The Braves led the National League East by 5-1/2 games when they sent struggling pitcher Mike Foltynewicz to the minors. They were still 5-1/2 games ahead to begin Thursday, with ace Mike Soroka on the mound for the series finale against second-place Philadelphia. After two turns through the rotation without Foltynewicz, I still don’t think the No. 5 pitcher matters all that much for the Braves in their march to another NL East title.
But it’s clear they need another reliable starter to have a real chance of advancing beyond the NLDS this time. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos already added Dallas Kueuchel, the best available free agent. Now he’ll be looking for another good starter behind Keuchel and Soroka (who is very good but still green).
It’s looking like Anthopoulos will have to pay a big price for that. He’s always resisted trading away good prospects, a smart strategy that’s kept the team’s exciting young core intact. But demand for starting pitchers will well outpace supply at the July 31 trade deadline, so Anthopoulos might have to be more flexible about what he’s willing to offer in trade.
There will be a mad rush to acquire Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner even though he’s not pitching to his usual level. Expect plenty of bids for Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd and some wheeling and dealing for Mets flame-thrower Zack Wheeler. Several other teams that will be deadline sellers have quality starting pitchers to dangle.
There should be a robust market. The Dodgers, Astros and Twins are the only teams that appear to have a lock on their divisions. The Braves are in good shape. The wild-card system means several other ballclubs still have hope for a postseason bid.
The projection systems from FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and FiveThirtyEight all agree that six teams have at least a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs: Yankees, Rays, Twins, Astros, Braves and Dodgers. Two of those models give the Nationals, Cubs and Indians at least 50 percent odds to make the postseason. The Red Sox and Brewers are even odds or better in one of the models.
That’s 11 teams with a realistic chance of making the playoffs, according to the numbers. The Phillies also will be under pressure to make moves after raising expectations with their offseason salary splurge. The Cardinals began Thursday only 2-1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central.
Some teams will fade between now and the trade deadline. Others will back off trades if they think they are in contention only for a one-game playoff. But there will be many buyers, and starting pitching always is at a premium.
The Braves still have plenty of prospects to offer even with several having arrived in the majors, including Soroka and slugger Austin Riley. Among the potential deadline buyers only the Rays have more talent in the minor leagues than the Braves, according to Baseball America’s preseason farm-system rankings.
The Braves have eight prospects ranked in the BA’s top 100, though it noted: “From low Class A on down, though, prospects suddenly become scarce.” That means Anthopoulos may be reluctant to trade away prospects in the lower minors for short-term rotation help. But some of the starting pitchers rumored to be available in trade are under contractual control beyond this season.
Boyd will command a high price because he has three years of arbitration after this one — the Tigers reportedly won’t deal him to the Astros because Houston won’t include top outfield prospect Kyle Tucker. Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman isn’t eligible for free agency until after 2020. Mariners veteran Mike Leake is signed through 2020.
Perhaps Anthopoulos would be willing to part with a good prospect for a proven starting pitcher he can keep around beyond this season. Anthopoulos should have a better handle on the true value of young Braves arms after a year-and-a-half as GM and big-league debuts for several of them. Looking outside of the organization for pitching might be more of an option now.
The Braves will have competition on the trade market. The Dodgers and Nationals are stacked with starting pitchers and probably won’t be looking for more. Pretty much every other team aiming for the postseason could use another starter or two.
Even two teams with good starting pitching may be looking for more. The Twins entered Thursday ranked fourth among MLB teams in starting pitcher Wins Above Replacement but reportedly are interested in Bumgarner. The Astros, third in AL starters’ ERA and innings pitched entering Thursday, are said to be interested in Boyd.
The Braves likely will win the NL East without adding another starter because their lineup is deep and their bullpen is now stable. But their rotation is too thin to expect much more than that. Anthopoulos may have to pay a big price on the trade market to give his ballclub a real chance to advance in the postseason rather than just make it there this time.