The Braves didn’t go all-in. Thank heaven for that

Atlanta Braves' Tommy Milone pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020, in Philadelphia.
Atlanta Braves' Tommy Milone pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020, in Philadelphia.

Credit: Matt Slocum

Credit: Matt Slocum

Usually the trade deadline arrives with a club having played 110 games. As of 4 p.m. Monday, the Braves had worked 33. Given the parameters of this pandemic season, they had – this according to FanGraphs’ calculations – a 96.2 percent chance to make the playoffs. They could do very little in September and still qualify for October.

As of 4 p.m. Monday, four of the National League’s 15 teams were above .500. Only three were more than two games out of the eighth and final playoff spot, rendering this a deadline like no other. Over 110 games, teams have seen enough to know if it’s time to buy or sell. Over 30-some games – and with not even that many remaining – there’s not much difference between being first or worst.

There’s a real chance some team will make the expanded playoff field with a non-winning record. This being baseball, such a team might make serious noise come postseason. It’s mathematically possible to go 13-9 in playoff games and still win the 2020 World Series. Provided it gets lucky in at least four win-or-go-home games, a team could play .591 ball beyond the regular season and be handed the Commissioner’s Trophy at October’s end.

Know how many elimination games the 2019 Washington Nationals won? Five. Don’t say it can’t happen. It just did.

Meaning: If ever there was a season not – repeat, NOT – to bet the mortgage on the vagaries of October, this is it. In ordinary times, the MLB postseason is a crap shoot. Playing what could be a 22-game postseason after a 60-game irregular season could yield utter chaos. Even the best odds on chaos are lousy odds.

The Dodgers awoke Monday with a winning percentage of .722, which over a standard-issue season would make them a 117-game winner. In the year of COVID-19, these mighty Dodgers have, again per FanGraphs, a 17.8 percent chance of taking the World Series. That’s less than one in five. Yow.

The Braves made one deadline trade. That came Sunday, when they shipped two not-prime prospects to Baltimore for Tommy Milone, the journeyman’s journeyman. Early returns weren’t glorious. After a charter flight from Buffalo – the pandemic having rendered that balmy burg a temporary big-league city – he made his Braves’ debut in Philadelphia. In six 2020 starts as an Oriole, he’d yielded 13 earned runs; over 2 1/3 innings Sunday, he yielded seven.

That not-especially-stunning acquisition was followed by … nothing. Come Monday, the Braves didn’t land Mike Clevinger, the coveted Cleveland starter. (San Diego, intoxicated by the notion of making the playoffs for the first time since 2006, did.) They didn’t get Mike Minor, once a Brave and lately with Texas. (Oakland did.) They didn’t land Lance Lynn, who began and ended the day as a Ranger.

The NL club with the second-worst ERA among starting pitchers wound up bolstering itself with Milone, who’s 33 and has a career Baseball-Reference WAR of 4.7. (Mike Soroka is 23; his career WAR is 5.7.) If you’re a Braves’ fan, you were probably disappointed. You shouldn’t be.

Said Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, speaking on a conference call Monday: “I understand. I’m a sports fan. Each year, you’re presented with this. We’ve had opportunities to move Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna, Ian Anderson – and we’re glad we’ve held on to those players … You have to do what you think is right.”

The going-for-it Padres could well win the 2020 World Series; they might also lose their first two postseason games and sack up the bats. Anthopoulos didn’t say that the nature of this strange season affected his decision to stop with the procuring of Tommy Milone – “The hangup for us wasn’t financial; it was talent” – but the true hangup was nothing more than common sense.

Yes, the Braves need pitching. As is, their second-best starter might be Anderson, who has worked a grand total of six major-league innings. Mike Soroka got hurt. Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint again got demoted. Felix Hernandez opted out. Cole Hamels remains the man who wasn’t there, or at least isn’t yet. Over the first 33 games, the Braves tried 11 different starters; that’s the same number they used over 162 games last year.

When so many bad things happen over such a short span, there’s no fixing it at the deadline, especially not at a deadline that fell 33 games into a 60-game season. The usual sellers weren’t selling. Even if they were, the Braves would have been crazy to pay full price. Ship out Drew Waters? Cristian Pache? No, thanks.

Anthopoulos again: “Unless we felt it was someone who was impactful, giving up young talent … we weren’t going to do it.”

This isn’t to say all hope is lost. You’ll recall that the man who started Games 2 and 5 of last year’s NLDS spent much of the summer in the minors. That was Foltynewicz, whom Anthopoulos reported has gained weight and is throwing harder. (“We saw a lot of 94s come out; we were seeing a lot of 89s.”) There’s a chance Folytnewicz could again find himself. Maybe Newcomb and/or Wright could do the same.

“We’re definitely hearing some good stories,” Anthopoulos said of the Braves’ demoted starters. “Those guys have gotten opportunities. They’re apt to get opportunities again.”

Anthopoulos said he’d like to have had “more certainty” regarding his rotation, but there’s less certainty in baseball in 2020 than there has ever been. The sport continues to struggle to make it through a week without having to postpone/cancel games due to the virus. There’s no assurance there’ll be a World Series. An all-out effort to go all-in would have been the height of folly.

At this moment, would I bet on these Braves to win the World Series? No. But that’s the thing. Know who I would bet on? Nobody.

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