Now that the Braves have Dallas Keuchel in the fold, it’s time to start plugging other holes.
There’s not much question that the Braves’ bullpen has been the team’s Achilles’ heel to this point in the season. While Alex Anthopoulos sat back and watched the free agent reliever landscape unfold without getting involved in the offseason (or in-season if you count Craig Kimbrel), he has not been shy about making small moves to tinker with the pen. Between minor trades to acquire Jerry Blevins and Anthony Swarzak, as well as a plethora of relievers who have gone back and forth on the Gwinnett Shuttle, the Braves bullpen has seen no less than 19 different relievers toe the mound.
Granted, we wouldn’t have to keep seeing this if he had assembled a stable of capable relievers, but I digress.
Even with the ‘pen scuffling so far, the Braves find themselves within striking distance of first place in the NL East, and this team’s offense gives the Braves a chance to emerge victorious day in and day out. In order to take that next step and leapfrog the Phillies - and beyond - there is no question that Anthopoulos is going to have to make some external upgrades before the trade deadline.
With the August 31 waiver trade deadline a thing of the past, this is the first season where July 31 is the drop-dead date for any and all trading to take place. Because of this, it would not be surprising to see all contenders, not just the Braves, get aggressive on the trade market earlier than we’re used to.
The demand is higher when players are made available mid-season, and all it takes to drive the price up is one team who is convinced that a certain player would put them over the top. Even with relievers being more volatile commodities than any other position, teams have been known to pay top dollar for them close to the deadline. Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman in 2016, and Francisco Mejia for Brad Hand and Adam Cimber last year, come to mind.
It remains to be seen whether Anthopoulos will buck his recent trend of holding tight to the organization’s top prospects, but if he would be willing to loosen the coffers a bit, here are a few options that could help the Braves buckle down and make some noise.
The Giants are going nowhere fast, currently in last place in the NL West and already 17 games back. Farhan Zaidi, San Francisco’s President of Baseball Operations, knows that his bullpen is the strength of his team, and they could be used to replenish a barren farm system. By measure of fWAR, the Giants have the third best relief corps in the National League, and lefty Will Smith is one of the biggest reasons why.
Smith, the Giants’ closer, is striking out 12.71 batters per nine innings, while still only walking 1.59 per nine. His 2.38 ERA is rock solid, but his 2.00 FIP actually indicates he has been the victim of some bad luck. San Francisco’s AT&T Park is a pitcher’s haven, which could be a contributing factor to Smith having only allowed two home runs this season, but his 28.3% fly ball rate (vs. a 47.8% groundball rate) will play anywhere. His 0.9 fWAR is good for third among relievers in the NL. Regardless of how you feel about the relevance of saves, he’s got 13 of them.
It’s not just the old school stats that love Smith; he is also a Statcast darling. He is in the second percentile of multiple Expected Statistics - xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA - and he has not allowed one barrel this season. He’s got something for everyone.
Smith will be sought after by multiple clubs, as he is only making $4.225M this season. Even still, he is a free agent at the end of the year, so even if the cost is high, it may not be downright ridiculous.
In addition to Smith, the Giants have also leaned heavily on Dyson this year. His numbers aren’t quite at Smith’s level, but his 2.79 ERA / 2.74 FIP, 8.69 K/9, and sparkling 1.24 BB/9 rate all indicate he is having one of the better years of his entire Major League tenure. Like Smith, he has only surrendered two HR in 2019, and Dyson is consistently generating ground balls - his 58.9% ground ball rate is among the best in the league and it is actually the lowest of his career. So, in this case when we talk about regression to the mean, it could be a good thing for Dyson, and for the Braves if they were to acquire him. Dyson just turned 31, and he has been around the block, so he would accordingly fit nicely into the crafty veteran role the Braves are always trying to fill.
He is making $5M this season, and is slated for one more year of arbitration after this one.
Just by virtue of playing in the same division with the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox, the Blue Jays’ season was doomed from Day One. As their record approaches 20 games under .500, and their deficit in the AL East also rushes towards 20 games, the Jays would be wise to use Giles as a trade chip to bolster their already deep farm system. Giles’ proclivity for the strikeout has continued this season (a career high 15.12 K/9), but over the past two seasons he has made massive strides towards keeping his walks under control (2.52 BB/9). His 1.08 ERA is among the best in the league, as is his 1.15 FIP.
He has also made strides in his composure, and is no longer likely to be seen punching himself in the face after a bad outing. No, really, this happened.
Braves fans had a first hand look at Giles during his tenure with the Phillies, and they can attest to his elite velocity. He is a power closer whose fastball sits in the high 90s, and has been known to touch triple digits. Giles’ elite numbers, $6.3M salary, and subsequent year of arbitration could put a high price tag on him, but he would be the best closer the Braves have had since Craig Kimbrel.
Much like the Giants, the Diamondbacks are free falling in the NL West. The farther they fall behind the Dodgers, and the farther they get pushed out of the Wild Card race, the Snakes may have no choice but to start selling off assets to continue building a prospect army (even after restocking through a ridiculous amount of picks in this week’s draft). Enter veteran Greg Holland.
Holland has returned to form after a nasty 2018, and the Diamondbacks’ relief corps has benefitted from it. He is carrying a 1.31 ERA | 2.52 FIP, and is striking out 12.19 batters per nine innings. Through 20 ⅓ innings, he has only surrendered one home run - to Josh Donaldson on May 9, as fate would have it - so you can almost forgive his walk rate (4.35 BB/9). All three of the runs Holland has given up this season came within three consecutive outings (Donaldson’s HR being one of them), and he has otherwise had 18 scoreless appearances.
Even with the walks, he has been worth 0.6 fWAR, and stands to likely be one of the best available options down the stretch. Holland is making $3.25M this season, and is a free agent at the end of the year.
The White Sox are crawling out of their rebuild, and are surprisingly hovering right around the .500 mark. Unfortunately, even with the gains they have made since last season, they are 12 games behind the ridiculous Twins in the AL Central, and on the outside looking in on the Wild Card race. If they decide they want to sell, they have a great trade chip in Alex Colome.
Colome has taken well to Chicago’s closer role, already locking down 12 saves with a 2.28 ERA | 3.70 FIP (numbers which are actually inflated from one bad recent outing). This is not his first tenure as a closer, having held that title in Tampa Bay for two seasons (84 saves in that span, for what it’s worth), and has been a reliable ‘pen piece for a handful of seasons now. His strikeout numbers are not ridiculous - 8.37 per nine innings - but his 2.28 BB/9 rate and only allowing three home runs in 23 ⅔ innings point towards a solid piece the Braves could count on in a playoff race and beyond.
Colome is due $7.325M this season. He also has another year of arbitration left, so his cost would be among the higher ones on this list.
The Indians are having a rough go of it in 2019. It was no secret that the Tribe’s playoff chances would be buoyed by their pitching, but the losses of Mike Clevenger and Corey Kluber have set them back big time. This week’s announcement that Carlos Carrasco is out indefinitely clouds Cleveland’s outlook even farther. They are an even 31-31, light years behind the Twins, and at a crossroads. While a healthy version of Cleveland’s pitching staff is enough to carry their subpar offense, there is no guarantee any of these three big arms will return at 100%, so the team may find itself pivoting. If this winds up being the case, it wouldn’t be a stretch for them to dangle Brad Hand.
As noted above, Hand was acquired last summer for Francisco Mejia, and has not skipped a beat since leaving San Diego. If anything, he has gotten even better. While maintaining a lights-out strikeout rate (12.62 per nine), he has shaved his walk rate down to 2.45 BB/9. Hand has also cut his ERA (1.05) and FIP (1.90) to nearly elite levels, and sports a 0.78 WHIP. He is a known commodity with a track record, and one that the Braves could desperately use. A proven southpaw who could serve as a stabilizing force might be just what the doctor ordered for a bullpen that has often seemed disorganized and aimless, among other not-so-nice adjectives, in 2019.
Regardless of how effective Hand has been, the biggest sticking point with Hand would be the contract, which carries approximately $20M over the next 2 ½ seasons. The deal does have a $1M buyout in 2021 in case Hand’s numbers go sideways, so that’s an added layer of insulation just in case Hand turns into a pumpkin.
No doubt about it, the Braves will need to fix their bullpen if they are going to make it back to the playoffs this season. The pieces will be there - but are they willing to pay the price to get them?