• Zack Greinke

    Braves Offensive Swoon Just a Blip or Something More?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was “Sandlot Day” at SunTrust Park on Saturday, complete with a postgame showing of the classic movie following the Braves loss to Arizona. And in the midst of that iconic 90s classic, a famous four-word phrase was uttered on two occasions when Scotty Smalls’ ignorance left his buddies in exasperated shock.

    But safe to assume, those weren’t the only two times on this muggy, cloudy July afternoon when that phrase left the lips of Braves fans as another Atlanta hitter trudged back to the first-base dugout, bat in hand. Eight losses in the past 10 games for a team that had yet to blink in a pennant race joined sooner than expected has everybody on the edge of frustration, and Atlanta’s maddening offensive slump has become a flashpoint for the (insert sarcasm font) always-composed, mild-mannered, slow-to-panic denizens of Braves Country.

    Consider:

    • In the past 10 games, the Braves are hitting .241 as a team with 33 runs scored – six of ’em coming in one inning Wednesday against Toronto – while striking out 100 times and leaving 76 runners on base.
    • The Braves have mustered a grand total of one run in dropping the first two games of this weekend set to Arizona, the type of team Atlanta would see should it reach the playoffs, collecting 11 hits while striking out 23 times.
    • Atlanta has belted two homers in its past eight games, after hitting 98 in its first 87 contests, and both of those came off Ozzie Albies’ bat three innings apart Wednesday.

    It isn’t hard to look at any successful team and find a 10-game stretch where the wheels come off one aspect of the game, be it offensive production or starting pitching or bullpen execution. But when it comes to these Braves, with so many young players performing at a high level for the first time, with older veterans who are enjoying a renaissance of sorts, it begs the question:

    Is this merely a bump in the road, or is it regression to the mean?

    I don’t have the answer, and none of us will know until the final tale of 2018 is told and we see how this week and a half impacted the final, finished product. But I do think there are elements of both in play here.

    This team looks like a squad that needs the All-Star break. Desperately. Like, last week.

    There are several areas offensively where the production consistently is falling short of what’s expected or what’s needed (or both). Each one puts more pressure on the guys who are hitting, and what I’ve noticed the past two weeks is – for the first time this season – the Braves pressing a bit. Baseball’s hard enough without trying to hit a five-run homer with nobody on base.

    Some counter by saying the Braves have faced good pitching during this rough stretch – and Zack Greinke was outstanding for Arizona on Saturday, no question – but one of the hallmarks of Atlanta’s early-season success was beating good pitchers (Sale, Scherzer, et al). Playing in May as a feel-good story is one thing. Playing in July with more eyes and, yes, more pressure on every at-bat, is different.

    I don’t believe this team is as bad offensively as it’s shown of late. Nor, do I think it’s sustainable or realistic to expect this team to lead the National League in batting average and homers and slugging percentage, as it did in barnstorming its way to 15 games above .500 at one point a couple of weeks ago.

    That’s not to say there isn’t offensive talent available here.

    Did Ender Inciarte forget how to hit? No. He brought a career .295/.341/.733 slash line into this season, but he’s not performing at all in the leadoff spot. He’s better than a .241 hitter, but at this moment in this season that’s what he is. It’s time to move him down in the lineup, remove some of the pressure of having to set the table and let him get back on track.

    Is Dansby Swanson a .302 hitter, as he was in 38 games at the end of 2016? Most likely not, but is he the .249 hitter he is now (and that’s after collecting two of Atlanta’s five hits Saturday)? Perhaps he is, but his defense and a .327 average from the seventh inning on this season make it easier to roll him out there every day.

    The above two gentlemen are the first names that fly off the lips and fingertips of a fanbase that spends far too much time in panic mode and far too few minutes enjoying this ongoing emergence from the rebuild. Yes, there will the pain as the scar tissue from four straight losing seasons and an embarrassing front-office scandal is broken through.

    And if you think that hurts, sunshine, just wait until the end of this month, or this offseason, when some of the prized prospect possessions this team has amassed are sent off to fix the holes some of you yell about from sunrise to bedtime.

    The key to making any team successful is putting the parts in the best place possible to contribute to the maximum level for the common good. In baseball, that means determining the right prospects to deal and the right ones to keep. It also means putting players in the best spot to succeed, foregoing personal preferences or comfort levels to amplify a positive impact on the sum of the parts.

    For baseball teams, that comes down to wins and losses. And that squarely sits on the manager’s shoulders. There are inputs from various sources, be it the mountains of data now available in every front office or the weathered eyes and gut of a 40-year baseball lifer. But at the end of the day, I wonder (and in a way, fear) that some of the stubbornness we’ve seen from Brian Snitker these past few weeks will cost him a chance to run this show next spring.

    The players love Snitker, and there is something to be said for that. At the same time, there are instances – be it overreliance on Sam Freeman as the first lefty out of the bullpen or leaving Inciarte at the top of the batting order – that certainly must give Alex Anthopoulos pause. The new Braves general manager has no tethers to Snitker or your favorite prospect.

    Prepare yourself accordingly.

    Anthopoulos spent part of his Saturday entertaining questions from season-ticket holders, with many of the queries focused on the July 31 trade deadline. Every inquiry certainly was reinforced by the pain of a magical season suddenly feeling as if it’s souring by the day (news flash: it’s not, for if nothing else the rest of the NL East is every bit afflicted with its own warts and flaws).

    There will be plenty of work done over the four-day All-Star break this week regarding the rest of 2018 and setting the table for 2019. The players need to be as far away from baseball as possible (save the four Atlanta All-Stars who head to D.C. on Sunday), but for this front office and coaching staff, there will be a lot to discuss before the “second half” begins Friday in Washington.

    There are sensible moves the Braves can make at the deadline that won’t gut the farm system (granted, it would take a lot to gut a system more stocked than a hoarder’s supply of canned goods). It will be fascinating to see how this unfolds for Atlanta over the next two-plus weeks. Some of that groundwork gets laid this week, while the sport pauses to celebrate its best and brightest, while most of the Braves hopefully hit the refresh and relax buttons.

    And no, I’m not expecting Manny Machado to have a tomahawk on their jersey come Aug. 1. The bullpen needs an upgrade (or two, to be honest). It doesn’t take the biggest name. It takes the right player in the right position at the right time.

    So, put away those dream proposals floating all over social media. Atlanta is no more likely to meet Baltimore’s asking price for eight weeks of Machado than the Mets are likely to deal Jacob deGrom – in division – for a haul of Atlanta prospects – again, in division.

    In other words: “You’re killin’ me, Smalls.”

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Greinke to Angels good news for Braves fans

    RHP Zack Greinke is on his way to the LA Angels

    Since the Ryan Dempster deal that almost was fell apart, fans have been waiting anxiously to see if the Braves will be able to pull off deal to bolster their shaky starting rotation before Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline. And the man atop the wishlist of everyone in Atlanta (fans and team officials alike) was Brewers’ ace Zack Greinke. But alas, it is not to be. Geinke’s on his way to the LA Angels.

    Had the Braves won the Greinke sweepstakes, there’s no doubt he would have made Atlanta’s rotation markedly better.  The former American League CY Young winner would have matched up favorably against any ace the Braves may encounter in the postseason, if they make it that far.

    But for any general manger, exploring an impact trade is always a balancing act, if not a tug of war, between the pressure to win now and his responsibility to think about the team’s long-term success. Budget-conscious teams, like the Braves, are especially reliant upon the continual development of young, inexpensive talent. General Manager Frank Wren understands this, and since taking the wheel in the Braves front office, he has been particularly protective of the team’s most valuable prospects.

    That said, Wren is evidently willing to part with at least one of Atlanta’s prized arms: RHP Randall Delgado.  Delgado was rumored to be half the ill fated trade that would have brought Cubs’ RHP Ryan Dempster to Atlanta. Presumably, the Braves are still open to trading Delgado (or perhaps one of their other young arms) for an impact starting pitcher.

    There are a lot of teams, in addition to Atlanta, looking for a big arm: Angels, Nats, Dodgers, Rangers and Orioles to name a few. But even before Greinke was sent to LA, the market for starting pitching was shrinking. Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez recently landed in Pittsburgh. Cubs’ RHP Matt Garza is on the shelf with fluid buildup in his throwing harm. Cole Hamels wasn’t traded, but instead resigned by the Phillies, who–by the way–now say they will also hang on to Cliff Lee. Florida’s Josh Johnson may be available, but only if there’s a team with a desire to clear out their farm system.

    Given the shrinking market and the number of suitors, the Brewers were so firmly planted in the driver’s seat with the Greinke auction, I’m surprised they didn’t hire Sotheby’s to handle the bidding.

    We’ll never know what the Braves offered Milwaukee for Zack Greinke. Was Frank Wren willing to offer significantly more than Randall Delgado (who already represents no small price for a 2-month veteran rental) alone? That’s anyone’s guess. Wren won’t tell. But whatever the Braves offered, it wasn’t enough.

    But here’s something to bear in mind. Zack Greinke will be a free agent at season’s end. Greinke, a Florida native who grew up as a Brave fan, has expressed interest in playing in Atlanta, and the Braves will have money to spend after this season. Regardless of whether or not they had traded for Greinke, it has been believed all along that the Braves will make him an offer this winter.

    They have a chance to sign Greinke in the off-season irrespective of where he was traded, so a deadline deal for the right-hander would have to be viewed as a rental. Nothing more. If the price tag was Delgado + a mid-level prospect or two, the Braves would most likely have pulled the trigger. But given the package the Angels ultimately sent to Milwaukee, it’s a safe bet that the asking price was higher.

    While Greinke-to-LA is unwelcome news to many Braves fans, I would submit to you that it’s ultimately for the best.

    Consider that free-agent-to-be, Michael Bourn, has been a large part of the Braves’ success this year. It will not be possible for the Braves to sign Zack Greinke AND make a realistic offer to retain Bourn. And if they cannot resign Bourn, they’ll need to replace him. It’s unlikely that they’ll find another leadoff hitter of his caliber this winter, so they may concentrate on adding a power bat to compensate for the loss of Bourn’s speed. In any event, impact players aren’t cheap. To find a suitable offensive replacement for Bourn, the Braves will either have to bring their checkbook to the free agent market (which they cannot do if they sign Greinke) or surrender a significant package of minor league talent via trade.

    Had the Braves dealt for Greinke, they would have had to part with a great deal of talent now, and then to resign him, they would have to spend most of their available cash this winter. To trade for Greinke now and then trade for an impact bat this winter could have greatly diminished Atlanta’s farm system.

    While fans, managers and players alike all want to win immediately, it’s not always worth mortgaging the future. Remember, when this season’s over, we’ll only be 4 months away from pitchers and catchers reporting once again. The Braves are one of the younger teams in the National League with a very promising outlook. And trading for Zack Greinke now would have required Atlanta to trade too much of their future for the present.

    There are still quality starting pitchers available on the trade market, so the Braves may still upgrade their starting rotation before the Tuesday non-waiver deadline. The Braves were wise, however, to stop short of Milwaukee’s asking price for Greinke.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    Kent Covington is a World News Group radio reporter/producer and Editor of BravesWire.com.

    Zack Greinke in a Braves uniform?

    The Atlanta Braves are coming out of the All-Star break sporting a 46-39 record, 4 games out of first place in the NL East. An acceptable start, yes—but not the level of success that leads to a World Series championship.

    That’s where the trade deadline comes in.

    In a complete reversal from last year, pitching has become the Braves’ biggest weakness in 2012. Between the loss of Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery, the inexplicable struggles of the formerly dominate Johnny Venters and a plethora of other issues, Atlanta’s need to add more pitching is as palpable as it’s been in recent weeks.

    But given the improvements we’ve seen thus far on the Braves’ offensive side of the game, mending the issues on the mound could easily turn this team from a fringe wild card challenger to a legitimate NL pennant contender. That will be Frank Wren’s goal leading up to the deadline.

    Luckily for Wren, the coming weeks will provide him with a fantastic opportunity to add a quality arm or two to the mix for the playoff push. With an above average roster already in the fold and Chipper set to enter the final months of his career, there’s little reason to believe Wren and Co. won’t be aggressive as July 31 approaches.

    Venters’ rough year notwithstanding, the true problem with the Braves’ pitching staff stems from the rotation, so one has to think that a starting pitcher will be at the top of Wren’s shopping list. Between the struggles of Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor and the loss of Beachy, it would be difficult for Atlanta to compete in the postseason without adding depth to this beleaguered pitching staff.

    Obviously, there are innumerable possibilities for Atlanta when it comes to trade scenarios. With 15-20 potential partners and dozens of conceivable assets to choose from, there’s no way to accurately predict what the team will look like when July comes to an close.

    However, there are a few particularly enticing possibilities for the Braves to consider—none more alluring than Zack Greinke.

    The Milwaukee Brewers are having a horribly disappointing season, but Greinke has been one of the team’s few bright spots. With a 9-3 record and a 3.32 ERA, the former 6th overall pick would be a huge boost to the Braves’ staff if he could be acquired for the right price.

    Between him, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens (assuming he continues to pitch well) and veteran newcomer Ben Sheets, the Braves could trot out a fairly strong five-man rotation heading into the postseason (if they make it that far). Sheets will make his Braves debut on Sunday, and while the Braves are optimistic about the former NL All-Star, it’s hard to imagine he’ll erase the need for a trade.

    Of course, acquiring a top-end starter comes down to meeting the seller’s asking price. There’s no doubt that Brewers’ GM, Doug Melvin, is going to want a lot in return for Zack Greinke, and the potential bidding war that could ensue (the Angels have already been linked to Greinke) will only drive up the price.

    But to get a lot you have to give a lot, and Atlanta has a lot to offer. This isn’t to say that anyone in their system is “expendable” by any means, but they have enough young talent to part with a promising asset or two and not horribly sacrifice the future.

    Melvin is going to probably want an MLB-ready arm as part of the package, and that may come down to either Delgado or Minor. Again, losing either would hurt, but it would be far from the end of the world. But by giving up one of those two—both with the potential to blossom and be long-term fixtures wherever they end up—the rest of the package may not be so difficult for Wren to put together.

    At the end of the day, if Melvin asked for Delgado or Minor along with a second-tier prospect, it’s hard to imagine Wren will be able to say no. This goes without saying, but all this is pure speculation, as we have no idea what the Milwaukee GM is thinking. But it sure feels like a possible scenario.

    Another reason Greinke makes sense is his childhood ties to the organization. Growing up in Orlando, Florida, back before the Rays or Marlins existed, he supported the Braves in his youth.

    He’s made it clear in the past that he would like to play for the Braves, and if the Braves are willing to ante up this winter, a long-term deal could easily be in the cards.

    True, it would be expensive to bring him back on a multi-year basis, perhaps even in neighborhood of $20 million per season. But he’s also the kind of asset the Braves will desperately need 1-3 years down the road, and there’s little reason to believe they’ll be able to acquire a comparable player for a better price. With Tim Hudson likely only having another good couple of campaigns in the tank, Atlanta is going to need a strong, reliable veteran presence to lead the way for their new wave of pitching talent, which is coming along slower than most anticipated.

    Some may say that money should be saved to give Hanson a new contract, but with the notoriously hard-to-bargain-with Scott Boras as his agent, there’s absolutely no way Wren can afford to sit around and wait for those negotiations to happen before bolstering his rotation in other ways.

    There are other options to consider, Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster being three of them, but the ability to re-sign and count on Greinke for years to come puts him above the rest.

    The Braves aren’t the kind of team that likes to make surrender a lot for rentals, and that hasn’t changed. But with the desperate need for a quick fix, it only makes sense to go after the guy who could have a long-term impact with the organization.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh