They were 9 1/2 games back at the All-Star break in 1991, not even in second place. I know, it was a different time and a better Braves team, but still …
Can it happen? Sure it can.
The Braves are four games out of first place. They’re lucky to be that close, but sometimes you get lucky. They’ve played better these past six days, and there’s a chance they’ll play better in July than they did in June. Because they can pitch, and starting pitching has an aggregate effect. Good innings prop up a team, just as bad innings drag it down. Look what’s happening to the Phillies, who have almost no pitching.
Philadelphia is 27th among 30 big-league teams in ERA, and a team cannot win a division that way no matter how hard it hits. The Braves are sixth in ERA, which means they can. They’ll have to hit a little better and hope the Mets, who remain the most gifted team in the NL East, don’t get healthy. (Carlos Beltran just joined Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado on the disabled list.) But there’s a way the Braves can leverage some pitching to find a bat before the trading deadline.
I’ve said it before: Tim Hudson is the hidden key to 2009. He’s expected back in August, and if he’s throwing well in July rehab the Braves could part with one of their starters in exchange for, say, Adam Dunn, the Washington outfielder. Which starter? By process of elimination, Javier Vazquez. Which sounds crazy, given that he awoke Tuesday leading the National League in strikeouts. But hear me out.
Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are the future. (Also the present.) Can’t trade them. Derek Lowe is the ace. Can’t trade him. Kenshin Kawakami is new and makes too much money. Can’t get much for him. Hudson is coming off an injury and could be a free agent at season’s end. Can’t get much for him, either. But Vazquez? A durable 32-year-old under contract through 2010?
You could get something for him.
Most teams looking to dump players at the deadline are hunting prospects, but a veteran pitcher could be enticing to a team lacking everything, which describes Washington. Almost no contender is ever shedding pitching in July, but the 2009 Braves could become the exception. They might even throw in Jeff Francoeur as a package-sweetener.
Think of it this way: Dunn to hit behind Chipper Jones and ahead of Brian McCann, Hudson in for Vazquez to keep the innings-eating going. The Braves have already upgraded once with Nate McLouth. One more major move and the hitless wonders could well surge past the pitchless Phils and give the Mets a run to October.
I know, I know. This hasn’t looked like a playoff team since the Ides of April, but it has hung around. As long as it pitches, it can keep hanging. One more bat and the serious climbing can commence.