Many teams in buy-or-sell limbo
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 FanGraphs.com 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.