(Stats in this post are partway through Thursday’s games.)
At 26-29, the Atlanta Braves are officially one-third of the way through their 2021 season. Obviously, this season has been much more of a struggle/roller coaster ride/cluster-you-know-what than anyone could have imagined. Injuries and other unfortunate and unpredictable occurrences have made key pieces of the Braves roster, such as Mike Soroka and Travis d’Arnaud, unavailable for the foreseeable future. As a result, the Braves are left to make do with a talented but flawed roster in the present and immediate future.
Truth be told, when considering all that has occurred so far this season, being three games under .500 and only 3.5 games back in the division is not a terrible place to be in the present. The rest of the NL East has also struggled, though the New York Mets appear to be in place to make a run for the division title the entire season. While that is certainly an outside factor that has played out somewhat favorably for the Braves, Atlanta is already seven games back in the Wild Card race. Though there is a ton of time left in the season, the writing on the wall is becoming more and more clear that winning the NL East is the Braves’ best chance to make the postseason, as passing the Mets (with 15 head-to-head games remaining) seems more doable than leapfrogging about half of the NL.
Furthermore, the Braves’ schedule for the rest of June could absolutely make or break their season even before the All-Star Break arrives. For the remainder of the month, the Braves have a series against every team in the NL East except the Nationals, including six games against the Mets. They also have series against the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Red Sox. The only “favorable” series the Braves have against a team that is not in the NL East or a clear playoff contender is a four-game series with the Reds. The Braves are also just 16-14 against teams under .500 so far this season, and while that’s better than their record against teams at or above .500, it’s not particularly inspiring. (The Reds also have more fWAR than the Braves to this point, so...)
It’s certainly reasonable to state that the Braves still have the talent on their roster to win the division. If Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman could produce like the best duo of hitters in the National League, a concept that is not far-fetched by any means, and the pitching staff were to be around league average for an extended stretch, the Braves could easily put together a few months of winning baseball. Acuña has certainly lived up to his part of that equation, but Freeman (.815 OPS, 119 wRC+) and the Braves pitching staff (starters 22nd in FIP among rotations, bullpen 20th in FIP among relief units) need to significantly improve for that theory to become a reality. In terms of the offensive supporting cast, the Braves infield is progressing nicely. Austin Riley is in the midst of another breakout, while both Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies are improving at the plate (which really just means their wOBAs are creeping up to their xwOBAs) as the season progresses. William Contreras is proving to be a capable offensive producer in the early going, too. The Braves’ talented youth is producing when it is needed the most; however, two glaring holes remain — the two non-Acuña outfield spots.
Over the past several weeks, Ender Inciarte, Ehire Adrianza, Guillermo Heredia, and most recently, Abraham Almonte, have admirably attempted to fill bigger roles than anyone anticipated they would need to satisfy entering this season. Both Heredia and Adrianza have certainly produced at or above expectations offensively, though those expectations were very modest to begin with. However, since May 1, Atlanta center fielders are 29th in OPS, 30th in wRC+, and 30th in wOBA in the majors. Left fielders are 21st in OPS, 20th in wOBA, and 21st in wRC+ over that same time period.
A positive bit of news for center field is that Cristian Pache may be returning from injury soon. However, Pache is batting .111/.152/.206 over 68 plate appearances this season, so it seems logical to allow him to skill up in the minors a bit. In terms of left field, recent events have obviously left the future of that position for the Braves in a state of flux. In short, the Braves have two huge question marks to resolve in their two outfield spots next to Acuña, and few obvious internal answers to those questions.
Given all of this, it seems Alex Anthopoulous has every reason to make a relevant trade to fill multiple positions of need sooner rather than later. Obviously, better preparation this past offseason, say taking the money that was used to sign Drew Smyly and using it to retain Adam Duvall and Mark Melancon instead, would have helped. However, Chris Martin’s return from injury and the Shane Greene signing certainly could help the Braves bullpen. Yet, the need to add another at least relevant bullpen arm and bat makes sense.
As a result, when scanning the rest of the majors at teams that likely are already out of the postseason hunt and could easily trade veterans for prospects, there a few player combinations that could be attractive for Anthopoulos to pursue.
The Orioles have been a well Anthopoulos has dipped into plenty of times before during his time in Atlanta, making deals for Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day, and Tommy Milone over the past few years. While pitching has been the focus of past deals, bats currently could be the reason Anthopoulos targets Baltimore once again. Baltimore likely offers the best and deepest source of outfield trade targets for Anthopoulos to explore.
Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander are controllable pieces that have decent potential and have had stretches of decent production. Trey Mancini is having a great bounceback year, can be controlled through 2022, and was a rumored target of the Braves this offseason. Though it would take a decent return, none of these names seem to be a target that would cost a clear top five or so prospect from the Braves system. Though they are lefties, Paul Fry and Tanner Scott could be bullpen pieces to pursue.
Though there may not be as many options on the Tigers as there are the Orioles, a versatile and fun trade combo that could make sense for the Braves is Robbie Grossman and Michael Fulmer. Though Grossman has been far from outstanding, he certainly would be an upgrade over current options, especially against left-handers (.989 OPS vs. southpaws in 2021). While he is mainly a corner outfielder (the Braves may want a target they can trust in center), he is signed to a more than reasonable 2-year/$10M contract through 2022.
Fulmer is in his first year as mainly being a reliever, though he has made four starts in 2021 as well. His initial numbers are certainly encouraging (3.34 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 3.93 xFIP over 35 innings), and he also is controlled through 2022. Obviously, his issues with injuries are a clear red flag, but that also should make his price reasonable. The Braves and Tigers have worked before in the Shane Greene trade. Without an overly impressive track records, the prospect cost for both Grossman and Fulmer should not be terribly expensive. Their combined talent and ability to be retained through next year make them an attractive duo to target.
While he has struggled this year, Niko Goodrum’s versatility as a position player and past stretches of success could make him another logical buy-low target.
Without a doubt, the Texas Rangers’ roster offers trade target options that are much more exciting that the Orioles or Tigers at the moment. Joey Gallo is a big and popular name in trade proposals, but his recent production hasn’t been great. Furthermore, Gallo is controlled through 2022, and the Rangers may want to wait until his value rebounds a bit more. There’s also Adolis Garcia, who is currently breaking out in a big way, but it’s not clear why the Rangers would trade him given his oodles of team control.
Besides those two names, there are not too many options that really stand out for Atlanta. However, a fun and familiar name that checks a lot of boxes for Anthopoulos’s preferences in trades is Ian Kennedy. Though Kennedy would be a rental, it could make sense to pay the price to get him for as much of this season as possible, as he certainly has been reliable once again as a reliever (1.77 ERA, 2.79 FIP, 10.62 K/9). Paired with someone like Brock Holt, the Braves could bolster their roster for a fairly low cost.
Of course, to fill needs in both the outfield and the bullpen, the Braves could just trade for Charlie Culb... ahem.
Since this year has had so many drastically bad outcomes already, why not take drastic measures to get back on track?
Move Dansby Swanson to center field and trade for Trevor Story to play shortstop.
While crazier things have happened before in baseball, I will not hold my breath for the Braves pursuing that option. When it comes to the Rockies, outside of Story or other bats they clearly will want to keep, not many offensive options jump off the page. However, if Anthopoulos wanted to go the rental route for another reliever, Daniel Bard and Mychal Givens are two veteran relievers who could make sense to pursue. While neither has been as successful as other options mentioned, Bard misses bats and Givens has a respectable track record despite an awful start to 2021. In the end, it seems neither really make all that much sense to pursue with Greene’s debut likely in the near future.
Though it may not feel like the Diamondbacks should be on this list with how badly they trounced the Braves in a double-header earlier this year, there are a few options that could be attractive for Atlanta. Ketel Marte would be a dream scenario, but will likely be one of the prize trade hauls for someone in the future, so Arizona likely has no incentive to move him this early. David Peralta’s bat would be a good fit for the Braves lineup, but it is not what it once was and his glove is abysmal even in left field; he’s more of a bench option.
A few fun veteran arms that could be attractive to Atlanta are Merrill Kelly and Caleb Smith. Both Kelly and Smith are late bloomers with decent track records who have found success in Arizona. Kelly has pitched better (3.99 xFIP, 4.04 FIP vs. 5.04 ERA) than his numbers suggest this season. Like Fulmer for the Tigers, Smith has converted from a starter to a reliver with success, which offers versatility to a staff. Furthermore, both options come with multiple years of control. The last sentence suggests Arizona would be wise to hold them until the Trade Deadline, but if the Braves add a reliable arm to their roster for the present and future, both options could make sense if the price was right.
Another option, though it would be unusual, that could make sense is Josh Reddick, who has had good success since signing with Arizona two weeks ago, though it’s basically all xwOBA outperformance at this point.
If the preference for Atlanta is to acquire assets it can control beyond this year, Pittsburgh is likely willing to listen to offers for almost anyone on its roster at any time. However, the pieces that would make the most sense for Atlanta likely will be a bit costly. If teams want a bullpen piece that comes with control, Robert Rodriguez, Chris Stratton, and Kyle Crick will likely garner some interest as the season progresses. Each of these arms would be a welcome addition to Atlanta. Stratton and Crick would likely cost at least a decent prospect, while Rodriguez is likely a bit too pricey at the moment.
Adam Frazier is having a very good year at the plate, has experience in the infield and the outfield, and is controlled through next year. He certainly would be a welcome addition to the bottom of the Braves’ order, though he does not offer much power. A combination of Frazier and one of Pittsburgh’s bullpen arms would certainly be an upgrade for the Braves’ roster. However, the cost their control would likely take to acquire may not make much sense to pursue at this time.
Tyler Anderson could also be a reasonable target if the Braves want another starting option.
Obviously, there are not many reasonable options above that clearly move the needle for Atlanta if they were to make a move. However, a major acquisition that would cost multiple top prospects does not fit Anthopoulos’s track record during his time in Atlanta. A move on the margins does, and a move for a decent player whose has untapped upside Atlanta could help him discover makes sense as well.
However, there are two sides to every theory, and also two side to every trade. Anthopoulos has always made moves that were shrewd rather than reactionary. In 2019 and 2020, with teams that were clearly more talented than the Braves are at the moment, Anthoupolos prioritized patience, his prospects, and value in deals. It seems unlikely that if he declined to be overly aggressive in potential trades then that he would be overly aggressive when he has less leverage to work with and less certainty a move would make a difference for this roster to make the playoffs. Even if the Braves do make the postseason, their chances to advance are obviously less likely this year than the past two years. As a result, Anthopoulos may feel less inclined to make a move when odds are lower that it will make the needed impact to warrant the cost it will take to make.
Furthermore, moves this early in the season happen less often than moves closer to the deadline for a reason. Both buyers and sellers have incentives to wait. By waiting, teams gain more certainty on how competitive they actually are in a given year and how legitimate the impact of potential trade targets could actually be. There may be a bit of an added premium the Braves will have to pay to acquire a trade target from a seller that could possibly get more closer to the deadline. Simply put, none of the names mentioned above are really worth paying an extra premium to bring into the fold.
Of the names mentioned above, Mancini seems to be the most impactful, Grossman and Fulmer the most sensible combination option, and Kennedy checks many preference boxes for Anthopoulos. These players also will likely cost a prospect price that is reasonable and worth paying to gain the reliable skills they can provide in areas of need for the Braves. Plus, in the case of everyone besides Kennedy, they are able to be controlled beyond this year. In the end, it seems most likely that Anthopoulos will keep making minor moves instead of one that presents an everyday option for the lineup or a significant piece for the bullpen. However, with how unpredictable and uncommon this season has been for the Braves so far, an unpredictable or uncommon trade could be the route Anthopoulos needs to go to bring sense to this season.
With their June schedule on the horizon, the time for a trade may certainly be sooner rather than later.