Atlanta Braves 2012: 5 Moves That Must Be Considered to Contend in Tough NL East
It's Chipper's final go-around.
After two decades of a first-ballot Hall of Fame career, Chipper has but one last shot at a second World Series ring. Before the season began, things looked promising for Atlanta going deep into October. Jason Heyward was finally healthy, the starting rotation looked strong and statistics suggested that Dan Uggla wasn't going to have a historically awful first half of the season again.
Since then, a myriad of season-shaping events have occurred. Heyward has recently found the magic of his rookie season, Michael Bourn and Martin Prado have been stellar and Andrelton Simmons has given Atlanta reason for hope at the shortstop position. But Brian McCann has been slumping, Mike Minor has been terrible, Freddie Freeman has taken a step back and, most importantly, Brandon Beachy's season ended early with a torn UCL.
My guess is that McCann and Freeman eventually break out of their funks, but moves must be considered (if not made) for Atlanta to give Chipper a fighting chance at a World Series sendoff.
Extend Michael Bourn
Not since the days of Rafael Furcal has Atlanta had a decent leadoff hitter. Michael Bourn not only provides a .355 OBP and plenty of speed to burn at the top spot in the order but also top-shelf defense in center field.
There's one problem, though: He's a free agent at the end of the season. And his agent is Scott Boras.
With Atlanta in the midst of a pennant run, the last thing Bourn needs to be thinking about is where he's going to play next season, and the last thing Atlanta needs to worry about is who they will replace Michael Bourn with.
Once he is extended, Bourn can just worry about winning baseball games and will undoubtedly continue to play tremendously without the pressure of an expiring contract.
Get Todd Cunningham Major League Experience
I understand, however, that Scott Boras may not want Michael Bourn to sign an extension during the season. And with the way Bourn is playing, Boras may talk Bourn into asking for Carl Crawford money.
If this happens, a mid-market franchise such as Atlanta probably would not be able to afford Bourn for a long-term contract that covers some of his declining years. The problem here is that the center field options in the 2013 free-agent market do not necessarily fit in Atlanta. Shane Victorino will probably re-sign with Philadelphia, Curtis Granderson will undoubtedly re-sign with New York, Melky Cabrera will be overpriced following a career year and B.J. Upton, while immensely talented, owns a .315 OBP.
If Michael Bourn decides to follow the money, Atlanta's top in-house option becomes Todd Cunningham, currently hitting .317 with a .360 OBP at Double-A Mississippi. Shortstop Nick Ahmed and outfielders Matt Lipka and Mycal Jones may one day battle for the center field job, but Cunningham is up and away the closest to being Major League ready.
He has experience, speed and versatility (the ability to play all three outfield positions) in addition to his on-base skills, and he would actually be able to help Atlanta right now.
With Chipper going on and off the DL, and Martin Prado shifting in to play third base, Matt Diaz is left to play left field for the Braves, but he is not hitting particularly well. A September call-up of Todd Cunningham improves the club with his speed, defense and on-base ability, and it will do wonders to insure Atlanta in case Michael Bourn leaves this winter.
Replace Mike Minor with Sean Gilmartin
Mike Minor is not pitching well. By my standards, he has only had three good starts this year (4/14 vs. Milwaukee: 7.1 IP, 0 ER, 1 BB, 4/19 at Arizona: 8.0 IP, 1 ER, 0 BB, 9 K, 6/12 vs. New York (AL): 7.1 IP, 1 ER, 1 BB, courtesy of Fangraphs).
I'm not suggesting Mike Minor be given up on. In fact, I'm willing to give him another two months to turn it around. Some metrics propose that he's been unlucky; let's give him a little more time to iron out his problems.
If he doesn't improve, however, another lefty sits at Double-A Mississippi, waiting his turn for a crack at the rotation. Sean Gilmartin throws more strikes than Minor, has a brilliant changeup and works very well against righties, something atypical for left-handed pitchers.
A southpaw is always a good thing to have in a rotation, giving variety to the starting pitchers, so I would rather have Gilmartin in the staff than, say, Randall Delgado in the playoffs if it came down to it.
I'm not giving up on Minor yet, but if he doesn't turn his season around, Gilmartin is ready to make the leap.
Call Up Julio Teheran
This move is going to be on every Atlanta Braves to-do list. Unfortunately, Julio Teheran hasn't exactly been blowing Triple-A hitters away this season, and his spot starts in The Show these past two seasons have been subpar. He needs more seasoning at Triple-A before he's ready to be inserted into the starting rotation.
Maybe he'll be ready to start every fifth day by the beginning of next year. He's going to have to prove it at Triple-A the rest of the season. That said, I believe that Teheran should be called up when rosters expand in September and stay on the roster when Atlanta goes into October.
But not as a starter.
That's right; once he's figured some things out at Triple-A, the best place to put him is in the pen. "But he's too talented to pitch in the pen," you say. Of course! That's why he should pitch in relief down the stretch. He'll be able to crank his fastball up, a la Neftali Feliz, and elevate an already-solid bullpen.
A harder fastball paired with a stellar changeup and an improved curveball would be invaluable in October. Besides, he doesn't have a good enough major league track record to start in the playoffs. Leave that to the veterans.
Trade for Ryan Dempster
Dempster. Not Garza. Dempster.
While the other teams are negotiating with Chicago for Matt Garza, a pitcher in his prime who, when on, can dominate a game, Atlanta should swoop in and gather up Ryan Dempster.
Dempster will almost certainly wear something other than "Chicago" embroidered on his chest come next spring, so Chicago should be looking to get anything they can for him.
And that's the beauty of it.
Atlanta will not have to give up much for Dempster; a low or mid-level prospect should do. In return, the Braves would get a grizzled veteran at the top of his game, eager to pitch under the bright lights of October.
If Dempster doesn't get re-signed, not much would be lost, but half a season and a shot at a World Series would have been gained. If he does get re-signed, he would be in a rotation with Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy (upon his return) and a combination of Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor, Jair Jurrjens and Randall Delgado.
Atlanta truly has an abundance of arms, but for October, the Braves really need a top-of-the-line starter. Dempster fits that bill. With him, the four-man playoff rotation would most likely be:
Hudson, Dempster, Hanson and one of Jurrjens, Minor or Gilmartin.
That's a rotation strong enough to give Chipper hope of one final ring.