Could Darren Bragg soon be on his way out? (Getty)
Though the Braves continue to roll this season, Bill Shanks points out that while the Braves may have the perfect regular season team, they may still be lacking that extra ingredient that will lead them to the postseason.
The Atlanta Braves are strolling along in the National League East. Once again, the Braves are playing that game of "How big a lead can we have by the All Star Break?" It's a game they play every season about this time of year.
However, it does not mean the Braves are a perfect team. The regular season, so far, has been wonderful. I can't imagine a more entertaining start to a baseball season. The Braves could play .500 ball the rest of the way and still win over 90 games. But if the goal is to win the World Series, which by the way we haven't done in eight years, then some tinkering may be necessary.
Despite early season calls for changes at catcher and third base, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla have quieted any complaints. Castilla has slumped lately compared to Lopez, but he's shown he can be productive from the #8 hole in the lineup. Lopez is simply on a dream streak. Can it continue? Probably not. But if he stays consistent, Javy will give us yet another threat in the already powerful lineup.
The offense seems to have one hole. Darren Bragg is beyond the Mario Mendoza Line; he's more like around the Pepe Frias line. There's no doubt that Bragg is a Bobby Cox favorite and a hard-nosed, hustling ballplayer. But there's no way a championship caliber club can keep a fourth outfielder that is hitting around .130. Matt Franco, Julio Franco, and Mark DeRosa are all capable and productive bench players, but they can't be dragged down by Bragg's unproductive bat.
Atlanta's outfield is the best in baseball. But what happens if one of the big 3 go down? Bragg, at least right now, would be the replacement. That's kinda scary. Again, Bragg's a better ballplayer than what he's shown. But we're trying to win a championship, and there's no way he can be counted on right now to be productive or consistent. Another outfield bat must be brought in. We've done it before with people like Mike Devereaux and Luis Polonia, and it may take that type of player to improve out bench and outfield position.
The concerns over the bullpen are legitamate. However, please remember when comparing this year's group to last year's group, that there was no way anyone would have repeated the historical performance by our bullpen from last season. It puts a lot of pressure on the current relievers, and maybe that's why they are struggling. However, the first question that must be answered, even before the bullpen questions must be resolved, is what to do with Paul Byrd when (or if) he returns.
Byrd is slated to return after the All-Star Break. It will be interesting to see what the Braves do with him once he returns. Will he push Shane Reynolds to the bullpen? Will Byrd himself start out in the bullpen until his arm returns to 100%? That to me is the likely scenario. Since the rotation has done reasonably well (except lately for Reynolds) and the bullpen has struggled, shouldn't Byrd pitch out of the pen for a while to get stronger and, at the same time, help our bullpen?
If Byrd can help out, there may not be a need for a trade for a reliever. But either way, you can count on John Schuerholz to have his scouts out looking for the right fit. We have some ammunition in our minor league system that should be attractive on the trade front. If Jason Marquis has simply had his last chance with the Braves, he's the first piece that teams will want. He's an attractive piece, and it's likely to be a big deal if he is involved. You have to ask yourself what other teams the Braves may be talking with would want. Who would not want to see if they can "fix" Jason Marquis?
But the Braves will have other possibilities if they want to make a deal. Again, put yourself in the shoes of another team. With Marquis off the board, certainly other teams would want one of our three rookies. Horacio Ramirez, Trey Hodges, and Jung Bong have all had excellent rookie seasons. Ramirez would seem to be the most untouchable. And while Hodges would be very appealing, if a team also had Jason Marquis in a deal, they may prefer another lefthander. Therefore, Bong may be expendable.
Beyond Marquis and one of the three rookies in Atlanta, the farm system is packed with possibilities. You hate to get rid of any of them, but they can't all make the Atlanta roster. Plus, we are getting ready to have a roster crunch this winter with more than 50 players scheduled to be on the 40-man roster. It might be the way must make a trade to get rid of some of our talent. If that's the position we're in, it could mean a big deal is on the horizon.
The Amateur Draft just yeilded more pitchers. While they are all years away, it supports the strenght of our organization and allows potential deals. The Braves have more pitching depth than any other organization. If you were a team in need of pitching, wouldn't you look at the Braves for help?
The depth on the farm could create deals that might just win us a championship.