As the deadline nears, the Braves watch and wait

The trade deadline is a week away, and the Braves still aren't sure what they want/need. Asked three weeks ago if he had enough starting pitching, general manager Alex Anthopoulos said: "We're going to take the month of July to make that determination." As of Wednesday, much remained in flux.

Kevin Gausman returned from a bout of plantar fasciitis with a superb start Sunday against Washington, which could have cut the Braves’ division lead to 4-1/2 games by winning. It lost 7-1, Gausman going seven innings while yielding one earned run and five hits. He’s scheduled to work again Sunday. Max Fried, who has missed time with a blister, figures to start Saturday. If the Braves see what they like from those two, their approach to the July 31 deadline could get a needed dose of clarity.

A starting rotation of Gausman, Fried, Mike Soroka, Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran should be enough to get the Braves to October. Once there, a foursome of Keuchel, Soroka, Gausman and Teheran wouldn’t be laughed out of court. But if Gausman’s weekend start is a clanger and Fried doesn’t seem himself … well, that’s different.

Then the Braves might need another starter, who would come at a high price. The market for starting pitchers, already tight, has shrunk over the past three weeks. The Giants, who figured to be up for selling everybody, won 17 of 20 to draw within two games of the second wild card. The belief now – subject to change should San Francisco lose four in a row – is that Farhan Zaidi, Anthopoulos’ former co-worker in L.A., wants to give outgoing manager Bruce Bochy every chance at another October. (When the Giants won their third World Series under Bochy, they did it as a wild card.)

Meaning: Madison Bumgarner mightn’t get traded after all, and the Giants’ passel of relievers – Will Smith, Tony Watson, Sam Dyson – could remain Giants. As we know, the summer bazaar can change from week to week, even day to day. On July 24, 2017, the Braves traded Jaime Garcia to Minnesota, which believed it had a playoff shot. He made one start for the Twins, who lost four of five and decided, “That’s it. We’re out.” On July 30, they traded Garcia to the Yankees.

Asked Wednesday if his July of observation is ongoing, Anthopoulos said: “That’s still fair (to say). We’re always evaluating. We have a general sense. It’s fair to say we can be better. We’re evaluating prices on all the players who are available. We’re like everybody else. We’re engaged. We’re monitoring.”

As of Wednesday morning, the Braves had the fifth-best record in baseball, the second-best in the NL. FanGraphs gives them a 97.7 percent chance to qualify for postseason and a 6.7 percent shot at winning it all. This is not a bad team. With a break or two, it could wind up in the World Series. The question for every GM, though, is how much of the future to risk on one October, given that baseball Octobers don’t always follow form?

Last week, Bob Nightengale of USA Today put the question to Dave Drombowski, Boston’s president of baseball ops. The response: “For me, if you have in your heart you can win a World Series, you do everything you can to win it, by whatever means. But there’s been a general change in (trade) philosophy over the years. One big thing is that there is so much scrutiny attached to players that you give up these days. There’s so much media coverage that everyone knows these players. Years ago, nobody knew who these prospects were. So there’s hesitation to make bigger moves.”

Dombrowski is 62. He won the World Series with the Marlins in 1997 and with the Red Sox last year. Dombrowski, who also was GM of the Expos – remember them? – and the Tigers, is older-school than the majority of the sport’s execs, those plum jobs tending to skew younger and younger. (Anthopoulos is 42, FYI. He was named Toronto’s GM at 32.) Younger guys are more inclined to trust their data, as opposed to their gut.

Anthopoulos on risk (losing assets) versus reward (winning a World Series): “Everyone is always balancing both. Everyone’s trying to win a World Series. You’ve got to get in (the playoffs) first. You’ve got to balance being competitive long-term and sustainability. Some of that is dictated by what’s available in any trade market. You just need to get in, and anything can happen.”

Barring a collapse epic even by Atlanta pro standards, these Braves will get in. But Anthopoulos isn’t apt to make a splash move for the sake of splashing. His track record here – the Josh Donaldson signing is the exception – is one of patience, one of measured trades. That’s as it should be. Not many GMs sit atop a talent base like this. No GM has greater young talent at his disposal. To date, Anthopoulos has disposed of no prospect apt to hit it big. There’s no reason to break that pattern now.

Not even, you ask, to win the World Series? Nope. These Braves, we say again, already have that chance. What available player would ramp up their chances by any significant measure? The Braves are World Series contenders. If they do nothing more than buy a reliever or two this next week, they’ll be World Series contenders next year, and the next, et cetera. We say again: Time is on their side.

The guess is that, absent weekend flops by Gausman/Fried, the Braves won’t hook a starting pitcher before month’s end. They’ll take their chances with what they have. (Let’s not forget Mike Foltynewicz, who has an ERA of 2.93 since his demotion.) The guess is that they’ll acquire a reliever. Thing is, every buyer is looking for a bullpen boost, and that could complicate matters. But Anthopoulos is a resourceful guy. He’ll figure it out.