The Braves are again interested in trading for a top-of-the-rotation caliber starting pitcher and have circled back to a couple of their targets from last winter: the Rays’ Chris Archer and White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana.
They also had scouts at Oakland’s Sonny Gray’s start Sunday. But the Braves are more interested in both Archer, who is under contractual control for four more seasons, including club-friendly options in 2020 ($9 million) and 2022 ($11 million), and Quintana, also under a club-friendly contract that runs through 2020 including two option years. He will make about $31 million in 2018-20, assuming the options are exercised.
The major league non-waiver trade deadline is July 31.
Last winter, the Braves explored trading for Archer and Quintana, along with top target Chris Sale, but deemed the prices too high in terms of top prospects and/or young players being asked for in return.
Only Sale was moved, to the Red Sox, who gave up a boatload of talent for the lefty. They are certainly glad they did; he is 10-3 and leads the majors in strikeouts (155) and innings (113 2/3).
Entering a series at the Padres that began Tuesday night, the Braves have a 36-39 record that includes a 20-18 mark since losing their best player, Freddie Freeman, to a fractured wrist. They’ve done it despite having a shaky rotation, Offseason acquisitions of one-year placeholders Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia have produced mixed results, including a colossal flame-out by Colon.
Garcia and possibly Dickey could be moved before the trade deadline, accentuating the need to add at least one proven starter if the Braves hope to maintain their current level of play — or better — through the rest of the season. With bigger crowds turning out at SunTrust Park during the summer, improved play also is good for business.
The Braves expect to have Freeman back either just before or right after the All-Star break and believe they are in position to remain competitive all summer and into the fall. But they need to bolster their rotation to ease pressure on a productive offense that has to play catch-up too often after a starter puts the team in a hole early.
They have the fifth-highest starters’ ERA in the National League. The Braves have a better record than all of the other eight NL teams with the highest starters’ ERAs except altitude-challenged Colorado (4.56 ERA, 47-32 record).
Braves starters rank 25th in the majors in ERA (4.87), tied for 25th in opponents’ OPS (.811). They have generated the second-fewest strikeouts per nine innings (6.45), the ninth-most walks per nine innings (3.3) and are tied for the ninth-most homers allowed (69). Archer, Quintana or even Gray could help immediately and for coming years.
The price for either Archer or Quintana, who are both 28, likely would be just as significant now as during the winter, perhaps even higher than during the offseason. Several contending teams, including the Yankees and Red Sox, are interested in adding a top starter. It will going to take multiple prospects and/or young players to acquire either of them.
Archer is 6-4 with a 3.88 ERA in 16 starts with 126 strikeouts with only 33 walks in 104 1/3 innings. An All-Star in 2015 — he was fifth in the AL Cy Young balloting that year — the North Carolina native has amassed a 3.56 ERA over parts of six major league seasons and rolled up 921 strikeouts with 289 walks in 870 1/3 innings.
Quintana, 28, is just 4-8 with a 4.69 ERA, but he’s 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA in four June starts with scouts watching. More important, Quintana pitched 200 or more innings in each of the past four seasons with ERAs of 3.51 in 2013, 3.32 in 2014, 3.36 in 2015 and 3.20 in 2016. Also worth noting: Quintana is friends with Colombian countryman Julio Teheran, who has struggled this season and might possibly benefit from having Quintana around.
Archer and Quintana, like Sale, have multiple years of team control remaining on their contracts, an essential for the Braves now and in the future. They’re not interested in dealing for a “rental” pitcher who’ll cost prospects just to get through the season.
If they’re giving up talent in return, they want to acquire a starter whom they can plug into the top of their rotation for the next few seasons as they begin to sprinkle their own top pitching prospects into the mix.
Ideally, this would be the last time for quite some time that the Braves would need to trade for a top starter, because their rebuilding project has focused on acquiring many strong pitching prospects via draft picks and trades. Some of those arms are starting to arrive now or are on the cusp, and the Braves want to stick to their plan of not rushing any of them until they are reasonably assured that those pitchers are ready.
Gray also has two arbitration seasons remaining after this one before he’s eligible for free agency. The Nashville native is not the front-line starter that Archer or Quintana is, with Gray currently carrying a 4.45 ERA in 11 starts after posting a career-worst 5.69 ERA in just 22 starts in 2016. But Gray, a former first-rounder from Vanderbilt, has a 41-34 record and solid 3.52 ERA over five seasons.
This month, with scouts from several teams including a few contenders watching, Gray has totaled 34 strikeouts with 12 walks and only two homers allowed in five starts.