The Braves’ hunt for a starting pitcher just intensified

The Atlanta Braves saw the weekend as a guidepost. Max Fried and Kevin Gausman, just off the injured list, were to make starts on consecutive days. If those were encouraging, the Braves’ need for a starting pitcher ahead of Wednesday’s trade deadline might be lessened if not eliminated. Well, it’s Monday, and it’s fair to say those starts went …

Not well.

Handed a 10-run lead after 2-1/2 innings, Fried couldn't make it through six innings Saturday in Philadelphia. He yielded 10 baserunners — seven on hits — and four earned runs over 5-1/3. Afterward, manager Brian Snitker expressed what is, by his gentle standards, displeasure: "You can't let off the throttle one bit against teams like this."

Gausman was worse. He made it through six innings Sunday, but not before his team was six runs in arrears. The Phillies generated 10 baserunners off him, too – nine on hits, three of which were home runs. The combined ERA for Gausman/Fried in two starts seen as key indicators was 7.71, and this was against an opponent that ranks 10th in OPS in the 15-team National League.

So now, if you’re Alex Anthopoulos, what do you do? Your team leads the NL East by 5½ games over Washington, the club that the Braves have taken to regarding as a bigger threat than Philadelphia. (The Braves and Nationals open a three-game series in D.C. tonight.) The Braves would have to mess up royally to miss the playoffs, but Anthopoulos has made it clear that his deadline approach is predicated on winning in October, not just getting there.

If he does nothing at all — he won’t do nothing, FYI — his team will surely qualify for the postseason. That said, deflating results by Fried/Gausman have forced an organizational rethink, and there’s this: Mike Soroka, All-Star, hasn’t been as good over the past two months as he was over the season’s first two. In April, his ERA was 1.62; opponents hit .210 off him. In May, those numbers were an outrageous 0.79 and .145. In June, they were 3.71 and .260. In July, they’re 3.63 and .340.

Soroka turns 22 next week. His heaviest workload came in 2017, when he logged 153-2/3 innings in Double-A. Counting two early tune-ups in Gwinnett, he’s at 116-1/3 now. That’s with two months to go. And he has, not to be an alarmist, a history of shoulder soreness. Is he among the best young pitchers in baseball? Absolutely. The salient adjective, however, isn’t “best”; it’s “young.”

For starting alternatives, that leaves Dallas Keuchel, who's on a walkaway deal; Julio Teheran, who won't go away, and Mike Foltynewicz, who's not in the big leagues. (He has a 2.81 ERA over five starts at Gwinnett.) There's nobody else. Sean Newcomb is in the bullpen to stay, at least for this year. Touki Toussaint isn't a realistic option. Kyle Wright keeps flunking auditions. Earlier this month, Anthopoulos spoke glowingly of in-house scenarios. Two days before the deadline, he's doing …. what?

Searching, it says here, for exterior solutions.

This isn't to say a frontline starter will be forthcoming. There aren't many available — the Giants are believed to be keeping Madison Bumgarner; Marcus Stroman went to the Mets on Sunday in a deal that makes no sense — and those who are figure to command a high return. Over 20 months on the job, Anthopoulos has been resolute in his refusal to trade a big-name prospect. (The asking price for a big-name rental arm last summer was Cristian Pache, who remains a Brave. I say no more.)

With Stroman gone — unless the Mets up and trade him again, which would not be un-Mets-like — and Bumgarner presumably staying in San Francisco, the best available starters are Noah Syndergaard, Trevor Bauer, Mike Minor and Matthew Boyd. In reverse order, we assess.

Boyd: Nobody should leap to trade two top-10-in-your-chain prospects — that's what the Mets paid for Stroman — for the Detroit left-hander, who'd been nothing special until this season. On the plus side, he's 28 and under team control through 2022. All his key indicators (FIP, WHIP, WAR, K/BB, K/9) look great. Still, this has been a breakout year, meaning a buyer might be paying an inflated rate. Anthopoulos was  Toronto's general manager when the Blue Jays drafted Boyd; he traded him to the Tigers in 2015.

Minor: He was among the highest-rated Braves' pitching prospects of this century; he was allowed to leave after the 2015 season because his shoulder had failed. He re-invented himself with Texas. If we go by WAR, he has been baseball's best starting pitcher this season. He's under contract through the 2020 season at $9.8 million, so he wouldn't be a rental or especially expensive. The Rangers are more apt to sell than a fortnight ago; they've lost 11 of 14 to fall 6½ games back of the American League's second wild card. His next scheduled start has been pushed from Tuesday to Wednesday night, which falls after the 4 p.m. deadline. That tells us something.

Bauer: He has a big-time arm. He also rubs people the wrong way. You'll recall him saying of the Braves, who forced him to throw 120 pitches over 6-1/3 innings on a cold day in Cleveland: "It didn't seem like they wanted to hit today." (The Braves won 8-7, FYI.) He punctuated his removal from Sunday's game by throwing the ball over the center-field fence, which displeased manager Terry Francona, one of the nicest guys in the sport. Anthopoulos has said he learned in Toronto "to put more of an emphasis on character and makeup." I'm not sure he's desperate enough to insert me-first Bauer into his clubhouse.

Syndergaard: Anthopoulos has already been on the wrong side of a Thor deal. With Toronto, he traded Syndergaard and catcher Travis d'Arnaud to the Mets for the knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. That was in December 2012. Come October 2015, those two were a starting battery in the World Series. Not long ago, the notion of the Mets trading the famed flame-thrower would have been nonsensical, but he has had injury issues. (The Mets are terrible at keeping guys healthy.) He's eligible for arbitration at season's end; he's under team control through 2021.

There’s thought the Mets won’t trade Syndergaard, although figuring out the Mets is forever a fool’s errand. (Why trade two top-10 prospects for a lesser pitcher on a shorter contract if you’re going to sell a greater asset?) The Indians, who are positioned for a wild card, could choose to keep Bauer. Boyd and Minor are almost sure to move. Either would help the Braves. But be warned: Any club seeking a match will seek  a package including some combination of Pache, Wright, Bryse Wilson, Joey Wentz and Drew Waters.

That’d be a lot to give, but Boyd/Minor would be around next year. That’s a major consideration when we consider that Keuchel is a short-timer. After a rebuild centering on young arms, the Braves hoped they’d never have to consider such a move. Alas, circumstances change, and now they must.