(Second update: 11:35 p.m.)
John Smoltz looks at the Braves and sees what everybody else sees.
“They’ve made some adjustments offensively, but the inconsistency of their starting pitching has them where they are,” he said. “Win six, lose eight. Win five, lose four. They’re stuck in neutral.”
Neutral isn’t necessarily a bad place to be, particularly in the National League East. When baseball’s second half opened Friday, the Braves were only four games behind the Washington Nationals, which is better than being four games behind a team with an actual resume. The Nationals’ franchise last made the playoffs 31 years ago in a whole different language (Montreal).
There’s also this curious matter of Stephen Strasburg. Washington maintains it’s serious about this plan to limit its best starting pitcher (and his surgically repaired arm) to 160 innings. That could be construed as telling Nats fans, “We really, really want to win the division, but not really,” and/or telling the Braves, “Do you want to win the division? Here, we’ll put the ball on the tee for you.”
Strasburg is only 61 innings from hitting the mandated ceiling. Washington plays 79 games after the All-Star break. In a five-man rotation, that factors to 16 starts for Strasburg in normal circumstances. But at an average of six innings per start, there’s room for only 10 starts before the medical stop sign goes up. So the Nationals would lose six potential starts from their No. 1 starter … in a pennant race … when they have never made the playoffs in Washington.
“I don’t buy it,” Tommy Hanson said. “I mean, good for us – we don’t have to face him.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Chipper Jones said.
“I’m sure when they came up with this plan, they didn’t expect to be this good this year,” Smoltz said. “It’s a good problem to have for the future. But right now it’s a PR nightmare.”
The Braves’ return Friday had a nightmarish look. There was a blackout in the second inning, causing a 16-minute delay. Tim
Hudson had his own power outage (four runs, eight hits allowed in four-plus innings). The strange decision to not immediately bring in a shortstop to replace the injured Andrelton Simmons backfired when backup Jack Wilson suffered a dislocated finger in the fourth, forcing Martin Prado to move in from left field and Eric Hinske to come off the bench. (Even if general manager Frank Wren figured he was close to a trade, the one-game risk was nonsensical.)
To open the second half, the Braves didn’t look like a smooth operation. Still, they defeated the New York Mets 7-5, and the big picture is unchanged: They have an opportunity. This should be viewed by management as a go-for-it season. That means make a deal for a starting pitcher and loosen the death grip on the pitching prospects.
The Braves can’t really know what this team will look like next season. Jones is retiring, which leaves a hole in the clubhouse. A number of other big contracts are up. And those perceived great pitching prospects (Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran) that Wren has refused to let go of? Not so great yet.
“I’d like to see us get a pitcher,” Jones said. “You would be amazed how consistent you play when you’ve got five guys who expect to win every time they walk out there.”
But when asked about trading youth, he added: “The Braves have been very stingy with their young guys, and we saw first-hand what can happen when you mortgage the future for the quick fix in [the Mark] Teixeira [trade]. I don’t see them going all out again.”
They shouldn’t hold back. The main names that are circulating: Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke and the Chicago Cubs’ Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza (4.32 ERA). But Wren said Friday he has had only casual conversations with other clubs, and he still doesn’t have a sense for what clubs will demand in trade.
“Teams haven’t measured the market yet,” he said. “Right now the conversations are, ‘If this guy is available, would you be interested?’”
Does his team need starting pitching?
“We got a starting pitcher in Ben Sheets. We’ll get a chance to see Ben in the next few weeks leading up to the deadline and see what else we need.”
What they need seems pretty obvious, and the Nationals may leave an opening.
By Jeff Schultz