The unpredictable nature of Major League Baseball never lets us down early in the season.
It was only a couple months ago that the Atlanta Braves were nearing the end of spring training and questioning a struggling offense that had seemingly carried over from the previous season.
Those offensive concerns hit a fever pitch among Braves fans during a four-game losing streak to start the season where, outside a four-run seventh inning in the series finale against the New York Mets, the Atlanta offense was able to manage just six runs through 35 innings.
Since that stretch, Atlanta has become one of the best offensive teams in MLB, ranking fourth overall in runs scored (217).
The expected strength of the team on paper heading into the season was the quality and depth of the starting pitching.
Outside of Brandon Beachy’s major league leading 1.77 ERA, that pitching has been neither quality nor deep and any value Jair Jurrjens had on the trade market this winter is all but gone.
After posting a 9.37 ERA and allowing more walks (10) than strikeouts (8) in four games in Atlanta to start the season, Jurrjens' demotion to the minor leagues appeared to be semi-productive until he allowed 11 runs in his last outing.
With all the progress Mike Minor had shown in spring training and even into early-April, he has given up 31 runs in 26.2 innings pitched during his last five starts.
He has also surrendered 11 home runs in that time, including back-to-back-to-back on Monday night versus the Cincinnati Reds.
Julio Teheran’s struggles in the spring were well documented, and although he has pitched better for Triple-A Gwinnett this season, he has not performed at the elite level his prospect status would indicate.
Still only 21 years old, it’s doubtful the Braves would promote Teheran to the big leagues until September, and even then a bullpen role is his most likely destination.
Braves general manager Frank Wren had tested the trade waters during the offseason to no avail after most of the responses included a request for one of the untradeable arms in the farm system as part of a return package.
With the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline still in the distance, Atlanta will continue to hope Minor and Jurrjens will be able to work through their issues to provide quality innings at some point.
In the meantime, what are some of the options the Braves front office could pursue at the trade deadline if those results don’t change?
Roy Oswalt literally tossed his name back into the mix of available starting pitchers when it was reported he threw bullpen sessions for the Philadelphia Phillies last week and the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers this week.
What makes Oswalt more intriguing than some of the other candidates is that he is a free agent, only costing teams cash instead of their coveted prospects.
The willingness of Atlanta to allow pitchers such as Minor and Jurrjens the time to work past their struggles will ultimately keep them from signing Oswalt.
Because he still needs to go through the spring training process to build up arm strength and stamina, he intends to sign with a team within the next couple of weeks so he can possibly be ready to contribute in the major leagues by the end of June at the latest.
At 34 years, Oswalt is also an injury risk due to the lower back inflammation that caused him to miss six weeks last season. He was 9-10 with a 3.69 ERA in 23 starts for the Phillies last season.
Pitching depth could make left-hander Joe Saunders available regardless of the Arizona Diamondbacks place in the standings.
Daniel Hudson will be rejoining Ian Kennedy and Trevor Cahill atop the rotation soon, after making his first rehab start on Monday while recovering from an impingement in his throwing shoulder.
Along with rookie Patrick Corbin, who made his MLB debut on April 30, they also have highly-touted prospects Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs on the verge of being MLB-ready.
Saunders signed a one-year deal worth $6 million for this season, making him a rental player for whoever deals for him.
Saunders actually makes sense for the Braves in a couple of areas. If Minor is unable to regain his preseason and early April form, Saunders could fill a left-handed need in the rotation.
He is also a good fit financially. A prorated portion of the $6 million salary he is owed would fit nicely into Atlanta’s salary cap restrictions.
Saunders is 2-3 this season with a 3.55 ERA and 1.30 WHIP.
Jake Peavy’s availability has a few hurdles attached to it.
He is owed $17 million this season and has a club option of $22 million for next year with a $4 million buyout.
If Atlanta were to indulge in trade talks for Peavy, they would likely need the White Sox to pick up a portion of his remaining salary.
To do that, the Braves would probably need to part with one of the prospects they deem untradeable.
He also has limited no-trade clause that includes eight teams, although that appears to be only a minor stumbling block.
When asked by Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com about being traded at midseason, Peavy responded by saying, “If that comes about, I’ll welcome that and do what I’m asked to do, but I’d love to be in Chicago.”
The most glaring concern has to be a checkered injury history that has limited him to no more than 18 starts in each of the past three seasons.
With all that said, Peavy has pitched like a top of the rotation starter through nine games. He has already thrown two complete games and is currently posting a 2.39 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and .204 average against.
Wandy Rodriguez will be intriguing to many clubs because he is a left-handed starter with swing-and-miss stuff.
Like with most trade talks the Braves will embark on this summer, the player’s contract must be taken into consideration first and foremost.
Rodriguez will be paid $10 million this season, $13 million in 2013, and has a club option for $13 million in 2014 that becomes a player option if he is traded.
Those numbers borderline on the maximum Atlanta can pay one player and still maintain their current roster structure.
If Rodriguez continues to perform at his current standard of 2.24 ERA and 1.09 WHIP, there will be a bidding war come the end of July that the Braves may not want to contend with.
With the Chicago Cubs in full rebuild mode, they would like nothing more than to flip Ryan Dempster’s hot start into young, high upside talent.
The problem is Dempster has ten and five rights that allow him to veto any trade and has shown no desire in the past to leave the Cubs organization. (Ten and five rights are when a player has 10 years of service time in the majors, the last five years with his current team.)
Dempster will earn $14 million this season and is another player that will be a rental for any club he gets dealt too.
He is 0-2 in seven starts but has posted a 2.28 ERA and has struck out 44 batters in 47.1 innings.
Matt Garza is the name most general managers will focus on, but the Cubs have expressed interest in signing Garza to a contract extension.
Braves general manager Fran Wren made it clear during the offseason that Minor, Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado were “untradeable”. Even with Minor’s struggles, there is no reason to think he has changed his mind when it comes to these four arms.
At this point, Jurrjens is on the verge of becoming a non-tender candidate which will make him a throw-in possibility during trade talks. Including Jurrjens in a deal would also give the Braves some cushion to take on salary.
If the “Big Four” remain off the trading block, Atlanta must be willing to deal some of the other pitching prospects in their system such as Sean Gilmartin, Zeke Spruill or JR Graham.
They might also consider dangling hot-hitting Evan Gattis to some American League teams.
He has a long way to go defensively. Whether that is at catcher or corner outfield, he has designated hitter written all over him.
Atlanta already has a potential future All-Star at catcher in Christian Bethancourt, which makes Gattis expendable.
With Andrelton Simmons holding his own offensively in Double-A and obviously the future at shortstop, Tyler Pastornicky could also be available as part of a package deal.
If all else fails and Atlanta is unable to work a deal for a starting pitcher, they do have an in-house candidate with Kris Medlen. He would need some time at Triple-A Gwinnett to get stretched out for starting duties.
The Braves would then need to find a bullpen replacement by way of trade or by possibly promoting Teheran as a reliever after the All-Star break.
Atlanta has arguably the most talented 25-man roster in the National League and has all the answers to fix their current pitching problems either on the major league club or in the minors.
The development of Minor and Jurrjens will be the key to how the Braves will choose to attack the trade deadline in late-July.