When Anthony Rendon sent Chad Sobotka’s pitch over the wall for a grand slam – the second against the Braves in as many days – it completed a showcase for the team’s trifecta of needs.
Monday’s 6-3 loss in Washington aptly illustrated that while the Braves are a good group, they’re flawed. Not every need will be addressed in the two days until the trade deadline, but it’s never been clearer where the team could upgrade.
Dallas Keuchel, their $13 million June addition, was solid but failed to go beyond six innings for the third consecutive start. Austin Riley continued an abysmal string of play, swinging at balls that weren't even visible on MLB's digital strike-zone track. And then there's the bullpen, which quickly let a hard-fought draw submarine into a defeat.
We’ll start with the exclamation point: Manager Brian Snitker, with two on and one out, lifted Keuchel for Sobotka in the sixth, trying to preserve a 2-2 tie. It’s open for debate if the towering righty was the best option, but the fact he was one of two feasible choices in that spot (Anthony Swarzak the other) displays a great need itself.
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Sobotka struck out Trea Turner and walked Adam Eaton before Rendon essentially ended the game. Much is made of the Braves’ need for a ninth inning man, but situations such as these remind us they’re more than one reliever away.
“He got in bad counts,” Snitker said of Sobotka. “I think he’s a little bit beyond the learning curve. He just has to execute pitches better. He can’t come in and get behind. You have to go strike one and not put yourself in those counts.”
The Braves’ current bullpen is a combination of uncertainty. The veterans, like Josh Tomlin and Jerry Blevins, are in situational roles. A.J. Minter is an enigma. Rookie Jeremy Walker is here while Jacob Webb rehabs, but Webb himself is an untested first-year arm himself.
Swarzak hasn't pitched since July 23, though the Braves rode him earlier and shouldn't mind giving him a break. Sean Newcomb struggled Sunday but has been mostly reliable as a starter-turned-reliever. Luke Jackson isn't an ideal closer, even as the Braves reiterate their belief in him.
“I feel like they’ve done pretty well honestly,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “I definitely feel good about whoever comes out the door there. Heck, I’d take my chances with Sobotka there again (against Rendon) and I’d take my chances with him throwing a heater there again. Just wasn’t supposed to go our way.”
Despite Flowers’ optimism, the industry consensus is the Braves will address their relief core before 4 p.m. Wednesday. The quality and quantity questions will be answered in the coming days.
As for a bat, Riley’s discipline has regressed since his torrent start. He’s been easily fooled by breaking pitches and simply not making consistent contact. There was always going to be a regression from his early tear, but this happened swiftly rather than progressively.
With Nick Markakis out until mid-September, Ender Inciarte more defense than offense, Adam Duvall an unknown and Riley productionless, the offense suddenly looks much less intimidating. Therein enters the need for a right-handed corner outfielder to complement the lineup, though pitching appears the bigger need.
Keuchel is worth his price tag. He’s provided innings, leadership and a presence the team otherwise lacked. He’ll be the first to tell you, he felt he wasn’t helped by home plate umpire Adam Hamari in his latest outing. Keuchel made his displeasure clear following the contest.
“I thought I punched out about 10 guys and I got rewarded with extended at-bats, and that’s where it lies,” he said. “I was very frustrated tonight with the strike zone. … I felt like I made the necessary pitches with guys on base, outside of Yan Gomes walking three times. He was the only guy who deserved to get to first base freely (Keuchel walked one additional batter).
“I asked (Hamari) where those pitches were. I made sure that he knew I was going to go check him on the K-zone. And that was that. He was very erratic tonight and I know he wishes he could have quite a few pitches back for sure.”
Nonetheless, the Braves’ hypothetical postseason rotation is muddy behind Keuchel and Mike Soroka. Perhaps it can navigate the season with Julio Teheran, Kevin Gausman and a stash of youngsters, but if the franchise is planning with October in mind, there isn’t enough in the cupboard to feel confident.
Monday’s loss didn’t show the Braves anything new. It just further illuminated areas in which the team is weaker; areas that could haunt the franchise at the worst times. It’d be difficult for them to address each by the deadline, which makes how they calculate the next two days all-the-more fascinating.
The Braves, whose National League East lead over the Nationals has dwindled to 4-1/2 games, start Julio Teheran Tuesday against Erick Fedde. The latter is replacing ace Max Scherzer, whom the Braves won’t see due to a strained back.