The Braves’ deadline task — act, but don’t overreact

When last we met, we stressed that the local nine’s need for starting pitching had intensified. We begin again this morning, almost in mid-sentence ... 

On the other hand, the Braves cannot overreact. They’ve lost eight of 12. Their pitchers haven’t worked a quality start over the past four games. Their division lead has been reduced to 4-1/2 games, and if they don’t win tonight or Wednesday, it’ll be down to 2-1/2, in which case they’d have to start pondering the wild-card game, which no good team cares to contemplate.

Matters are, shall we say, trending downward. That’s not the same as heading for Hades in a handbasket. Before losing eight of 12, these Braves had won eight of nine. They led the National League East by 7-1/2 games. There’s a saying on Wall Street: Trees don’t grow to the sky. Someone once asked the moneyman J.P. Morgan what the stock market would do next. His timeless response: “It will fluctuate.” As with finance, so with baseball.

Every loss seems heightened now because the trade deadline — the last best hope for good teams to get better — is barely 24 hours away. When results go south, the hope of all is that the manager will flip over the table holding the post-game dining options and the general manager will trade everybody. This is why fans could never be a skipper or a GM. The pros spend their working lives knowing that a 100-win team will also lose close to 40 percent of its games. The pros know that momentum in baseball is nothing more than tomorrow’s starting pitcher.

For the Braves, starting pitcher has again become Issue No. 1, the bullpen having been relegated to No. 1a. A starting pitcher in the trade market — meaning a starting pitcher of someone else’s you’d prefer to some of your own — is never cheap. Every single club wanting to make a match with the Braves will be seeking prospects. (We’ve said that a million times, but it’s never not true.) And here the pros must make cast a cold eye and make a professional decision: How much is a few months or a couple of years of a starting pitcher worth against a decade of Cristian Pache?

For ready reference, the greatest case study of deadline dealing involved the Braves – and no, not the Len Barker deal, or even the Mark Teixiera one, or even the transforming Fred McGriff transaction. In 1987, Detroit was chasing the American League title and needed a starting pitcher. (Fancy that.) Braves GM Bobby Cox dispatched Doyle Alexander, who did exactly as the Tigers wanted: He went 9-0 over 11 starts, three of which were complete games. (Anybody remember those?) The Tigers won the East by two games over Toronto.

And now the cautionary part of our tale. Detroit lost the ALCS to Minnesota 4-1. Alexander, who turned 37 that September, was out of baseball by 1990. The pitcher Cox received for 2-1/4 seasons of Alexander helped the Braves to five World Series and had a major role in 13 of the 14 consecutive division titles. The Tigers wouldn’t play another postseason game until 2006, at which time the 39-year-old John Smoltz was garnishing his Hall of Fame resume by winning 16 games for the Braves. The Tigers won the division and lost the next two decades.

That’s an extreme example, yes, but it’s not the only one. Ask the Red Sox about trading Jeff Bagwell (future Hall of Famer) to Houston for Larry Andersen. Ask the Cubs about shipping Josh Donaldson (future MVP, albeit as a Blue Jay) to the A’s for Rich Harden. No, not every prospect graces Cooperstown, but the reality of 21st century baseball is that GMs have come to value assets above all, and there’s no greater asset than a good young player on a team-friendly contract.

As for the 2019 Braves: Alex Anthopoulos has to know his pitching probably isn’t good enough to win a World Series. (We say “probably” because weird things happen in October.) He also knows his young talent, which numbers Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and Mike Soroka but also minor-leaguers Pache and Drew Waters and Ian Anderson, is better than just about any other team’s. It would be a punch in the gut for this season to fizzle. It could be a decade-long series of punches if Anthopoulos overreaches in trying to cure what ails his current staff.

If you're a Braves' fan, you're doubtless torn as to what your GM should do. The belief here is that Anthopoulos has a clear idea of how far he can go. He learned what to do, and also what not, with Toronto. (As noted yesterday, he was on the wrong side of a Noah Syndergaard trade there.) The belief is that he'll be aggressive — I now expect him to hook both a starter and a reliever, though the starter mightn't be one of the higher-profile guys — but that he'll also mix in some Hippocrates: First, do no harm.

If you’re an aging club with a lower-tier farm system — the Cubs of Theo Epstein fit that profile, FYI — you can go all in without reservation. If you’re the Braves, you can’t and shouldn’t. What if you get Syndergaard and make the playoffs but lose again in the NLDS? What if he hurts his arm and does little? What if Pache winds up winning rookie of the year for a club in your division? Anthopoulos can’t be afraid to make a deal, but he can’t blow up a farm system — the Teixeira trade blew up the Braves’ farm system — because his team has lost eight of 12.

The good news: Anthopoulos knows that better than anyone. He’s a smart guy. He’s a seasoned pro. The Braves are in a tricky spot, but they’re also in good hands.