Braves still need a good reliever more than a good starter

On Thursday, Feb 26, 2015, then-Braves closer Craig Kimbrel throws in the bullpen before facing Braves batters at spring training in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

On Thursday, Feb 26, 2015, then-Braves closer Craig Kimbrel throws in the bullpen before facing Braves batters at spring training in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Young Braves pitcher Max Fried wasn't sharp during Tuesday's loss to the Nationals. The next day veteran pitcher Kevin Gausman had "one of the worst starts of my career" in a 14-4 Braves defeat. The good vibes the Braves created during their successful trip were replaced by boos from the home fans and questions about their starting pitching.

There’s some recency bias with those complaints, by which I mean the panic over the starting pitching, not the paying customers rightly voicing their displeasure. Fried had been very good for a while before his flat effort. Gausman had been solid before he was terrible.

Focusing on the starters also overlooks the one run the Braves’ bullpen gave up in a game they lost by one, and the six runs surrendered by relievers after Gausman was tagged for eight. Those are not recent developments. The bullpen depth has been shaky all season, and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that changing with the internal options. The rotation has been solid, and there’s ample reason to believe it will stay that way.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos publicly expressed an interest in closer Craig Kimbrel and starter Dallas Keuchel, both free agents. That saga should be resolved after the draft concludes Wednesday and free agents can be signed without a pick as a penalty.

In a fantasy baseball world, Anthopoulos could sign both. In Liberty Media’s world that won’t happen, so if it comes down to it, I say the GM should give the closer the cash. If the Braves must give up a significant bounty in a trade, then a top reliever should take precedence over a top starter, so for instance, Shane Greene instead of Madison Bumgarner.

I get the arguments for why the Braves should make a front-line starter the priority. The ones I’ve heard tend to center on the postseason. The Braves didn’t have the pitching to compete with the Dodgers in October. They’d have a much better chance with Bumgarner or Keuchel, who both have strong postseason records that includes a World Series MVP for Bumgarner.

But that reasoning can be clouded by another bias — small sample size. Luck plays a big role in a five-game series or a one-game “playoff,” which is one of the dumbest things in sports. Should the Braves really be making moves with those hypothetical games in mind? They need to make it to the postseason first.

That’s unlikely to happen if the Braves don’t add a good reliever or two. Right now, manager Brian Snitker can feel good about calling on Luke Jackson and Touki Toussaint. Neither has a long, consistent track record. It gets thin fast after them.

The Braves are in the National League East race despite their leaky reliever corps. After they were swept by the Nationals, they were 3-1/2 games behind the Phillies in the division. That deficit dropped to three games when Philadelphia lost to the Cardinals on Thursday afternoon.

Before that game, three prediction models — FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and — put the Braves’ playoff odds from 48-57 percent. All three projections believe the Braves have three pitchers who are better than the average starter in the East, which doesn’t lack for them. That sounds about right.

Mike Soroka, Fried and Julio Teheran make for a solid one-two-three, with Soroka showing ace potential. I still believe Mike Foltynewicz will be better, even if he doesn’t reach his All-Star level of last season. FanGraphs rates Gausman higher than Teheran, which seems silly when you look at ERA (3.53 vs. 5.56), but makes more sense when you strip out defense and luck with Fielding Independent Pitching. Gausman has a 3.66 FIP, second to Soroka (2.88) among starters.

I think the Braves would be fine finishing out the season with those five starters. A deeper bullpen would alleviate concerns about depending so much on two young starters. Toussaint is a viable option for spot starts. The Braves can generate enough runs to win a few games in which the pitching staff doesn’t have it.

The Braves need a good reliever more than they need a good starter. As it turns out, such an approach aligns with Liberty Media’s reluctance to spend their profits and the GM’s aversion to cashing in top prospects. It costs a lot to get an ace, but effective relief pitchers can be had for a bargain.

Look what the Pirates paid to get starter Chris Archer at last year’s deadline. They parted with a top prospect, Grayson High’s Austin Meadows. He’s currently tearing it up for the Rays, while Archer has been disappointing for the Pirates.

The Cubs didn’t give up much in July to get Cole Hamels. They did have to take on $42.5 million in salary through 2019, which is the kind of move big-spending clubs can make. If the Braves did such a deal, I’d think the money would flow to a position player, considering their plethora of promising young pitching.

The cost can be high to acquire a top-flight relief pitcher, too. It’s still more cost-effective than buying a starter. The Braves could use another good starter, but they really need a good reliever.