The Braves’ trade conundrum: Who and at what cost?

Freddie Freeman #5 and Josh Donaldson #20 of the Atlanta Braves celebrate after Freeman hit a home run in the fourth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on July 15, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Credit: Dylan Buell

Credit: Dylan Buell

Freddie Freeman #5 and Josh Donaldson #20 of the Atlanta Braves celebrate after Freeman hit a home run in the fourth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on July 15, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The Braves are the second-best team in the National League with July over halfway finished.

Flawed, yes. The favorites, no; but the Braves have taken the leap many hoped but few expected (check most preseason predictions). It’s hard to fathom October without these Braves, who’re captivating the baseball realm with their talent, personalities and engaging combination of youth and likable vets.

The window is open. After surprisingly clinching a postseason berth in 2018, the rebuild can be considered successful with the team soaring a season later. The nucleus is controllable long-term, in some instances well below market value. The farm is still deep despite numerous graduations and the pesky international limitations.

Other than the Dodgers, who are at their own level, the best anyone else in the National League could claim is being the Braves’ equal. They won the season series over the Cubs. They dropped two of three in Milwaukee this week, but the Brewers have their own weaknesses to sort out. They lead the Nationals in the division race. No one else is close enough to warrant mention at this time.

So the Braves’ mindset should shift. Think bigger than just the NL East (which is by no means a lock, of course). Begin thinking matchups. What do the Braves need to compete with the Dodgers? They sure haven’t done it lately, getting mostly dominated in the postseason a year ago and being swept at Dodger Stadium in May.

In Chicago, the Cubs are a seasoned group who’ve experienced the height of the mountain. The Braves would face those Cubs if the postseason started today. A playoff series at Wrigley Field would be as electric as it gets.

The Braves are set on offense. One could argue they possess the best group of bats in the league. Their bench is incredibly deep, with Matt Joyce and Charlie Culberson good for a couple of clutch knocks a month.

So that shifts focus to pitching, where there are questions galore. We’ll start with the rotation: Mike Soroka is the boy wonder. He’s an All-Star and eventual Cy Young winner, by my estimation. What we cannot project is how he’ll fare in October.

For one, he’ll be logging a heavy workload. The Braves will manage his innings (that’ll be easier if they’re comfortably up in the division) down the stretch. It’ll still be uncharted ground for him, as will a postseason environment. As great as Soroka might be, he doesn’t have an October track record. Even Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of this generation, has had struggles on that stage.

Max Fried’s performance has fluctuated, while the innings and blisters give more reason for concern. The team didn’t trust Julio Teheran to start in last year’s playoffs (he would have if they’d played the Rockies instead of the Dodgers, however). Mike Foltynewicz is a total wild card and can’t be factored into the discussion right now. The same goes for Kevin Gausman. Sean Newcomb has proved better in the bullpen.

Dallas Keuchel stands alone in the projectability department. He should still be fresh come the postseason, given he didn’t pitch in a game until June. He owns a 3.31 ERA in 51-1/3 innings, appearing in seven postseason series. His mid-season signing looks all the wiser now.

While the rotation is saddled with uncertainty, the bullpen isn’t much better. Luke Jackson assumed the closer role, but if given truth serum, the Braves would probably admit they aren’t comfortable with him finishing games in October.

A.J. Minter, who lost the closer job, is back from the minors. Six of his past nine outings were scoreless, but it’s been a disappointing season for the lefty. The aforementioned Newcomb has emerged into an integral part of the relief core, while displaced starter Touki Toussaint is unpredictable and hasn’t helped his case lately.

On the bright side, Anthony Swarzak was a godsend. If he stays healthy and maintains this level of performance through September, however, is yet to be seen. Jacob Webb has been a pleasant surprise, but that’s another arm not battle tested.

The Braves need help in both departments. They may not upgrade both because of the complications of the July 31 trade deadline. There are few surefire sellers, and most teams who will punt won’t do so until the 11th hour.

It’s difficult to determine what’s out there. The Braves are surveying the market and don’t expect activity to ramp up until the finish line is within sight. They’re armed with assets, but don’t seem prime to overpay. Many of the logical options, such as the Giants’ pair of Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith, are rentals. The Braves are adamant they won’t meet steep demands for non-controllable players.

Fans believe the team would benefit more from adding a starter rather than reliever, according to a poll I ran on Twitter that drew nearly 4,000 votes. Upgrading the rotation received 57 percent of the vote.

I tend to agree, given you can patch together a postseason bullpen with excess starters. I’d feel much better about a postseason rotation headed by Soroka, Keuchel and Bumgarner (or the like) than the status quo.

Smith, a Georgia native and noted Falcons fan, is an All-Star closer who’d immediately bolster the Braves’ odds. It can be argued he’s the most valuable realistic addition they could make. The reliever supply is thin but the demand is high, complicating matters.

The Giants’ winning run, which has gotten them back to .500, might keep their veterans off the market as well. They may feel compelled to go for it with Bruce Bochy, their future Hall of Fame manager, finishing his final year.

Tony Watson, command expert and Smith’s teammate, along with Ken Giles, Shane Greene and Jake Diekman are among the other rumored relievers out there. It might not be one of those names, but if you’re betting on the Braves’ deadline acquisition, adding a reliever feels like a safe choice.

As for the rotation: Detroit’s strikeout artist Matt Boyd reportedly is out there and controllable through 2022. The Tigers have set a high price, understandably, but would the Braves meet those demands for a pitcher who owned a 5.88 ERA in seven starts until he rebounded Thursday?

Zack Greinke’s contract is an issue, and the Braves haven’t had interest in the past. They don’t seem likely to match with the Blue Jays on a Marcus Stroman deal, mostly due to the exorbitant price. If Trevor Bauer is available, despite his polarizing nature, he’s a difference maker at a painful cost. Former Brave Mike Minor has become a star with the Rangers and is signed through next year, so that’s a logical match. If the Reds sell, Tanner Roark could be a rental who wouldn’t break the prospect bank.

Speaking of the farm system, I polled the Twitter audience again regarding which prospects they would deem untouchable, or at least most difficult to move. The consensus was starter Ian Anderson and outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters.

The Braves will feel similarly. They won’t deal any of those three unless it’s for a controllable difference maker. That’s especially true of Pache, who could be their starting center fielder as early as opening day 2020. Personally, I’d add Kyle Wright to that tough-to-trade discussion despite his recent lackluster results.

If the Braves don’t want to dent their prospects stash, especially for a rental, their options are limited. The player worth a bounty doesn’t seem available this trade cycle (though plenty of players are discussed whose names never make the rounds). Maybe they’re more willing to move bigger name prospects in the winter, though playing the long game might come at the expense of this postseason run.

And remember, the Braves didn’t appear likely to add Craig Kimbrel or Keuchel for months. When the dust settled, they were vying for both and landed one. It may not appear there’s a big play to be had, but general manager Alex Anthopoulos works in the shadows.

In my opinion, adding Smith is the most impactful move that wouldn’t cost a bounty (if available). But it’s still easy to see the Braves getting priced out of the bidding. They aren’t acting on desperation. Someone else probably will. Such is the state of baseball when every contender needs to bolster its bullpen.

Therein lies intrigue. Trade talks will accelerate in the coming weeks. The Braves don’t necessarily need a splash, but after requesting patience for years, they owe it to their players, coaches and fans to seize this opportunity. No matter how promising the situation, in sports, you never know how long windows stay open.

Similar to last year, they’re tasked with weighing today against tomorrow. Unlike last year, there’s a better case to be more aggressive.