Forget about the National League East. Well, don’t completely forget about it, as the Braves are about to enter a nine-game road trip against the two teams ahead of them in the division race, but let’s approach it with clear eyes.
The inability of the Mets to pull away in the division — thanks to a rash of injuries that has now included Jacob deGrom landing on the injured list — has created the perception that the East is there for the taking. The reality is that while the Braves are 4 1/2 back after Wednesday’s nearly-completed double header against the Padres, sans Ronald Acuña Jr. and with a bullpen that, to put it lightly, has been unreliable, there’s not much confidence they can do much more than simply get to the postseason. That doesn’t mean they should be sellers ahead of the July 30th trade deadline, but it doesn’t mean they should be in full buyer mode, either.
What general manager Alex Anthopoulos and Co. need to be is forward-thinking buyers. No rentals. If some expiring contracts for veterans (Charlie Morton or Drew Smyly, for example) come off the books in the process, so be it. But just like with the Joc Pederson acquisition, the focus should be on controllable assets that can help the team in the immediate future (whether that means the postseason or not) and when the roster returns to full strength, or something resembling it, in 2022.
When Anthopoulos goes shopping over this next week, these are the names that should be on his list (in alphabetical order by grouping).
1. Joey Gallo, Rangers OF
The Padres and Yankees have both been mentioned as potential suitors for the two-time All-Star outfielder, and a wrinkle in all this is Joey Gallo being on the record stating that he wants to stay with the Rangers. But if Texas does move the 27-year-old Gold Glove winner, do the Braves have enough to beat out the competition or the willingness to pull the trigger? The presence of Acuña and Pederson (if Atlanta picks up the 2022 option) and this addition would mean likely having to part ways with one of the prized outfield prospects who are on the cusp of being everyday players (i.e. Cristian Pache and Drew Waters) in return, though that may be the case if they try to land any of the bats on this list. It’s also likely to cost the Braves one of the top arms on the prospect list and given the reluctance of the front office to part with any prospect of note to this point (Joey Wentz, who was once the ninth-ranked player in the system per MLB Pipeline and 10th-ranked Kolby Allard are the highest-rated prospect they’ve parted with) that may not happen here. But after years of waiting, it’s likely time to push in some of those prospect-capital chips, especially for an answer that’s in Atlanta for more than the duration of the season. Gallo comes with the benefit of being able to play all three positions in the outfield, not to mention that MLB-leading 19.7 walk rate and 24 home runs. Under control through next season, Gallo becomes that much more appealing if he could be included in a package for one of the Rangers’ arms we’ll discuss later.
Mitch Haniger - Seattle Mariners (23) pic.twitter.com/uGMcSdjGmV— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) July 21, 2021
2. Mitch Haniger, Mariners OF
Consider it a beacon for shoppers shining down on the Emerald City as Mitch Haniger was named American League Player of the Week coming out of the All-Star break. After missing most of 2019 and last year due to surgeries the 30-year-old is slashing .265/.322/.511 with 23 home runs, 17 doubles, 129 wRC+ and 2.2 fWAR. The Mariners offered him a contract after 2018, which he declined, and is now a free agent after next season, meaning if they’re going to move him, he’ll never have a higher value than he does right now. The Mariners have been a surprise, though, sitting 3 1/2 out of the second wild card spot, and have been speculated to be buyers, with needs with starting pitching and infield help. Getting the holders of the longest playoff drought in North American sports to trade their best player while they’re in contention is going to take something monumental. That may make Haniger the longest shot of anyone on this list unless the Braves can offer a mix of MLB-ready players and supplement a third-ranked farm system that’s short on infield talent.
Quite possibly the most underrated player in the MLB:— BetMGM (@BetMGM) July 17, 2021
Bryan Reynolds ☠️
3. Bryan Reynolds, Reynolds OF
We know the Pirates aren’t afraid to move controllable assets. Since 2017 they’ve dealt the likes of Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Corey Dickerson, so would it be any surprise if they did the same with Bryan Reynolds, who won’t enter free agency until after the 2026 season? A .306/.390/.519 hitter with 17 homers, 22 doubles, a .387 wOBA, 146 wRC+ and 3.3 fWAR, Reynolds would represent a long-term solution in center field who is miles ahead of Pache at the plate. Pittsburgh is likely to move Adam Frazier and Richard Rodriguez, so maybe the 26-year-old is the player that it finally commits to building around. But at 19 1/2 back in the NL Central with an eighth-ranked farm system (per MLB Pipeline) that includes 11 of the top 30 that were acquired by trade, Reynolds has the potential to deliver a return that would push the organization ever further up the pecking order with contention seemingly years away.
Check out the beautiful shape of Matthew Boyd's curveball pic.twitter.com/uyWlF7ra09— Nick Pollack (@PitcherList) May 12, 2021
4. Matthew Boyd, Tigers LHP
Home runs have been an issue for Boyd. A big one. He was tagged for an MLB-high 15 in 2020 and led the league again with 39 in 2019, but through 70 2/3 innings and 13 starts this year he’s yielded just six, which more than makes up for the fact that the left-hander’s strikeout rate has dropped from 11.6 per nine in 2019 to 7.1. The 30-year-old has also increased his ground-ball rate to a career-high 38.8 percent and is benefitting from a 31.4 chase rate, which is in the 85th percentile and also the best of his seven big-league seasons. He’s been on the injured list since June 15 with muscular tendinitis in his left arm, which isn’t exactly what anyone wants to hear, but he hasn’t been shut down (which is a positive) and seemingly could be acquired at a reasonable cost with an eye on becoming a rotation piece for next season. He’s due the balance of $6.5 million this season with is final year of arbitration eligibility looming.
5. Kyle Gibson, Rangers RHP
He’s been ultra-impressive this year with a 1.89 ERA over 19 innings against the Astros, a paltry 0.73 ERA in 12 1/3 vs. the Rays and 2.25 ERA in 12 innings against the Giants. Due the remaining of his $10 million this year and $7 million in 2022 before he hits free agency, the first Rangers pitcher on this list comes with some questions, though. Is Kyle Gibson the All-Star that has posted a 2.86 ERA, 1.131 WHIP and 3.26 FIP through 18 starts with 2.8 BB/9 or the player that had a 5.39 ERA a season ago and averaged 4.65 from 2016-2020? The lack of a proven track record is certain to limit that cost to a degree and, if paired with Gibson or one of Texas’ seemingly obtainable relievers, could make him that much more attractive. With Morton and Smyly gone after this season and Mike Soroka’s return date unclear after a second Achilles tendon surgery, getting another piece of the 2022 rotation set could be of major benefit entering a potential tumultuous offseason that has a collective bargaining agreement battle looming.
Trevor Story makes a full extension grab to save German Marquez's no-hitter, a short breakdown pic.twitter.com/gqp57LXFQn— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) July 13, 2021
6. Germán Márquez, Rockies RHP
The man is a workhorse. He’s tied for an MLB-high 20 starts so far this season and did the same last season when he opened 13 games. Since 2017, only nine starters (the likes of Cole, deGrom and Zack Greinke among them) have logged more outings, and the All-Star is still just 26 years old. Germán Márquez 9.1 K/9 is tied for his best since he fanned 10.6 per in 2018 and his 133 ERA+ is the 10th best of any starter with 19 or more starts this year. Manager Bud Black told MLB Network Radio recently “... He’s not going anywhere. Even though it might be out there — there might be some noise — we let our guys know, these guys aren’t going to be traded.” From a financial standpoint, it makes plenty of sense for Colorado to hang on to Márquez, who is due $7.5 million this season, $11 million next year and $15 million in 2023, with a $16.5 million club option waiting for 2023. But what about the way the Rockies have operated makes anyone think that will matter? They’ve already traded Nolan Arenado, with Trevor Story and Jon Gray to follow or be gone via free agency. Márquez has too much value in helping what’s the game’s 27th-ranked farm system to think the right-hander couldn’t be had.
Craig Kimbrel, Disgusting Knuckle Curves (and Sword) ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/M55TgdSJd4— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 17, 2021
7. Craig Kimbrel, Cubs RHP
Could the long-awaited reunion happen? Craig Kimbrel has returned to his dominant ways, with his current 0.51 ERA the best of any of the closer’s 11 full seasons in the bigs and he hasn’t posted a higher K/9 (15.54 as of this writing) in a full season since 2017’s 16.43. The $16 million club option for 2022 (which includes a $1 million buyout) comes with some sticker shock, but the Braves’ mishandling of current saves leader Mark Melancon in free agency — whether or not they made a competitive offer, Melancon left for the Padres, saying he was prioritizing winning over money — and the cardiac state of things with Will Smith makes Kimbrel’s price tag more palatable. Ninth in career saves with 370, getting Kimbrel would allow Smith and his 3.49 ERA to slide back into a circumstantial role instead of a defined one, which may be in his best interest if the Braves keep him through the deadline.
8. Richard Rodriguez, Pirates RHP
If the 2.65 ERA, 2.60 FIP and 0.48 HR/9 aren’t enticing enough, Richard Rodriguez has been near masterful at limiting walks, with the game’s second-best rate per nine (0.96). That would certainly help the Braves’ current bullpen, which, among its relievers with at least 33 1/3 innings, includes no one with less than 2.79 BB/9. What’s somewhat confounding about Rodriguez is his pitch usage. He’s dropped from 13.11 K/9 in 2020 to 7.47 behind a diminished use of his slider (12.7 percent in 2021 after a 27.6 usage rate in 2020) and a heavy diet of fastballs (87.3 percent after a 72.4 rate in ‘20), and it’s not as if the fastball is popping radar guns (93.4 mph), but the game plan is working, as he’s in the bottom eight percent in average exit velocity (91.4 mph). Dream on a package deal that brings Reynolds along with Rodriguez, who has two additional years of control.
Note to baseball fans:— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) July 21, 2021
Trevor Rogers (@T_Raw1691), Taylor Rogers (@trogers34) and Tyler Rogers (@tyrogers2020) are three different pitchers that play for three different teams.
However, two are twins.@Marlins | @Twins | @SFGiants pic.twitter.com/43lc7sL887
9. Taylor Rogers, Twins LHP
The Twins have been one of the biggest disappointments of the season, currently 17 games back in the AL Central, and they could be very, very busy ahead of the deadline. There’s the potential they move any or all of Byron Buxton, José Berríos and Nelson Cruz, along with lesser rental pieces in Michael Pineda and Hasnsel Robles. But will they move on from first-time All-Star Rogers? For the record, he’s NOT the Marlins’ Trevor Rogers (see above) or Giants’ Tyler Rogers, but he is the only reliable part of a bullpen that’s been worse than the Braves. Minnesota has combined for a 4.90 ERA (25th) despite Rogers coming in sixth among all bullpen arms with a 1.4 fWAR, while fanning 13.04 per nine to go along with 1.83 BB/9. Making $6 million this season, Rogers has another year of arbitration eligibility ahead of him and could provide something that’s been lacking for the Braves at this point: depth among the southpaws in the relief corps. Between Smith (38 2/3 innings), Tyler Matzek (34 innings), A.J. Minter (33 1/3), Sean Newcomb (21 2/3), Grant Dayton (12), Jesse Biddle (10 2/3) and Kyle Muller (one), Smith (.280) and Matzek (.287) are the only ones with a wOBA against under .325. Rogers, to this point, is holding batters to .278 wOBA, 15th best among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched.