Braves need another trade to stop treading water

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Braves trailed the Mets by 4-1/2 games in the National League East when they began their nine-game road trip. They left New York on Thursday with a four-game deficit in the East. The Braves made an incremental move forward when they had so many chances to do much better.

ExploreTrade-deadline decisions loom for Braves

That’s the story for the Braves (51-52) with 59 games to play. If general manager Alex Anthopoulos hoped to get some clarity on the team’s direction before Friday’s trade deadline, it didn’t happen. Instead, the Braves continued their frustrating habit of alternating wins and losses since the All-Star break. They split four games with the Phillies and took three of five from the Mets to pretty much end up where they started before the trip.

The Braves have been bad in only one area, the bullpen, but great in none. That’s been good enough to stay within shouting distance of the Mets, but no closer.

“We are hanging in there,” manager Brian Snitker said after the 6-3 victory Thursday afternoon at Citi Field. “Hopefully we’ll get on that run we’ve been waiting for four months. I don’t know.”

The Braves need more than hope. They need outside help, whether a bat or a bullpen arm. For the Braves to stand pat is to wait for the Mets to get healthy and pull away to end the Braves’ run of division titles at three. That likely would mean no postseason for the Braves because, unless something weird happens, teams from the West will win both NL wild cards.

The Braves haven’t had a winning record all season. Six times they’ve evened the ledger, only to immediately start a losing streak. They got good pitching on the trip. Their offense occasionally erupted, but they scored two runs or less in five of nine games.

The all-or-nothing offense suggests the Braves need another bat for the final two months of the season. They filled one outfield hole by trading for Joc Pederson two weeks ago. MLB Network reported that Anthopoulos tried to acquire outfielder Adam Duvall -- the Braves didn’t re-sign after he was good for them in 2019 and 2020 -- but the Marlins rebuffed them.

Another good hitter would help, but that’s not the biggest need for the Braves. They’ve been an average offense despite significant personnel losses.

Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies are doing what they do. Austin Riley is raking: He hit two homers in four games at Philly and four in five at New York. Other Braves hitters are doing their parts. The Braves will get a boost when catcher Travis d’Arnaud returns soon form the injured list.

The starting pitching also has been adequate despite injuries. Huscar Ynoa (hand) and Ian Anderson (shoulder) are on their way back. Left-hander Drew Smyly’s results were so-so Thursday — three runs allowed over four innings with some bad luck — but he’s posted a 2.95 ERA over his past eight starts. The rotation is good enough.

Relief pitching has been the one bad area for the Braves. They ranked 10th of 15 NL teams in bullpen ERA before Thursday’s games. That number doesn’t account for how often their relievers have faltered in tight situations. Braves relievers were good against the Mets, but another good bullpen arm is needed for the closing stretch (preferably a right-hander).

“I don’t waste time on that,” Snitker said of possible trades. “If it happens, it does. If it doesn’t, we are going to keep fighting like we have been.”

Braves 6, Mets 3 (box score)

That resilience is best reflected by the Braves managing to rank fourth in runs per game among NL teams despite attrition. Ronald Acuna suffered a season-ending knee injury after 82 games played. The Braves have gotten next to nothing from d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna. They were scuffling in the middle of the order when they went on the injured list.

Ozuna won’t be back after his arrest on domestic-violence charges. The Braves desperately need d’Arnaud to regain his 2020 form when he returns. Their catchers collectively rank last in the NL at the position in batting average and next-to-last in on-base percentage and slugging. The Braves as presently constructed cannot afford getting such little production from one position.

The pitching rotation has been good under the circumstances. The NL ranks for Braves starters: sixth in ERA, third in walk rate, eight in strikeout rate and sixth in home-run rate. That’s with purported staff ace Mike Soroka not pitching an inning because of injuries.

The Braves have managed to tread water.

“I think we know we are really good,” Smyly said Thursday. “I know we’ve been talking about it all season, but it’s just a matter of getting on a roll and kind of putting a win streak together. It’s easier said than done. I know we need to start doing it.”

Credit Anthopoulos for not punting on the season when Acuna went down by trading for Pederson. Knock the GM for failing to retain Duvall and reliever Mark Melancon, who’s an All-Star for the Padres. Anthopoulos will earn another demerit if he doesn’t make a trade that helps the Braves improve from mediocre to pretty good when that could be enough to win the East.