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The rotation should be the Braves’ top priority at the trade deadline

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Though Atlanta should also add a late-inning reliever, their top priority should be a starter.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

As the summer heat intensifies and the July 31 MLB Trade Deadline approaches, baseball fans cannot help but daydream about what their team might do to improve. For some teams, it will mean shedding big contracts and selling off all established talent in exchange for young prospects with lots of upside and cheap team control. For teams with an eye on the playoffs, like the Braves, it will mean trying to address any weaknesses in hopes of making a playoff run.

For much of the 2019 season, the Braves’ glaring weakness had been its bullpen. The opening series sweep at the hands of the Phillies where the bullpen surrendered 13 earned runs over 11 23 innings set the tone for the beginning of the season, and the Braves’ relief corps did little to shake things up early in the year. Whether due to injuries, massive walk rates, or regression from successful 2018 campaigns, the Braves’ bullpen performed near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories early on.

However, since the Braves acquired Anthony Swarzak in an unheralded trade on May 20, the bullpen has performed significantly better. (I say “unheralded” because the trade was essentially a swap of two relievers – Jesse Biddle and Swarzak – who were pitching poorly. Swarzak had a 5.27 ERA and 8.16 FIP for Seattle before the trade.)

Braves bullpen

2019 Before May 20 - Since May 20 -
2019 Before May 20 - Since May 20 -
Stat Value MLB rank Value MLB rank
ERA 4.54 21st 2.73 1st
FIP 5.01 24th 3.99 4th
xFIP 4.88 23rd 4.22 8th
BB% 12.30% 27th 8.8% 8th
WPA -0.76 21st 1.33 4th
fWAR -0.7 29th 1.0 8th

Whether it was the tremendous performance and leadership that Swarzak brought to the unit or Braves relievers settling into their roles, the bullpen has made a remarkable turnaround since May 20. Perhaps it should not be surprising since the Braves have an almost completely different bullpen than they did on Opening Day. Luke Jackson and Josh Tomlin are the only relievers remaining on the active roster who started the season in the bullpen. Credit the Braves’ front office for reformulating and turning around the bullpen in short time (though it is fair to question why this was done in May instead of February).

While the Braves’ bullpen has been performing at a high level lately, the same cannot be said for the rotation. Since May 28, Braves starters hold a 6.17 ERA, which ranks 27th in MLB during that span. The recent success of the bullpen and struggles of the rotation might have the Braves’ front office reprioritizing its trade targets from what they might have been about a month ago.

The rotation should be the Braves’ top priority at the trade deadline, even after signing Dallas Keuchel. When Keuchel was added on June 7, it seemed that the Braves would then shift their focus to the bullpen as the area to dedicate their resources before the July 31 trade deadline. However, the performance of the bullpen and the rotation have gone in opposite directions since then.

One reason for the rotation’s struggles has been Mike Foltynewicz, who has not proven worthy of a spot in the rotation in his current form. After pitching to a 2.85 ERA and finishing eighth in Cy Young voting in 2018, Foltynewicz has posted a 6.37 ERA and -0.3 fWAR in 2019. The Braves were forced to option him to Triple-A after he allowed eight earned runs to the Nationals on June 22. Foltynewicz’s fastball velocity is down 1.3 MPH from 2018, and opponents’ wOBA against his slider has jumped from .180 in 2018 to .373 in 2019, per Statcast. One can’t help but wonder whether Foltynewicz’s bone spurs in his elbow are worse than he is leading on. After reading The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz’s article on Foltynewicz’s injury (subscription required), it’s difficult to imagine that the elbow is not having an effect. Hopefully, Foltynewicz can get healthy and work through his issues in Triple-A, but what the Braves will get from him the rest of the season is anyone’s guess.

Additionally, Julio Teheran appears to be running out of luck and head-on into the regression that he had been miraculously dodging like a scene out of The Matrix. Consider this: from May 1 to June 17, Teheran had the second-lowest ERA (0.81) in MLB and fourth-highest xFIP (5.45) among 87 qualified starters. To put this in perspective, the three pitchers with a higher xFIP during this span each had an ERA over 6.00, while Teheran’s was below 1.00. Unfortunately for the Braves, Teheran’s peripherals appear to be catching up to him, as he has allowed 13 earned runs in eight innings over his last two starts.

With Kevin Gausman already on the IL after pitching to a 6.21 ERA over 13 starts, the Braves’ Front Office must be asking themselves which starting pitchers they can rely upon. Mike Soroka has clearly been the team’s best pitcher this season, but after being shut down last season with a shoulder injury, the Braves will be very cautious with his innings going forward. Whether Soroka can be relied upon in September and October is as clear as mud.

While Max Fried pitched brilliantly to begin the season, his numbers have gotten worse as the season has progressed. His ERA by month, for example, has been 2.30 through April, 4.11 in May, and 5.74 in June. And like Soroka, Fried’s innings will be monitored going forward because he has already had Tommy John surgery and has never pitched more than 119 innings in a professional season (after Tuesday’s start, he has already pitched 88 23 innings in 2019).

It’s frightening to think how the Braves’ pitching outlook would be if they hadn’t signed Keuchel. As things stand now, the Braves only have four starters in the rotation (Soroka, Keuchel, Fried, and Teheran). Unless Foltynewicz or Gausman can turn things around quickly, the Braves will have to rely upon Bryse Wilson, who is 21 years old and holds a 7.15 ERA over 11 13 major league innings, or bring Touki Toussaint or Sean Newcomb out of their bullpen roles for a undetermined period of time.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals
Dallas Keuchel’s acquisition is the type that the Braves could use more of.
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Keuchel signing was exactly the kind of deal that the Braves needed — a pitcher with a good playoff experience who is capable of giving the team a lot of quality innings. Another similar acquisition would significantly help the Braves’ chances down the stretch and hopefully into the playoffs.

This is not meant to be all doom and gloom on the rotation, as the Braves currently hold the second-best record in the National League and are as hot as any team right now. However, it is safe to assume that the front office is already looking critically at the team and analyzing how it matches up against other contenders. The offense won’t be able to put up seven runs every game, especially against great pitching like the Dodgers have.

By no means am I suggesting the Braves should ignore the bullpen. Due to the rotation’s troubles, the Braves’ bullpen has thrown the second-most innings in the National League. Additionally, adding a reliever with experience closing would go a long way by slotting others down.

The Braves are believed to have some more money to spend this season and might be able to afford both a starter and reliever. After signing Keuchel, the payroll sits around $130 million, which is about where it was at the end of the 2018 season.

However, if there’s anything that Braves fans learned during the offseason, it is that the Braves’ front office is not afraid to stay put if the right deal doesn’t materialize. If deals for both a reliever and starter aren’t feasible in a market for pitchers that is likely to be very competitive at the trade deadline, then the Braves should focus their resources on adding a starter.