• Exclusives

    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.

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