty Cole Hamels, whose return — according to manager Brian Snitker back on July 20— is “going to be awhile.” And of course, there’s Felix Hernandez, who opted out of the season due to concerns regarding the coronavirus. How nice would it be to get a few starts from him right now?
Considering the potential for future injuries, the Braves don’t just need a pitcher… the team could use several.
Granted — as our own Chase Irle reported Friday— Touki Toussaint could impress today in what will be his first start of the 2020 season (he has appeared as a reliever once thus far). A solid outing by the 24-year-old Touki could go a long way toward stabilizing an inconsistent staff, but even if he does pitch well… the Braves still have two other slots in the rotation that could desperately use a boost. And I know it seems harsh to hand out criticism after just two outings (only one for Wright), but there’s absolutely no time for guys to“work things out” in a 60-game season. Heck, we’re almost through a sixth of the regular season already!
Help won’t come easy
Unfortunately, acquiring reinforcements this year isn’t going to be a very straightforward process, as there have been numerous changes to the 2020 season… most of which will make it quite challenging to pull off a decent trade.
First of all, the expansion of this year’s postseason — from 10 to 16 teams — makes it much harder to determine whether or not it’s time to throw in the towel at the trade deadline. Assuming there are no more postponements or cancellations due to positive COVID tests, the Braves are on track to complete 26 more games between today’s game versus the Mets and the team’s matchup with the Red Sox on August 31, giving the Braves and most of the rest of the league 35 games played overall by deadline day. Obviously, that’s a little over half of the 2020 season… but it’s still just 35 games! Other than the handful of tankers (Marlins, Orioles, Tigers… etc.), will there be that many clubs looking to move their primary starting pitchers?
Speaking of the potential for more positive COVID cases, there’s a real possibility that teams will be hesitant about trading their top prospects, given the uncertainty as to whether or not MLB even finishes the 2020 season. As of Friday, per Jeff Passan at ESPN, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told MLBPA executive director Tony Clark that if the sport didn’t do a better job preventing the coronavirus spread, he would simply shut it down. Now fair or not fair, the chances of many more positive tests are likely very high, given the Marlins just had 21 members of their club test positive with the virus.
And then, there’s the lack of minor league baseball, which deprives the development of highly touted prospects and hinders major league clubs’ ability to “work in” a newly acquired player… such as a recently-released veteran starting pitcher. For example, over the course of this month, the Giants decide to let go of Jeff Samardzija — who had a terrible first start this season (and is getting up there in age, by the way). Other than some intrasquad work in Gwinnett, the Braves would have no way of working him before throwing him to the wolves in a major league game. And if this was actually the case and Samardzija was to be released in the coming weeks, it probably means he hasn’t pitched well, which probably means something needs to be fixed. Long story short, there’s not a whole lot to work with… unless the Braves can trade for a top-tier starter who’s already in mid-season form and pitching well (but not many teams are in the business of giving away such players)
All-in-all, it’s apparent the Braves need rotation help. If it was another year, under ordinary circumstances, perhaps trying out someone like Ian Anderson or Bryse Wilson could’ve been an option. But as mentioned above, there’s simply no time for that. If things continue to go the way they’re going for the nos. 3 thru 5 starters, the Braves will be forced to make some changes.