I understand the reaction.
I really do. The team got bounced in the first round of the playoffs, and during the buildup for the postseason, everyone kept saying, "They're good, but where's the ace? That's going to be their downfall." When the "downfall" came, that was the logical scapegoat. It was called, and after a pretty awful Division Series, it came true. And boy, did the Braves rotation falter in the postseason - 19 IP, 14 R. And immediately came the calls for the Braves to acquire an ace, with David Price the most publicized possibility. But let's look at some other facts.
- The Braves won 96 games without an "ace", apparently.
- Despite not having an ace, the Braves' starting rotation had the 5th best FIP in the MLB.
- Let's now somewhat arbitrarily define "aces" as one of the top 30 starting pitchers in baseball - essentially, the top guy from each team or the top 15ish% once you add in the extra guys that make a few starts.
- Out of SP with at least 140 IP in 2013, Mike Minor ranked 29th in FIP.
- The Red Sox, who won the World Series, had Jon Lester, who ranked 16th.
- The Cardinals, who lost the World Series, also had one - Adam Wainwright, who ranked 4th.
- The Tigers had 4 "aces", and the worst one ranked 12th on that list.
- The Rangers, Mariners, Reds, and Phillies had 2 aces.
- David Price ranked 15th, but the Rays couldn't get out of the ALDS, either.
By this point, I think you get the picture - having an ace or aces doesn't guarantee you much in the postseason - or even the regular season, for that matter. We can sit here all day and argue about this. You can point out instances in which teams with aces won, and I can point out instances where teams had aces and didn't. You'll say, "Having a rotation like the Braves' is great for the regular season, but it's not one geared for the postseason where aces shut down offenses." But even if the Braves rotation wasn't geared for the World Series, it was also not geared for a 6.62 ERA, and I can point you toward Clayton Kershaw's Game 6 in the NLCS for how an ace can still let you down. Winning is still about building the best team, not the best part of a team.
Listen, I won't insult your intelligence by saying the Braves wouldn't be better if they acquired an ace. An ace, by even our rudimentary definition above, would instantly be the best pitcher on the staff, and he'd be several wins better than the guy he'd actually replace - whoever pitched fifth in the rotation. But it's that feeling of need that I argue with. Would the Braves be a better team with David Price next season? Absolutely. But does it make sense to use the money and prospects/young players needed to acquire him or a pitcher like that? I have my doubts.
The first question we really need to ask ourselves is what the rotation looks like for next season because that's the one that now matters. As it currently stands, Mike Minor will head a rotation with Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Alex Wood, and some combination of Brandon Beachy - who needs to prove he's healthy - and David Hale - whose masterful performances were spectacular but also against the Phillies and Padres. The Braves rotation was worth 11-12 wins last season. Minor (3), Teheran (3), Medlen (2), and Wood (2) gets the team to 10 wins in 2014, and there's every reason to believe Minor and Teheran could better those totals in 2014. An ace would give the team more depth, but there are still questions as to whether Beachy or Hale really counts as depth.
But this is what's so great about the team that won 96 games in 2013 - it's young. Most winning teams can't boast the same amount of youth that the Braves can, and while this team was already great last season, it could be even better in 2014. And that's with no additions. Sure, Chris Johnson probably can't defend in his title rematch with BABIP, and Brian McCann in another uniform is likely to lose a few wins at the catching position. But Jason Heyward will probably play in more games. Justin Upton could be much better. BJ Upton shouldn't post the same horrendous season again, can he? Please whatever deity controls baseball? Please? Anyway, what was I saying?
A lot of teams win with older players in or just past their primes, but this team won with most of its primary core still before their primes. Does that mean some won't regress? Of course not. Freddie Freeman was awesome, but he'll have to add some power to offset what is likely to be some loss in production from that .371 BABIP. Andrelton Simmons had an unanticipated power spike, and he might actually fair worse a second full time through the league.
But in my humble opinion, I find it hard to believe that the Braves, as currently constituted, won't be the favorites for the NL East division crown in 2014. The rest of the division is likely to take a step forward, but while the Braves' win count might actually dwindle, they still remain the best team. Again, I think you get the point. The team doesn't need an ace.
But it could probably use one. Like I said, David Price, Jeff Samardzija, and John Lackey (I don't really know why his name has popped up, but okay) would make the team better, and I expect that the front office will make the requisite calls. This is what happens every offseason. The team might not need something, but if the opportunity comes along to make the team better, you do it because there's no reason not to try and win 162 games.
And when you really think about it, the rotation is really the best place for the team to make a significant improvement. Evan Gattis might not be great or even Brian McCann, but he can probably cobble together a couple wins, which would be hard to find a better solution on the market right now. Second base is a definite possibility, but are the Braves really going to bench the $12 Million Dollar Baby for two whole seasons? There are few third basemen available, so avoiding Lord BABIP's eventual knock-out-drag-out with the BABIP fairy is going to be difficult. And frankly, the outfield isn't going to change. So it's basically the rotation, and unless you're really banking on Beachy or Hale, the fifth spot in the rotation could see a massive upgrade with actual possibilities present.
But as it always does, everything comes down to the ... price. The Braves don't need an ace. Without one, they're likely to win 90+ games again next year. If David Price can give the Braves about 9 wins or $45ish M in value, he's still a relative bargain against the ... carry the 2 ... roughly $30 million he might be owed over the next two seasons. According to prospect values, that $15 million surplus in win value minus salary is worth a top pitching prospect (welp), a really good hitting prospect (welp), or a few lower rung guys like J.R. Graham, Christian Bethancourt, Jose Peraza, and Mauricio Cabrera. If you want to add on a tax for the Braves' placement on the win curve, you might well be talking 3 of those young players I just mentioned. But other teams are likely to be able to headline their offer with a better prospect anyway.
So here's the question the Braves' front office faces - do you go all-in on an ace and improve the team by 2-4 wins knowing the window is now, or do you hold on to the prospects and hope they develop and keep the team successful 3-5 years down the road? If they don't improve there, there are few other places to really make a difference.
It's a tough decision, but either way it ends up, I'm not terribly worried about whether or not the team has an ace in 2014.