Many teams in buy-or-sell limbo

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­

The At­lanta Braves hit the Fourth of July on an up­swing. Eleven wins in their pre­vi­ous 15 games had pushed them to a high-wa­ter mark for their sea­son, just a game un­der .500. They had a lock on second place in the Na­tional League East. They were about to get their best hit­ter, Freddie Free­man, back from a lengthy in­jury ab­sence, af­ter go­ing a sur­pris­ing 24-20 with­out him.

July is baseball’s Month of Reck­on­ing, when teams are forced to make hard choices and big bets ahead of the July 31 non­waiver trade dead­line. The Braves, whose re­build has in­cluded back-to-back 90-loss sea­sons in 2015 and 2016, could have fooled them­selves into think­ing they had en­tered a go-for-it phase this sum­mer.

But there was an­other side of the equa­tion: Though they were as close to first place as they had been in a month and a half, the Braves were still, at that point, 71/2 games be­hind the divi­sion-lead­ing Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, a deficit that was 81/2 games af­ter a 13-0 win Satur­day. The wild-card pic­ture was barely any bet­ter. And most im­por­tantly, their July 4 game against Hous­ton launched a bru­tal stretch of 19 straight games against teams with a col­lec­tive win­ning per­cent­age of .650.

“Re­ally, by the end of the month we’ll know what we are,” Braves Man­ager Brian Snitker said Thurs­day at Na­tion­als Park, be­fore the first of the Braves’ four games there. Be­cause of the sched­ule we’re fac­ing th­ese next cou­ple of weeks, we’ll de­ter­mine our own fate.”

While a hand­ful of prom­i­nent play­off con­tenders have ob­vi­ous de­fi­cien­cies — the Na­tion­als need a closer, the Astros and Cubs need a start­ing pitcher, the Red Sox need a third base­man — and a hand­ful of cel­lar-dwellers, such as the Phillies, Marlins, Giants, Ath­let­ics and White Sox, al­ready have sig­naled their in­ten­tions to sell off cur­rent pieces for fu­ture ones, the ma­jor­ity of teams are in the same po­si­tion as the Braves: need­ing the next few weeks to help de­ter­mine which di­rec­tion they will go. But few will get de­fin­i­tive an­swers.

En­ter­ing the week­end, all 15 Amer­i­can League teams, in­clud­ing the woe­ful White Sox and A’s, were ei­ther in con­trol of a play­off spot or within seven games of one, and only Chicago, Oak­land and Detroit were more than five games out. While the Na­tional League has more dis­par­ity be­tween its top teams and its bot­tom ones, only six of its 15 teams en­tered the week­end more than seven games out of a play­off spot (with half of them in the East).

As the trade mar­ket starts to take shape — with start­ing pitch­ing, as al­ways, the most sought-af­ter com­mod­ity and Sonny Gray (A’s), Jose Quin­tana (White Sox) and Johnny Cueto (Giants) among the most prom­i­nent names — the land­scape of buy­ers and sell­ers (and the large group of teams some­where in be­tween) con­tin­ues to shift.

To cite two prom­i­nent ex­am­ples: A 6-16 stretch that be­gan in mid-June has trans­formed the New York Yankees from buy­ers to un­de­cid­eds — more likely to stay the course, with per­haps a cheap, rented first base­man, than to be ei­ther big-time buy­ers or sell­ers — while the Kansas City Roy­als are 17-6 in roughly the same stretch, jump­ing from fourth place to second in the AL Cen­tral and push­ing them­selves from pos­si­ble sell­ers to prom­i­nent buy­ers.

“We’re go­ing for this thing,” Roy­als Man­ager Ned Yost said on Sir­iusXM ra­dio this week.

All the con­tenders hop­ing to land a start­ing pitcher this month — a group that, in ad­di­tion to the Astros and Cubs, could also in­clude the Dodgers, Roy­als and Red Sox — will be keep­ing close watch on teams such as the Tigers (Justin Ver­lan­der), Rangers (Yu Darvish), Blue Jays (Mar­cus Stro­man), Rays (Chris Archer) and Pirates (Ger­rit Cole) to see whether they will part with those top starters.

But last year’s trade dead­line, when the Cubs (Aroldis Chap­man) and In­di­ans (An­drew Miller) took away prized pitch­ers who helped them to the World Se­ries while the Yankees (eight prospects) re­built their farm sys­tem in one strong week, may have fooled ev­ery­one into think­ing there are quick, mag­i­cal fixes to be had this month.

The Braves are a con­ve­nient case study in why the trade dead­line is more hype than help for the ma­jor­ity of teams.

In mak­ing a se­ries of vet­er­ans-for-prospects trades over the pre­vi­ous three years — with stars in­clud­ing Ja­son Hey­ward, An­drel­ton Sim­mons and closer Craig Kim­brel among those sent pack­ing — the Braves set them­selves up for a dif­fi­cult re­build­ing process but also man­aged to con­struct a farm sys­tem that Baseball Amer­ica ranked as the best in baseball this spring (up from 29th in 2015).

But the heavy lift­ing of that re­build is in the past, and when the Braves added vet­eran pieces Bran­don Phillips (Fe­bru­ary) and Matt Adams (May) to stay com­pet­i­tive in 2017, they were able to do so with­out giv­ing up any of their top prospects. In other words, they are flush with the type of high-end prospects most sell­ers would be look­ing for, were the Braves in­clined to gam­ble this sum­mer (not a likely sce­nario, with Fan­ pro­ject­ing their odds of mak­ing the play­offs at 3 per­cent en­ter­ing the week­end).

On the flip side, they also have plenty of in­trigu­ing pieces — among them Adams, start­ing pitcher Julio Te­heran and closer Jim John­son — should they choose to be­come dead­line sell­ers again, a no­tion Snitker all but shot down. In their first sea­son in a new ball­park, on the fringes of con­tention, in the lat­ter stages of a dif­fi­cult re­build­ing process, an­other whole­sale sell-off makes lit­tle sense for the Braves.

“Their value right now is for us,” he said of the Braves’ vet­er­ans. “Their value is to our team. We’re not where we were last year. We’re play­ing for now and to­day and maybe adding pieces. We’re get­ting to the point where it’s about mak­ing this team bet­ter. The farm sys­tem has im­proved a lot.”

When it was sug­gested to Snitker that the dif­fi­cult phase of the Braves’ re­build, the tear­down, was over, he re­sponded, “I don’t know if that’s the hard part or if the hard part’s yet to come” — mean­ing the task of form­ing a young core into a peren­nial cham­pi­onship contender.

That’s a process that oc­curs over years, not weeks. It hap­pens over the course of mul­ti­ple sea­sons, April to Septem­ber, and through mea­sured de­ci­sion-mak­ing in the win­ter months. July, mean­while, is full of daz­zling temp­ta­tions, but for all but the se­lect few who are cer­tain of their needs, it isn’t where cham­pi­onships are won.


Af­ter spend­ing the past three years build­ing for the fu­ture, the Braves are stocked with young tal­ent such as rookie short­stop Dansby Swan­son.

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