ATLANTA — Let’s start with this because we know how the loud narratives play out when a team doesn’t make a make a wow move at the trade deadline and then fails to win a World Series.
You know why they lost? Because they didn’t trade for a starter! They didn’t trade for Max Scherzer! Or Justin Verlander! They didn’t trade for Shohei Ohtani, who literally was right down the hall in the opposing clubhouse, and the Angels general manager used to work for the Braves!
“I could’ve saved travel costs,” Alex Anthopoulos said.
But what would you have the Atlanta Braves general manager do Tuesday?
The Braves went into the trade deadline with the best record in baseball despite missing two of their three best starting pitchers, Max Fried and Kyle Wright, since early May. Fried is expected back at the end of the week. There was no real urgency to punch up a lineup that already was leading the majors in home runs and OPS and first-inning assaults — and, no, the Red Sox weren’t going to trade them Adam Duvall. The team added two relievers, Brad Hand and Pierce Johnson. They also acquired utility infielder Nicky Lopez for the cost of a player who had less intrinsic value than the Fred McGriff bobblehead given to fans Tuesday night.
There was a defense for only minor moves and relatively standing pat at the deadline, and that’s not often a palatable position to a championship contender.
But here’s the problem — or at least the landscape. The Braves have been involved in far too many high-scoring games of late. Just since July, they’ve lost games allowing 6, 10, 6, 8, 16 and 7 runs. Over the previous 16 games going into Tuesday night’s 5-1 win over the Angels, they had scored 89 runs (5.56) but allowed 94 (5.87).
It’s a fine asset to be able to come back from any deficit and put up double-digit runs. It’s just not terribly comforting to have to score so many runs.
They don’t just need Fried back in the rotation. They need Fried back to the level he was before he suffered a strained left forearm. Because if they have that Fried, they should be overwhelming World Series favorites. If they don’t have that Fried, they will be good but dangerous — in the wrong kind of way.
Schultz: Max Fried confident he will return to form (and record aside, Braves need him). Our chat today following his first rehab start at Gwinnett. https://t.co/luZfFWuEqH
— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzATL) July 9, 2023
Postseason games tend to be lower scoring, and the Braves can’t assume they’ll get to play wall-banger ball on their way to another title.
Anthopoulos is an in-the-moment guy. He didn’t even want to make the assumption his team will be in the postseason. (For the record, FanGraphs gives Atlanta a “100 percent” chance to make the playoffs and 99.5 percent to win the National League East.)
“It’s first of August,” he said. “We still have a third of the season to go.”
This fact will thrill the hell out of Miami Marlins fans.
“I just don’t know what we’re going to look like in October,” he said when asked if he would feel comfortable having a team that continued to score but also allowed runs in bunches.
But did he try to get another starter? Yes. Kinda, sorta.
He said he felt like there were “less players available” compared to past trade deadlines. He wouldn’t name players he checked in on, but logic suggests he made calls on all the starters you would want him to. The Mets had a blowout sale. But they sent Scherzer to the Rangers and Verlander to the Astros. The White Sox dealt Lance Lynn to the Dodgers, the Cardinals moved Jack Flaherty to the Orioles. The Orioles (second), Dodgers (fourth), Rangers (fifth) and Astros (sixth) all are prominent in the overall standings.
Anthopoulos’s decision to not trade for a starter was based on two things. First, there are encouraging reports from the team’s training staff on the injured Fried, Wright, Dylan Lee and Jesse Chavez. They/he are convinced that not only will all of those pitchers be back, but they’ll perform at a high level.
“That just made the bar higher for us,” he said. “We would’ve done it if we could find an impact starter and just dealt with six starters when Kyle came back and make the adjustments. But the bar was high.”
Second, the cost was going to be high for a starter, and this is where the projection of players returning from injuries is factored in.
Entirely scientific poll. Braves need:
— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzATL) July 31, 2023
There’s also this reality: The Braves’ farm system isn’t the land of riches it used to be. The Athletic’s Keith Law ranked the Braves 29th in team prospect rankings in February. MLB.com had them dead last. Anthopoulos gave away prospects in the trade for Matt Olson because he was convinced he was going to lose Freddie Freeman in free agency. Then he gave away more prospects for catcher Sean Murphy because he felt the need to upgrade at catcher.
This isn’t second-guessing either trade because Olson and Murphy have been excellent players. But when one combines the assets given up in those trades with the graduations of former prospects Michael Harris II, Spencer Strider and others to the majors, it’s easy to understand why the farm system has a scorched-earth look to it. Pitcher AJ Smith-Shawver is one of the team’s few prospects who everybody wants, and Anthopoulos isn’t about to trade him.
The GM denied he felt handcuffed by the situation. He acknowledged: “We weren’t in on every player who was traded. But we had the players (to make deals). It’s just a matter of whether we were willing to do it.”
They weren’t. It’s understandable. It could work out. If Fried returns to form, it should work out. If he doesn’t, there will be some chaotic games. And some second-guessing.
(Photo of, from left, Braves mascot Blooper and outfielders Eddie Rosario, Michael Harris II and Ronald Acuna Jr. celebrating Tuesday’s victory: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)