The Braves lost a series to the team they’re chasing – although, having gone 27-29 over the past nine weeks, this constitutes the slowest chase since O.J. Simpson took off in the white Bronco — but might have found a way to hurry things along. A half-hour before they played the Nationals on Sunday, the Braves announced they’d signed Ben Sheets to a minor-league contract.
Don’t be misled by the language. “We didn’t sign him to be a minor-league player,” said Frank Wren, the general manager. “We want him to be one of our [big-league] pitchers, probably even a guy in the rotation.”
For “probably,” read “definitely.” The Braves signed Sheets, who since 2008 has won four big-league games and undergone two surgical procedures, because they’re desperate. They’ve hit better than they did a year ago, but they’ve pitched much worse.
Said Wren, speaking of his rotation: “We haven’t been as consistent as we’d like … We need more of [these starting pitchers] being a sure thing on a daily basis.”
Said Fredi Gonzalez, the manager: “We have matched up well [against the opponent's starting pitchers] at times, and at times we haven’t.”
Having witnessed a run of 14 division titles built on the innings eaten by stellar starting pitchers, we in Atlanta should know the drill. If we’d forgotten, these Nationals can serve as a case study. Washington’s everyday lineup isn’t as good as the Braves’, but it holds the National League’s best record because it has outpitched everybody.
Said Chipper Jones: “That team’s in first place for a reason. They’ve got lockdown starting pitching.”
The Nationals have 50 quality starts (six or more innings with three or fewer earned runs), which is third-best in the league. The Braves have 31, which is the second-worst. There’s your 4 1/2-game deficit.
Over the hot weekend the Braves actually hit the Nationals’ starters pretty well, driving All-Star Stephen Strasburg to dehydration after three innings Saturday and forcing Gio Gonzalez, another All-Star, to throw 114 pitches over five-plus innings Sunday. (An epic 14-pitch at-bat by the rookie Andrelton Simmons in the second inning all but ensured Gonzalez would weaken, which he did in the sixth.)
The Nationals didn’t manage a quality start in the series, but they won two of three because the Braves didn’t muster one, either. The home side trailed 4-0 after four innings Friday and 4-nil after one inning Sunday, and you cannot spot a good team — the Nationals’ bullpen is splendid, too — that many runs.
But that’s what the Braves have done too often: Fallen behind early, thereby lessening the effect of their own stout bullpen. (Though the Braves’ relief efforts have been mitigated by the wayward ways of Jonny Venters, who was bad again Sunday.)
Pitching-wise, the year began badly and got worse. Jair Jurrjens, an All-Star last season, lasted four starts before being shipped to Gwinnett, and the youngsters Mike Minor and Randall Delgado never found traction. Then Brandon Beachy, who was leading the National League in ERA, was lost to Tommy John surgery, all but forcing Wren to go shopping.
As encouraging as Jurrjens’ two recent big-league starts have been, as stout as Minor’s winning effort against Strasburg was, the hope that these five pitchers will coalesce into a playoff-caliber rotation has been reduced to a wish. By signing Sheets, the Braves got a guy that cost them nothing but money. If he pans out, Wren wins the Clark Howard Savvy Shopper Award of the month. But don’t think the Braves are done.
Said Fredi Gonzalez, the manager: “Frank and I have been talking for three or four days. If this [Sheets] works, we still have other pieces to go get another guy.”
The Braves have hoarded young pitchers — Minor, Delgado, Julio Teheran (who’s at Gwinnett) and Arodys Vizcaino — the past two seasons. Surely the plan is for Sheets to render either Minor or Delgado expendable, at least in the short term. Unless the rotation catches fire before the trading deadline at month’s end, the temptation will be great to swap a young arm for a proven one.
The Braves aren’t crazy about renting free-agents-to-be, but if an established starting pitcher — Zack Greinke of Milwaukee, say — could turn a middling season into something that extends beyond the 162nd game, it might be worth parting with Minor or Delgado. (For all their promise, it’s fair to say neither seems a Strasburg.)
The belief within this team is that it hasn’t played to capacity; without better starting pitching, it never will. Hiring Ben Sheets can’t hurt, but there’s more than one hole in this rotation.
By Mark Bradley