This will be a big week for the 2011 Atlanta Braves. They will have 7 home games against the Pirates and Marlins, they will most likely get Chipper Jones back from the DL and GM Frank Wren gets one final opportunity to improve this year’s club for a post-season push before the July 31 trade deadline.
One reason the Braves haven’t had to rush to make a move is the return of Martin Prado and the steadily improving play of the long-lost Dan Uggla. When Uggla missed a couple games last week with a calf strain, it was actually a noticeable loss, which certainly wouldn’t have been the case a few weeks ago. He’s currently riding a career-high 14-game hitting streak that’s seen him hit at a .347 clip (17-for-49) with 6 HRs, to UP his average to a whopping .196 on the season. Watch out Mendoza Line, here comes Thunder Dan!! Prado wasted no time getting back to form, homering in his first game back. The guy could fall out of bed and rip a double to the gap. However, the offense (fresh off an 11-2 dismantling in Cincinnati yesterday) is still inconsistent and the Braves want to do whatever they can to get Chipper another ring.
Chipper is the key to what kind of player the Braves pursue. If he can come back strong this week, Prado moves from 3B back out to left field, thus limiting the need for a right handed hitting left fielder with some pop. So then what? Well, then the Braves have to try to improve upon the two weakest spots in the lineup: center field and shortstop. Because slick-fielding shortstop Alex Gonzalez has been a marvel in the field this season - and since there isn’t a surplus of shortstops on the open market other than Rafael Furcal (been there, done that, no thank you), I don’t see the team making any changes there (despite Gonzo’s dismal .226 batting average). Nate McLouth has had plenty of chances to lock down centerfield and hasn’t got it done enough offensively. Jordan Schafer has provided a spark at the top of the lineup, dropping down some bunts and stealing some bases, but his on-base-percentage leaves much to be desired for a lead-off man. When it comes to matching up with the rotations of the Giants, Brewers, Cardinals, Phillies, and even the (gasp!) Pirates down the stretch and in the post-season, you need that guy on base and scoring runs.
So what’s the answer? The trade rumor mill has been churning, and the same names keep surfacing:
Carlos Beltran: The fact that the Mets are reportedly willing to consume most of the remaining salary owed to Beltran this season makes him a lot more intriguing. And wouldn’t things come full circle if Beltran had a big postseason for the Braves at the tail end of his mega-contract that he earned by almost single-handedly destroying the Braves with Houston in the 2004 playoffs? But the Braves haven’t had much luck with midseason rent-a-players (J.D. Drew and Mark Teixeira come to mind). I’m not saying Mike Minor is the next Adam Wainwright (who Atlanta served up to St. Louis in the Drew trade), but I’d hate to see them lose some quality young talent for an injury-prone guy like Beltran who doesn’t really have the wheels to play CF everyday and has struggled mightily from the right side of the plate this season. It wasn’t too much fun watching Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz running around wreaking havoc in the All-Star Game and the World Series last year for Texas (part of the king’s ransom the Rangers collected for Tex). Granted Beltran would improve this offense, but at what cost? My guess is the Braves and Phillies bow out and he ends up in San Francisco.
Jonny Gomes: Started the season on fire out of the gate. But lately? Not so much. The 11 HRs are respectable, but the .214 average is not. Wouldn’t cost the Braves as much to get him, but his lack of production probably isn’t worth disturbing the chemistry of a team closing in on 60 wins.
Hunter Pence: Almost as ugly of a swing as Charles Barkley, but the guy brings it every day of the week and has been getting the job done on a lousy Astros team for a couple years now. Can play any position in the outfield and has a cannon for an arm, which he got to show off in the All-Star Game earlier this month when he gunned down Jose Bautista at the plate by 3 steps. The fact that he’s already driven in 60 runs this year is remarkable considering nobody is ever on base in front of him, except for Michael Bourn. Pence is the face of the Astros and they aren’t likely to give him up without getting a healthy package back. I’m not sure Jordan Schafer, Mike Minor, and another B+ arm would be enough to get Pence and any more than that may be pushing it. His spirited play and positive attitude would be a huge boost for any contender, so if the Braves don’t snag him I hope he stays put. Word is the Phillies are lurking. Yikes…that’s a scary thought. But speaking of Michael Bourn…
Michael Bourn: This is who the Braves should be targeting. True lead-off man, true center fielder and itching to play for a winning team. He’s been hitting right around .300 all year, and most importantly his 37 stolen bases lead the NL. Fills one of the Braves desperate needs immediately: speed. He also allows Martin Prado – a protypical 2 hole hitter who loves to hit-and-run, go the other way, and hit behind runners - to bat 2nd every day. I think a package of Mike Minor and Jordan Schafer might be just about enough to get him. Make it happen Frank Wren!
The other glaring need for the Bravos is middle relief, but get in line. Every contender in both leagues is looking for bridge guys to get to the late inning studs. Atlanta is lucky enough to have the most effective 8th inning-9th inning combo in the league in All-Stars Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel plus 5 starters that can all go deep into games. In the dog days of summer when the temperatures and pitch counts go up, the depth of the bullpen has to shine. Eric O’Flaherty has been solid for the most part, but he and Venters are going to need some rest, and the likes of Scott Proctor, George Sherrill, Scott Linebrink, Cory Gearrin, and Cristhian Martinez have left a lot to be desired. Kris Medlen, still recovering from Tommy John surgery late last year, has been shut down. Peter Moylan is supposed to be coming back sometime in August, but the Braves can’t simply count on that as a cure-all. I’m not sure what exactly is available out there, but I’m sure Frank Wren and his scouting team have been scouring bullpens league wide.
The Braves (59-42, 5.5 GB) play the rubber game against the Reds tonight on ESPN. Look for a lot of trade talk in the pre-game. The Phillies are winners of 5 straight and are showing no signs of slowing down. But the Braves are still 5 games up in the Wild Card chase. The week before the trade deadline is always fun when your team is a buyer and not a seller. It’ll be interesting to see what the Braves look like this time next week. Hopefully they’ll have added a quality bat and a solid reliever in order to make one more valiant attempt at tracking down Philadelphia. But if the Phillies get Hunter Pence and/or Heath Bell, I will not be a happy camper.
About the Author
Written by Marcus Young
"A lotta room in right-center, if he hits one there we can dance in the streets. The 2-1. Swung, line drive left field! One run is in! Here comes Bream! Here's the throw to the plate! He is...SAFE! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!...Braves win!" The late great Skip Caray with my favorite sports call of all time as a lumbering Sid Bream was able to beat Barry Bonds' three-hopper to the plate by an eyelash in the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium to secure the Atlanta Braves' miraculous back-to-back World Series trips in 1991 and 1992. I grew up in Atlanta, I am still a die hard Braves, Falcons, and Hawks fan and am hungry for another championship to put alongside that lonely 1995 World Series trophy! I graduated from Wake Forest University in 2002 and am back living in Hot-lanta now. Go Deacs and Go Dawgs! My favorite athletes are John Smoltz, Magic Johnson, and Brett Favre. Braves are on a mission in 2011 in the 20th anniversary of that magical 1991 season!