(UPDATED at 5:15 p.m.)
Success apparently doesn’t bring clarity.
The Braves are in first place, own the second best record in the National League, endured relatively open tryouts for several weeks at leadoff and are still trying to navigate around a black hole in center field. But Frank Wren? He felt a little more certain about things a year ago, when the Braves were scrambling after the All-Star break to get into a playoff race.
“Last year we had started to play good baseball in June, and we felt we just needed a little boost, so we went out and made the [Adam LaRoche] trade,” the Braves’ general manager said Tuesday. “In that one, we could feel and see and knew where we were going. This year, it’s a little different. We got through a tough stretch with injuries. It’s not black-and-white. It’s a little grayer in terms of whether we need something.”
The non-waiver trade deadline is Saturday. If the Braves do nothing, don’t be stunned. But don’t feel comfortable either.
Good teams become great teams when they’re pro-active. That means, the Braves shouldn’t wait to see if Philadelphia acquires Roy Oswalt and then react. Wren is in a difficult situation, and he isn’t afraid to admit that. But the cautious approach can work either way.
He wants to improve the team.
He wants to add a bat.
He wants to add a reliever.
He wants to be given a super power that would enable him to convince somebody, anybody, even some small and obscure, out-of-the-way republic, to assume all financial responsibility for Nate McLouth or Kenshin Kawakami (who is collecting cobwebs and starting to resemble Norman Bates’ mother in the upstairs window).
Where’s that “Easy” button?
There are significant issues getting in the way of a deadline deal. One is chemistry. These Braves, as we’ve noted, exceed the sum of their parts. That’s rare in sports and dangerous to mess with. As Wren said when asked if he believed the team could continue to manage with a center fielder-by-committee: “I think so. We have only a handful of star players and a lot of really good baseball players. That’s why we’re tough to defend. We’re deeper than you may think after first impressions. We’re not stacked like the Yankees, but we have great chemistry and camaraderie, and we have to be mindful of that.”
Another is payroll. The Braves are hitting their budget ceiling. It’s not hard to decide which names to red-line. But finding a sucker to take them is the problem. McLouth? He’s a train wreck. Wren had no choice but to option him to Gwinnett on Tuesday. But the Braves are still on the hook for the three-year, $15.75 million extension McLouth signed last season, and any team deluded into believing he can be rehabilitated must be willing to absorb the remainder of his $4.5 million salary this year, $6.5 million in 2011 and at least a $1.25 million buyout of his $10.65 million option in 2012. That’s a $9.5 million commitment for a guy hitting .168.
Center field has been disaster central for the Braves, ever since Andruw Jones’ slide. McLouth was supposed to be the bridge to Jordan Schafer, who was just demoted again to Double-A Mississippi. Is there a “Plan C”?
Kawakami is another expensive problem. Wren wanted to move him in the winter but couldn’t. His stock hasn’t exactly gone up since then. He has made one relief appearance in the past month, and that was ugly. The $23 million contract remains intact.
See where we’re going with this?
Wren is comforted by how Jair Jurrjens, Jason Heyward and Matt Diaz have looked since returning from the disabled list. But other problems may be patched with duct tape. If he makes a move before the deadline, it probably will be low-profile. It seems more likely he will try to add a body next month (when players must first pass through waivers), as other teams fall out of the pennant race.
“There are times you clearly feel you need to make a move,” Wren said. “But we already did something with the [Alex] Gonzalez-[Yunel] Escobar deal. That was something that improved our club immediately. We have the ability to sit and wait now, and maybe do something before the postseason deadline when we see who’s available. We’re talking to teams, but we’re not putting a full-court press on.”
There’s an argument for the cautious approach. Just don’t get too comfortable.
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