We’re exactly halfway through the season, sitting pretty at 48-34 and 6 games up in the division. Things have gone well so far for the Braves. No one is really having a breakout season, but no one has really been a black hole of suck, either. That’s good for the team, and it’s a big reason why they’re playing as well as they are. It does, however, make upgrading the roster a bit difficult as there are no obvious places to make major upgrades.
Winning teams aren’t likely to trade away areas of depth, as one twisted ankle or blown elbow could put the team in a serious bind down the stretch and into the playoffs. So there’s little chance of a catcher or starting pitcher being traded away from the Braves. While I understand the "but we could get stuff for the future" arguments, winning now is both more important and financially lucrative. Teams generally don’t take those kinds of risks.
With that in mind, where can the Braves add talent?
The first position that comes to mind is third base. Chris Johnson has provided plenty of value for essentially feeling like the afterthought of the deal, and he is hitting .323/.370/.465 at this point in the season. That’s tremendous value on offense, but he’s given a lot of it away on defense and the base paths, leaving himself worth about a win (by fWAR - FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement) so far this season. One also has to think, of course, how he will likely finish the season because that is what counts moving forward. Johnson’s current .404 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) isn’t likely to stay that way, and his career marks of .283/.323/.436 are more likely going forward. While that’s not bad, it’s not enough to be of much value moving forward as his defense and baserunning aren’t likely to improve. Projections have him being a replacement player the rest of the way.
The next spot is probably on the bench. The bench once Evan Gattis returns is currently Gattis, Gerald Laird, Jordan Schafer, Paul Janish/Tyler Pastornicky, and Reed Johnson. There’s some value there, but the Braves might be better served with a lefty who mashes righties instead of Reed Johnson, who no longer really serves a purpose with Schafer’s seeming - fingers crossed - resurgence. If the Braves trade for a third baseman, adding a bench player will become much more difficult, but adding Chris Johnson to the bench will also make it less necessary.
Finally, the last spot is to add a reliever or two. The Braves bullpen remains the best in the game, but it could always use a boost. Preferably, the team will look at left-handed options to pair with Jordan Walden in the 7th and 8th innings, allowing Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin to mix-and-match in earlier innings. This one is pretty solid.
So let’s look at some options.
The most logical choice is actually a guy you’ve probably not heard much about - Luis Valbuena. Age 27 and playing third base for the Cubs, Valbuena would be a nice fit. He switch-hits, has a decent defensive reputation, and isn’t terrible on the bases. Currently hitting .235/.343/.387, he might be a tad over his head, but he has the best BB/K ratio of his career - 0.82 - and is increasing his power output at an appropriate age. He’s also under control for three more seasons after this and could serve as the third baseman for a while. Valbuena has made some legitimate improvements over the last few seasons, and he’d probably be worth at least a win over Chris Johnson. The trick would be getting the Cubs, who could use players like this that fill holes on a rebuilding team, to trade him and not go overboard on the asking price.
The next option is Aramis Ramirez, but I’ll save everyone the trouble - no. His knees are causing him fits, and as an elder statesman who is still owed approximately $21 million for the rest of this season and next, adding him doesn’t make sense, especially considering he hasn’t played well this season.
Kyle Seager of the Mariners is an intriguing option, but with the Mariners looking for offense, they aren’t likely to deal a player of Seager’s caliber. He’s not a huge offensive threat, hitting .268/.328/.448, but with a solid defensive and baserunning reputation, he’s a 3-4 win player that would add 2 wins to the Braves over Johnson. Seager would be under control for 4 more seasons and would cost a pretty penny or two, but he might be worth it.
There are some prospect options like Mike Olt, but when looking to minimize risk, adding a prospect might not be the best bet to make right now.
Lefty Bench Bat
Nate Schierholtz, currently hitting .286/.336/.536, was my initial thought, but playing this well means the asking price is probably too high for a bench bat. We’re looking to go on the cheap here.
Carlos Pena is currently a replacement-level player for the Astros, and while he’s done worse against lefties this season, he’s always done much better against righties, to the tune of .244/.364/.486 with the requisite pop the Braves would be looking for. The price shouldn’t be too high.
Another possible name could be Justin Smoak. I can’t see the Mariners just parting with him, but I also can’t see why they’d be particularly tied to him, either. If he can be had for cheap, the switch-hitting first baseman is better against righties and has been particularly good against them this season. There’s a possible upside play here as well as he hasn’t reached his peak years quite yet. But again, this seems like a long shot.
The Braves might have to wait a little while until the playoff picture becomes a bit clearer here. There are lefty bats out there, but none of them particularly fit the description we’re looking for here. This isn’t the biggest need, however.
Since coming back last year as a reliever, Oliver Perez has actually been a pleasant surprise, and he’s doing it again this year with a 1.52 ERA. He might not be quite that good, but his 35% K rate and 11% BB rate would fit really nicely in the back of the Braves ‘pen. He’ll be highly sought-after, though.
Teammate Charlie Furbush has similar peripherals - 34% K%, 12% BB% - but his ERA of 3.90 is a lot worse. There’s no real reason to think he’s that bad, however, and the poor ERA might be a way to get him cheaper than otherwise. He’d also be around for 4 more years, and you can’t pass up that name.
James Russell will be another hot commodity. His strikeout rate of 21% isn’t as devastating as the other two, but his walk rate of 7% is a bit more palatable. An ERA of 2.53 means the Cubs lefty will also be in high demand.
If you prefer the "Go Big or Go Home" method, Glen Perkins is an option. It would take a hefty package relative to other reliever options, but Perkins is absolutely destructive out of the pen - 37% K rate, 6% BB rate. He’s signed for 2 more years for $3.75 M each season with an option for another at $4.5 M. Given the going rate for relievers lately, that’s a bargain for his production. But we’ve seen how quickly arms can go down. Is he worth the investment?
One might also mention Mike Dunn. The Marlins have shown a willingness to trade with the Braves in spite of the teams playing in the same division. They’ve said they won’t trade Dunn or Steve Cishek, but I don’t believe it for a second. Why would you trade everyone else but not these two? Dunn’s ERA is a sparkling 2.75, but his peripherals - 22% K rate, 12% BB rate - aren’t nearly as good as the above options. He still walks a lot of guys without the huge strikeout totals. He’s an above-average reliever, but I wouldn’t go nuts for him.
Because the Braves may choose to simply get a good reliever regardless of handedness, I’ll run through a few more options.
Jesse Crain has had a breakout season in Chicago for the White Sox with a 0.74 ERA and sparkling peripherals - 30% K rate, 7% BB rate. But when a guy has a breakout, you can’t be sure he’ll continue, and you’ll be buying high.
After being below-replacement level for 3 of 4 years, Kevin Gregg is having one of his mysteriously good seasons again. With a 27% K rate and 7% BB rate, he’s been fantastic, but he’s probably not the 1.65 ERA he has been so far. Again, you’re buying high here, but the asking price might not be outrageous given his history of performing much worse.
Casey Fien has kicked it around as a Twins reliever for a few years, but he’s turned it up a notch this season. The 3.58 ERA masks some real improvements as he’s increased his strikeouts from 23% to 29% and decreased his walks from 6% to 5%. He doesn’t have a big arm, but he’s been pretty good for more than a season now.
Another possibility is Jim Henderson of the Brewers. He’s unfortunately (for acquiring teams) being used to close occasionally, which inflates his value. Otherwise, his 27% K rate and 8% BB rate are pretty good and back up the 2.12 ERA. He’d be an expensive pick-up though given the saves and that he would still be around for 5 more years.
Your Turn - Who did I miss? Who do you want to acquire?