Asked for his Trade Deadline wish list, Chipper Jones said Monday: “I’d like Josh Johnson, [Ryan] Dempster and Cliff Lee. We could trade our entire Triple A team for those three.”
Jones was kidding, sort of, but he was reminded that in 1993 the Braves’ Class AAA affiliate fully expected to be ravaged at the deadline. Jones was then Richmond’s shortstop; Ryan Klesko was the first baseman, Javy Lopez the catcher. With the Braves gazing upward at the Giants in the National West, it was thought that general manager John Schuerholz would have to part with one, maybe two, of the prized prospects to land Fred McGriff. Instead Schuerholz hooked McGriff for Melvin Nieves, a Richmond outfielder, and two lesser lights.
In the history of deadline deals, that’s about the best. McGriff showed up, the press box at the old stadium caught fire and the Braves overhauled San Francisco, which would win 103 games but, there being no wild card then, go nowhere.
Today there are two wild cards per league, and the Braves’ needs are different. They haven’t pitched very well, and starting pitching tends to assume greater importance — not that it’s ever insignificant — in September and October. They thought they’d traded for the aforementioned Dempster last week, but he didn’t sanction the transaction. The jilted suitor (Braves GM Frank Wren) claims to have backed away, though it’s unclear if the deal is dead or dormant.
For more than a month, we’ve worked under the assumption that Wren would move heaven and earth to land a starting pitcher. With Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline close at hand, we ask instead: What if Wren’s wrangling doesn’t yield a Dempster or a Johnson or a Lee? Would the 2012 Braves be capable of winning in October? (The belief here is, and has been for a while, that they’re good enough to get there.)
As it stands, the Braves’ rotation in a Division Series — and don’t forget, the two wild cards first meet in a play-in game — would surely include Tim Hudson, who’s 37 and who has won one postseason game; Ben Sheets, who’s 34 and who has never worked a postseason game, and Tommy Hanson. The Tommy Hanson of the first half of 2011 met the definition of a top-shelf starter: He was 10-4 with an ERA of 2.44 before the All-Star Game, for which he should have been selected. He hasn’t been nearly so good since.
His shoulder started hurting, and his last appearance of 2011 came Aug. 6. The shoulder didn’t require surgery, but the Hanson of ‘12 hasn’t thrown as hard or as precisely. He entered Monday night’s start against Miami having compiled seasonal career worsts in ERA (4.39) and WHIP (walks and hits per inning).
True, he has won 12 games, but only nine of his 23 outings have been Quality Starts (at least six innings with no more than three earned runs). And his past three starts had been either lousy (six earned runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Mets, eight in four against the Nationals) or weird (seven walks in five innings against the Marlins in Miami). Weirder still: The Braves lost none of those three games.
Monday’s effort was more polished: Five innings, six hits, three walks, one earned run. It must be said, however, that injuries and trades have reduced the Marlins to something approximating a Class AAA club, and while Hanson was good he wasn’t overpowering. And he was gone after only 85 pitches, albeit on a hot night, albeit with his team leading 4-1. (Soon to be 6-1: Juan Francisco, who pinch-hit for him, drove home two more.)
And yet: Hanson’s final pitch was driven to left field by Carlos Lee for the single that should have yielded the tying run, but Martin Prado somehow threw out Jose Reyes, who was running hard all the way, at the plate. Of the 15 outs the Marlins made against Hanson, two were on the bases.
A year ago, you could have written Hanson’s name on a postseason lineup card — that’s if the Braves had made it and he’d have stayed healthy, neither of which happened — and felt good about his chances. This season’s Hanson has only occasionally resembled the poised and skilled prospect who arrived in the majors to much ballyhoo in June 2009. He doesn’t look like a No. 1 starter, and on his bad nights he’s barely a No. 4.
If the trade deadline passes without the acquisition of a No. 1 starter, Hanson becomes the key man in this rotation. If he pitches to the form of previous seasons, this rotation would stand a fighting chance come the playoffs. If not, there’ll be no parade down Peachtree.
By Mark Bradley