Braves Have the Options Mets Lack

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The New York Sun

Ranking neither first nor second in the National League East as the season moves into its latter half, you would think that the Mets and Braves would be despairing of their lots. This is a season following a year in which neither team, perceived powers in their division, made the playoffs; and a season following busy winters for both ball clubs, where each team added big-name talent and committed themselves to win now. While the failure of both teams to rule the roost is a disappointment to their organizations and their respective fans, each is still very much in the running for the title.

As we move into the deadline deal season, it’s going to be especially interesting to see how the two organizations respond to their in-season setbacks, and simply make light of the fact that they’re within five games of first and nobody’s flown a half-title since the 1981 strike season. All four teams in the running in the division have dramatic flaws — the Mets, their lack of depth, the Braves, their bullpen, and the Phillies and Marlins, their rotations. Who does the best job of addressing these problems stands a very good chance at being the only team in the division in the playoffs.

The Braves, to some extent, already made their clean break with an illustrious past, when longtime general manager John Schuerholz retired last winter. So new general manager Frank Wren will be the exec on the spot as the season nears the non-waiver trading deadline. Wren is no stranger to trying to fill big shoes, having tried to follow Pat Gillick in Baltimore a decade ago, only to fall victim to the poisonous infighting of a terminally mismanaged family-run franchise. But despite the superficial similarities, Wren isn’t presiding over another organization’s decline and fall. Instead, he’s the man who has to see what kind of in-season help he can acquire to add onto a club that’s increasingly reliant on a fine crop of homegrown talent. His initial veteran fixes didn’t turn out that well: Tom Glavine finally got caught from behind by Father Time, fellow “golden age” Brave John Smoltz also broke down, and ex-famous outfielder Mark Kotsay proved to be as fragile as ever, making replacing former Braves star Andruw Jones in center a problem. Add that to a series of overlapping injuries to key relievers in the pen, and the Braves don’t really resemble the divisional powerhouse of the past.

But despite losing multiple starting pitchers, closer candidates, and a starting center fielder, the Braves’ situation really isn’t that dire. On offense, their problems in the outfield could prove to answered — and improved — internally. In center, high-OBA speedster Gregor Blanco might give the club its best leadoff man in years, while fellow rookie Brandon Jones is providing the pop in left they’ve lacked since Chipper Jones moved back to third in 2004. They’re joined by young veterans shortstop Yunel Escobar, second baseman Kelly Johnson, and catcher Brian McCann to give the no-holes lineup a match to the potent Phillies and Marlins lineups, run for run. Add in the hope that Jeff Francoeur’s vision problems clear up, and that a better bench helps them keep Jones fresh for the stretch drive, and it isn’t inconceivable that this could be the league’s best offense by season’s end.

The injury problems on the pitching staff are a much more relevant source of concern, because losing Smoltz and possibly Glavine for the year means that the Braves will have to go even younger to fill the gaps, barring Wren’s making a major deal. While a high-upside waiver pickup such as Jorge Campillo has panned out nicely as a replacement in the rotation, the pressure will be on youngsters Jair Jurrjens, Charlie Morton, and Jo-Jo Reyes to rise to the occasion. If there’s a possible hidden asset, it’s lefty Chuck James, but he’s struggling with his control, and with getting ground-ball outs in Triple-A Richmond. There’s hope that the pen will be shored up by the return of Mike Gonzalez and perhaps eventually Rafael Soriano, but you can be certain that Wren will be working the phones to see if he can add pitching and shore up one or both components of his staff.

The good news for the Braves is that, unlike the Mets, they still have something to work with as far as having talent in the farm system to offer around for what could be a pennant-winning deal. Admittedly, they went this route last summer with first baseman Mark Teixeira, and it didn’t lead to a pennant. Although a blue-chip prospect of the caliber of center fielder Jordan Schafer would probably be off-limits (even without a performance enhancing drug-related suspension handicapping his value) they also have top outfield prospects Jason Heyward and Gorkys Hernandez. If, instead of pitching, they’re gunning for win-now outfield help, they might also exchange Jones or Blanco. Shortstop Brent Lillibridge might be attractive to any one of several non-contenders. Although it’s easy to bring up the big-name prospects, the Braves’ tendency to draft and develop skillful players equips them with the kind of prospects that almost any organization might appreciate. Most importantly, as contemporary execs such as Schuerholz, former Cardinals (and current Reds) GM Walt Jocketty, and even Gillick himself — with the Blue Jays in the 1990s and the Phillies of late — have been able to do, renting veteran free agents-to-be for the last two months does not have to cost an aspiring contender too much in top talent.

There’s much to be learned over at Shea. To an extent, the Mets are caught in the anticlimax of finally shedding some blood after the embarrassment of last September’s swoon. The firing of Willie Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson might not be all that fair, because Omar Minaya’s the man responsible for putting this team together. But there is no better way to put the onus for the season’s outcome on the right person than to make Minaya responsible for the challenge of making a series of in-season fixes. But he lacks the advantages that Wren has, and the risk is that he’ll come off that much worse if a division rival delivers right now on a mission that Minaya must himself fulfill.

Ms. Kahrl is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more state-of-the-art commentary, visit

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