Good weekend in Philly can boost Braves in standings, trade market

It makes little sense to sweat a few baseball games in July, which doesn’t mean Braves backers didn’t have an emotional reaction watching their team lose two ugly ones to the Royals. The season still isn’t even two-thirds complete. Yet the Braves’ series in Philadelphia this weekend is significant not just because of the tightened standings, but also for what it could mean for Wednesday’s trade deadline.

The Braves are looking protect their National League East lead, which was down to four games after that unfathomable two-game flop against KC on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Phillies series also is a chance for the Braves to weaken the field of potential competitors in the trade market. An extended swoon for the Braves would embolden Washington and Philadelphia to make moves and all three teams are among the many looking for pitching.

Sweep three games against the Phillies, and the Braves will exit the weekend with no worse than the four-game East advantage over the Nationals. That outcome would dampen Philadelphia’s ambitions after it won seven of its past 10 games. That left the Phillies a half-game out of the wild-card race and at least contemplating making some moves before Wednesday’s deadline.

Even better for the Braves if they can win three in Philly while the Nationals lose three to the Dodgers. The latter is a real possibility with Los Angeles sending out its one-two-three punch of All-Star starters while avoiding recently activated Max Scherzer. Sweeps by the Braves and Dodgers would give the Braves a cushion before their three-game series at Washington starting Monday. Win that one, too, and the Braves would have a commanding lead in the East.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First up are the Phillies. The perception is they've wildly underachieved after spending "stupid money" during the offseason. But the Phillies are fortunate to be in the wild-card race considering the injuries that have ravaged the front of their bullpen. They also got less than two months from outfielders Andrew McCutchen (injury) and Odubel Herrera (suspension).

At this point, the Phillies may be inclined to get some pitching help and hope underachieving sluggers Bryce Harper and Jean Segura get on track. Phillies general manager Matt Klentak told reporters this week there are enough good prospects in the pipeline to use in deals.

“I feel like our organization has enough talent that we can bid on the top names on the market,” Klentak said. “Whether we choose to go down that road or not remains to be seen. It’s really about building an organization that can sustain its competitiveness for a long period of time. In order to do that, we have to preserve young talent.”

Klentak said that before the Phillies won two against the Tigers and the Braves lost two to the Royals. A series victory against the Braves would get the Phillies back in the division race after they were 9-1/2 games behind 10 days ago. The Braves have a chance to push the Phillies back and make Klentak more likely to sit on his hands.

Klentak is in a similar position now as Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos was at last year’s trade deadline. The Braves were within shouting distance of the Phillies and needed bullpen arms, a starting pitcher and lineup depth. The key for Anthopoulos was meeting all those needs without surrendering prospects.

Braves backers excited by the team’s surprising play wanted an accelerated timeline, but I thought Anthopoulos should improve the team whole holding on tight to his best prospects.  He deftly threaded that needle. Trade acquisitions Kevin Gausman, Jonny Venters and Brad Brach helped the pitching staff (Adam Duvall flopped, but no GM gets them all right).

At this year's deadline the Braves' needs are (as always) bullpen arms and (maybe) another starter. Two weeks ago, I opined that those needs aren't urgent because the Braves have enough hitting to overcome mediocre pitching to win the East and compete in October. I still believe that even with Austin Riley's struggles, which have been offset by Josh Donaldson's rise.

The Braves have a solid rotation. Dallas Keuchel is finding his form. Mike Soroka will be fine. Everyone seems to keep waiting for Julio Teheran to fade but he’s been reliable for the most part.

Gausman and Max Fried are the question marks. This weekend should provide more clarity for them. Fried is set to start Saturday after missing a turn because of a blister on his finger. Gausman was good in his first start off the injured list and Sunday will start opposite Phillies ace Aaron Nola, who has been great since the Braves beat him up June 15.

You don’t want to make too much of one series in July. But the Braves have a chance to short-circuit Philadelphia’s surge, gain some space from the Nationals and maybe make both East rivals shy away from big deadline moves. Those factors make this weekend more significant than usual for the Braves.