The season has reached its halfway point and the trade deadline is just four days away.
Things are getting real, folks.
The Braves are out in front of the National League East, but it’s come with more surprises than expectations met. Dansby Swanson is tied for the team’s lead in fWAR (1.0) with the fourth-best mark among NL shortstops; the catching position has been the NL’s second best at 1.2 fWAR (though maybe that’s not stunning given what teaming up with Tyler Flowers has meant for catchers these past three seasons); opt-out, opt-in, sit-out due to precautionary reasons Nick Markakis is hitting at a career-best clip (176 wRC+) and Atlanta has one of the circuit’s top bullpens (of course, given how much it was bolstered since last year’s deadline) behind big contributions from unexpected sources Tyler Matzek (0.5 fWAR) and A.J. Minter (0.3).
Small sample sizes, in a season primed for them to be more meaningful than ever before, are truly awesome.
We’ve much to get into in this week’s Starting Nine, including the deal this writer would make if he were in general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ shoes and remaining in awe of Ian Anderson’s debut.
1. The deal the Braves should make ahead of Monday’s deadline
Bask in the afterglow of Wednesday’s doubleheader sweep of the Yankees in what felt like a religious experience as Ian Anderson and Max Fried gave the Braves their back-to-back quality starts out of its rotation but starting pitching should remain the prime target ahead of Monday’s trade deadline.
Granted, Atlanta is getting the NL’s worst production of any team at third base via Johan Camargo and Austin Riley (-0.5 fWAR), but the expiring contracts aren’t enticing, with the Royals’ Maikel Franco (96 wRC+) and Pablo Sandoval (61 wRC+) are the only free-agents-to-be on non-contenders. The Mariners’ Kyle Seager has been discussed, but he’s due $18 million next year and the real pain comes in 2022 with a $15 million option that turns into a player option if he’s traded, and the Red Sox’s Rafael Devers. The latter, who is under control through 2027, would be a dream scenario, but it would be stunning to see Boston stunt its rebuild in dealing that kind of a locked-up asset.
So, it’s back to starting pitching and there are options, like free-agent-to-be Trevor Bauer (Reds) or arms with one more year of control in the Rangers’ Lance Lynn, Diamondbacks’ Robbie Ray or Angels’ Dylan Bundy. The focus, though, should be on the Indians, who lead the majors with 4.2 fWAR and 3.01 ERA, yet their most talked-about arms had been the ones banished to the team’s alternate site for violating health and safety protocols.
For the first time in three weeks, Mike Clevinger took the mound Wednesday, and his six innings of allowing two runs on eight hits could be the beginning of the healing process or it may have been an opportunity to showcase a controllable arm ahead of the deadline.
The Indians have a need for outfield help, on its current roster — where it’s dead last in MLB at -0.7 fWAR — and within the farm system — the Indians’ best option, George Valera, is likely three years away — and Atlanta is in a position to help there with a movable current MLB option in Ender Inciarte and have the kind of blue-chip prospects (i.e. Cristian Pache and Drew Waters) that would enticing. The Braves can also help to ease the impending loss of Francisco Lindor at shortstop with a prospect like Braden Shewmake.
Clevinger has three fewer years of control than Plesac, who is under wraps through 2025, making him the more likely of the two to be dealt, and while the Braves aren’t alone in needing starting pitching (see the Yankees and Rays along with Atlanta), Anthopoulos has the kind of assets that could pry Clevinger away.
There are certainly more obtainable short-term options on this trade market and it would likely take a substantial package to pry away Clevinger — especially when you consider the climate of this season with additional teams in the postseason hunt, the rash of pitching injuries and that Cleveland doesn’t have to make this deal — and it could take losing the kind of prospect that had been bordered on untouchable. But with the sometimes punch in the gut that the Braves’ rotation has provided, the onus should be on someone who can help long term.
2. Ian Anderson and the Great Braves Debuts
Ian Anderson was, simply put, spectacular. He took a no-hit bid into the sixth inning against the most potent offense in the game and did it opposite baseball’s highest-paid pitcher in Gerrit Cole in the longest any Braves pitcher had gone without giving up a hit since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. “I probably won’t take this smile off my face for a long time,” Anderson said. In what underscores the problems this rotation has had, and a revelation of sorts given how many of those have been with the young arms that were the foundation of this rebuild, he became the only starter not named Max Fried to get a win on the season. It was, by any measure one of the great first starts for the Braves, with his Game Score of 70 ranking fourth since the team took up residence in Georgia, trailing only Manny Banuelos’ 72 (July 2, 2015) and the 71 by both Derek Lilliquist (April 13, 1989) and John Smoltz (July 23, 1988) and is tied with Red Long (Sept. 11, 1902) for eighth in franchise history, where Vive Lindaman had a Game Score of 80 on April 14, 1906. Whether or not Anderson takes a spot in this rotation and runs with it, the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft has, at the very least, provided one of the great debuts in Braves history.
3. The dwindling list of names on the hype train
While there remain top-tier names that have yet to take an MLB mound for the first time, there’s some wistfulness with Anderson joining the big-league squad. Just Kyle Muller (ranked seventh via MLB Pipeline), Tucker Davidson (ninth) and Patrick Weigel (16th) remain among those arms acquired before the Braves went from a 90-loss season to back-to-back division champs. Atlanta has now seen five of its six first-round picks acquired from 2015-2017 debut — with only Joey Wentz, who was traded to the Tigers in the Shane Greene deal in July 2019, missing from that list — debut, and this marked the third straight season in which Atlanta’s top pitching prospect received the call. With Pache — who got only, let’s be honest, a sip of a cup of coffee — that leaves just fellow outfielder Drew Waters to debut when considering that long list of prospects that were the foundation of the Braves’ boasting one of the top farm systems. There will certainly be others to get hyped about, but if you see a prospect watcher, let them shed a tear or two with another Top-50 player going from a chip for the future to contributor of the present.
4. Max Fried making case for Braves’ best Cy Young finish in 18 years
Since Tom Glavine gave the Braves their last Cy Young in 1998, the closest they’ve come to another was when Glavine finished second in 2000 and John Smoltz took third in 2002, and since, haven’t cracked the top three. Craig Kimbrel and Tim Hudson have the only top-five finishes since then, with the former coming in 2013 (fourth) and 2012 (fifth) and the latter taking fourth in 2010. But considering his worth to this team, it would be stunning if Fried doesn’t deliver the highest Cy Young finish since at Smoltz 18 years ago. “I’ve been saying it for a few years how special that left arm is,” Freddie Freeman said after Wednesday’s second win over the Yankees, adding the left-hander has been Atlanta’s clear MVP of the season’s first half. “We saw it last year and now he’s really putting it together. I don’t think we’d be here without Max.” Fried is in the NL lead with a 1.35 ERA, has the best HR/FB rate — this is pretty much a guarantee when you’re the only qualified starter to have yet to allow a homer — and tied for third in fWAR (1.3) and fourth in FIP (2.36). He’s now on a run of six straight starts allowing one or zero runs in at least five innings, one behind Kris Medlen (2012) for the Braves record and equal to Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz, who each did it once in their time in Atlanta.
5. The Pickoff Artist
While we’re on the topic of Fried, let’s spend a second on what has become the deadliest pickoff move in the game. Since 2018, Fried, who is tied for the MLB lead with three this season, also has the most in the game with 13. He’s currently just two away from cracking the top 10 in franchise history, one behind Greg Maddux and two away from John Smoltz and is already seventh among lefties and just three from cracking the top five, despite having thrown just 265 1/3 career innings. Warren Spahn, the Braves’ all-time leader with 72, is a world away, but Fried is climbing up the ranks in a hurry.
6. Bucking the trend vs. elite pitching
Elite pitching is, by its very definition, difficult for everyone. Hence the word “elite.” So what the Braves offense did Wednesday to Gerrit Cole, tagging him for five earned runs in five innings — the most he’d allowed since May 22, 2019 — stands out not just because he’s on every short list of the today’s best starters, but because of this offense’s overall struggles against the top tier of arms the past two seasons. Among the top five starters in FanGraphs WAR since the start of the 2018 season, leader Jacob deGrom has held the Braves to a 1.72 ERA and .228 wOBA in 12 games, Patrick Corbin (fifth) had a 2.81 ERA against them last season in three starts, Atlanta last saw Justin Verlander (fourth) in 2016 and before Wednesday, it hadn’t faced Cole since his Pirates days, before he started rattling off sub-2.90 ERA seasons. Max Scherzer (second) is the only one the Braves have had consistent success against (3.72 ERA in 12 games). If you want to include the top 10, they did rough up Shane Bieber (seventh) — roughing him up for five earned runs in 2 1/3 innings last season — and have had success against Trevor Bauer (eighth) — 4.09 ERA in two games in 2019 — and Chris Sale (ninth) — one outing with six earned in 4 1/3 — and have had Zach Wheeler’s (10th) number (5.06 ERA in seven starts), but Cole had reached a different echelon with a combined 13.4 fWAR these past two seasons in signing a $324 million deal. It wasn’t just that they jumped on him from the start behind Ronald Acuña Jr.’s leadoff home run en route to snapping a 20-game winning streak that dated back to May 27, 2019 and which was the third-longest in MLB history. The extra-base hits came in bunches as they accounted for four of the five hits Cole allowed, including three home runs, with the Acunã (473 feet) and Marcell Ozuna (469 feet) the longest he’d allowed in the Statcast era. If there was any question whether this team can deliver against a premier arm, it was answered vs. Cole.
7. Measuring up against the measuring stick
These past two seasons, the multi-time defending NL West champion Dodgers stood as the measuring stick on the Braves’ schedule, and it wasn’t always pretty. In 2018, Atlanta dropped two of three in Los Angeles and three of four when they met again after the All-Star break, with the Dodgers going on to take their NLDS 3-1 that October. Last season, the Braves dropped all three in L.A., though they did take two of three in Atlanta after the break (Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only one of the Dodgers’ top starters that the Braves faced in that series). In 2020, with the shortened season keeping the schedule to division games and Interleague matchups, the measuring stick is, without question, the Yankees, the American League’s odds-on favorite. It wasn’t pretty when they met up in the Bronx earlier this month, with New York racking up 15 runs, but Wednesday felt like a statement with against a team on a collision course with the World Series, capped with another come-from-behind win behind Freeman’s two-run homer in the sixth. And most crucial for the Braves here is that they pulled it off while still not being back to full strength with Ozzie Albies continuing to ride on the Injured List with his wrist problem.
8. Freddie Freeman’s red-hot August
Since Aug. 9, Freddie Freeman has been among the hottest we’ve seen in a month where he’s traditionally red hot. The first baseman’s average of 140 wRC+ in August is his highest of any month and while there’s still four games to go, Freeman has only been better once in his 10-year career, with his current 172 wRC+ and .431 wOBA trailing only the 198 wRC+ and .470 wOBA that he put together in August 2016. But dating back to that double header on Aug. 9, Freeman is sporting a 1.258 OPS (third in NL and fourth in MLB with a minimum of 50 plate appearances) and .513 wOBA and 226 wRC+ (both third in the circuit, with the wOBA third and the wRC+ sixth overall).
9. In search of some good vibes on the road
The Braves are hitting the road for 16 of the next 23 games — with only a four-game series with the Nationals and three against the Marlins in between — a point of interest for the only division leader that is below .500 away from home. While they’re now 5-0-1 in series in Atlanta this season, the Braves are 6-8 outside of Truist Park, having won just a single away series since taking the season-opening set in New York against the Mets. In Atlanta’s favor, their next two opponents the Phillies and Red Sox have hit rough patches, with Philadelphia having dropped five of seven and Boston has lost 11 of its last 15, with Anderson and Fried lined up to face the Red Sox in that Aug. 31-Sept. 2 series. The splits spell out those issues on the road as the Braves have averaged 4.5 runs on the road (20th) compared to 5.5 (seventh) at home and the pitching staff has a 3.54 ERA at home (ninth) and 4.93 away (17th).