Something instructive just occurred: The Braves, who rank next-to-last in the National League in quality starts, ran off five in a row. That marked the first time this season that the rotation has turned over while producing only quality starts — at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs — and it came in the five games leading into the All-Star break. Not coincidentally, the Braves won four.
A team treading water began to look again like a good club. Yes, it helped that Brian McCann went on a homer-a-game jag, but in baseball everything starts, duh, with starting pitching. If the Braves pitch better after the break than they did before it, they’ll make the playoffs with room to spare.
For all that didn’t happen over a first half that even the cheerful manager Fredi Gonzalez described as “just OK,” the Braves haven’t played themselves out of anything. They’ve left the impression they coulda/shoulda done better, but what they did wasn’t awful. They’re second in the NL East, four games behind Washington. They’re also second in the wild-card standings, which means they’d qualify if the postseason commenced today.
But that doesn’t mean the Braves are a playoff lock. We learned a year ago that strange things can happen in September, and the strangest things happen when you’re strapped for pitching. That’s what befell the Braves of 2011: Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson got hurt and Derek Lowe couldn’t get anybody out and the rotation was reduced to Tim Hudson and a bunch of kids and the lockdown bullpen finally buckled under the strain.
We’ve already seen the Braves send a 2011 All-Star pitcher (Jurrjens) to the minors and lose their best pitcher (Beachy) to arm surgery. We’ve seen them grow so desperate they dispatched Kris Medlen to Gwinnett to remember how to throw more innings and signed Ben Sheets, who has been out of baseball since 2010, to a minor-league contract. But now the rotation looks as spiffy as it has all season. Time to leave well enough alone?
Nope. Because this rotation just spent three months proving it’s not good enough to sustain a top-shelf team. (Let’s also note that these five quality starts came against sub-.500 opposition.) To make the playoffs and do damage once there, the Braves will need someone who can be better than Jurrjens, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado have been. Maybe it’s Zack Greinke. Maybe it’s Ryan Dempster. From what we saw last week at Turner Field, it’s not Matt Garza.
Landing a Greinke or a Dempster will almost certainly involve trading a young arm for an older one, which isn’t usually wise, and it could yield only a short-term rental. (Both Greinke and Dempster will be free agents. Remember, however, that the Braves won’t be paying Chipper Jones or Lowe next season.) But let’s review where the Braves are: They’ve missed the playoffs five of the past six seasons; they haven’t won a playoff series since 2001, and they’re coming off an Epic Collapse.
This is a big year for everyone involved with the organization. The Braves will reach the trading deadline with a real chance of playing beyond the 162nd game, and July has become a general manager’s time to fish or cut bait. Asked last week if he felt he had work to do this month, Frank Wren said: “We all have work to do.”
It was out of character for Wren to stand pat over the winter. It’s unthinkable he would do it again. His team has two blatant needs — its middling rotation and a lousy bench that will be taxed even more with Andrelton Simmons’ broken finger. Wren needs to address both. The guess here is that, just this once, he’ll be willing to pay a high cost in young talent to do it.
We caught a glimpse of how good the Braves can be if their starting pitchers can get them to the seventh inning. Even with Jonny Venters ineffective/injured, the bullpen is still stellar, and there are enough proven hitters in this batting order to do damage. The reason the Braves haven’t been better is that they haven’t pitched well enough. If Wren can fix that, his team can take the division.
By Mark Bradley