Are the 2019 Braves better today than yesterday? Definitely. They have three new options for a bullpen so frazzled that, in maybe the season’s biggest game, their manager turned Wednesday to Josh Tomlin, a 10-year big-leaguer with one career save. And, come 4 p.m., the reality of no longer having Luke Jackson, who leads the majors in blown saves, as closer surely made Brian Snitker the happiest man in the whole U.S.A.
That was the upside of Deadline Day. Having pried Chris Martin from Texas on Tuesday night, the Braves landed closer Shane Greene from Detroit on Wednesday. Just by walking into the clubhouse, those two will become the Braves’ best relievers. (Anthony Swarzak has returned to Earth, as you figured he would.) For good measure, Alex Anthopoulos then plucked Mark Melancon from San Francisco. That’s nearly half a new bullpen and, as anyone who monitored Wednesday’s near-calamity in D.C. can attest, a new bullpen was needed.
The downside was that the rotation, which has begun to cough and wheeze, remains intact. Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Mike Minor, Matthew Boyd, Zack Wheeler, Robbie Ray — all of them stayed put. (Though Zack Greinke is bound for the Astros. Whoa, Nellie.) If you’re a Braves fan, you might be a tad disappointed, but you should also have reason to feel, ahem, relieved. The only big-name farmhands Anthopoulos shed in his deadline dealing were pitchers Kolby Allard, who was a much bigger name two years ago, and Joey Wentz, ranked as the organization’s fourth-best pitching prospect.
Cristian Pache, Ian Anderson, Drew Walters, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, Kyle Muller – they’re all still Braves. The farm has not been ravaged. The future has not been mortgaged. Allard and Wentz became what former team president John Hart called “currency” — surplus young arms that could be bartered for help elsewhere. And let’s be clear: The Braves could not have entered October with their incumbent relievers and held any realistic hope of winning 11 postseason games. This was not a luxury spree. This was an utter necessity.
They dispatched two top-10 — not top-five, though — prospects, but you can’t get something for nothing. The Braves have improved themselves for the next three months, and they haven’t compromised the next 10 years in any significant way.
Said Anthopoulos: “We were engaged on everything — position players, starters, bullpen — up until the end. At the end of the day, where we felt there were deals to be made, the bullpen made the most sense.”
The Braves helped themselves for the short term, and not just the short term. Greene is arbitration-eligible at season’s end. Melancon is under contract through 2020. Only Martin is on a walkaway deal. This rebuilt bullpen shouldn’t have to be turned over again come November, though we stipulate that Greene, Martin and Melancon aren’t to be confused with Aroldis Chapman. Only Martin tops 95 mph. These guys don’t, however, walk people. (Martin has four bases on balls in 38 innings.) If the alternative was sticking with a bullpen that leads the majors in walks, that was no alternative.
Even with Nick Markakis and Dansby Swanson on the injured list, the Braves are stacked with position players. (Especially now that Adam Duvall, nearly non-tendered over the winter, has turned into the Austin Riley of May/June. The Austin Riley of July, alas, may soon be demoted.) The bullpen just went from a source of weakness to, dare we say, something approaching a strength. As for the rotation …
Not going to lie. I have concerns. The Braves’ playoff starters will be Mike Soroka, who’s hugely gifted, and Dallas Keuchel, who’s well-seasoned, and … who? Kevin Gausman, who wasn’t trusted to start a game in the 2018 NLDS? Julio Teheran, used only in long relief last October? Max Fried, whose post-May ERA is 5.55? Mike Foltynewicz, still working in Gwinnett? There’s a part of me that believes there are enough good arms in that pool to get the Braves through September, and beyond that the rotation will shrink. Still, even a beefed-up bullpen isn’t going to carry a best-of-seven if the Dodgers are up 4-0 after three innings every night.
By changing the part of their pitching staff where change comes cheaper, the Braves have thrust the burden of proof on their rotation. (To be fair, Anthopoulos ponied up $13 million for Keuchel at the end of May.) This everyday eight is good enough to reach the World Series. The reconfigured bullpen might be, too. I’m not sure we can say that of the starting pitching, but with postseason baseball who knows anything? The Phillies of Halladay/Lee/Hamels/Oswalt never won it all; the 2014 Giants of Bumgarner and not much else did.
We close by applauding Anthopoulos for not yielding to temptation. He did enough to give the 2019 Braves a fighting chance; he didn’t do so much that we should fear for the Braves of 2021 and beyond. He walked the line. He did his job. The rest is up to his players, and he has more good players today than he did yesterday.
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