Atlanta Braves Focus on Pitching as Trade Deadline Nears

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Atlanta Braves Focus on Pitching as Trade Deadline Nears
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Brandon Beachy is nearing his return from Tommy John surgery.

One week remains before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but deals are already beginning to go down and the dominoes are starting to fall.

This article was originally designed to be a declaration of one trade the Atlanta Braves must make in order to strengthen the club, or at the very least solidify it.

After doing the research, reading the rumors and having already written a number of pieces that have highlighted some possible trade targets for the Braves, a few things became apparent.

For better or for worse, Atlanta has cast its proverbial lot with the current offense and is unlikely to make a run at a position player for the starting nine. Fredi Gonzalez will no doubt continue to shuffle the deck on the lineup card as needed.

Could the Braves acquire a bench piece or role player?

Sure.

General manager Frank Wren will scour the market and see if there is an available infielder who can help take away the sting of losing Ramiro Pena to season-ending shoulder surgery last month.

Putting injury and individual streakiness aside, Atlanta’s focus and money would be better spent in the pursuit of the one element that has become almost universally agreed upon as the key to postseason success.

Pitching.

Before we get to potential trades, there are other decisions to be made on the Atlanta staff.

The Braves are currently developing a pair of in-house options to bolster their starting rotation, a group which has performed admirably for the most part, despite the lack of a clear number one starter.

The first and perhaps most impactful way to strengthen the rotation is the impending return of Brandon Beachy from Tommy John surgery.

It could have the same effect as making a deadline deal to acquire a front-line starting pitcher.

Beachy, 26, was leading the majors with a 2.00 ERA in 13 starts before tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow during a June 16, 2012 start against the Baltimore Orioles.

Since that time, the Atlanta staff has been without an arm that clearly possesses the prototypical “ace-type” stuff.

Beachy has struck out 252 batters in 237.2 IP over 41 starts in his career, turning in more than respectable averages of 9.5 K/9 IP and a 3.07 K/BB. For comparison sake, those rates are better than the career numbers of San Francisco Giants ace Matt Cain.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Alex Wood was a 2nd round pick in the 2012 June draft.

In order to further strengthen the group, top prospect Alex Wood was removed from the big league bullpen and sent to Triple-A Gwinnett in order to stretch back out as a starting pitcher.

After having his mettle tested as a reliever, Wood’s return to the starting role and eventual return to Atlanta could signal the beginning of a productive run for the talented young left-hander.

Wood, 22, will make his second major league start on Thursday against the Mets as he replaces the injured Paul Maholm, who was placed on the 15-day DL earlier this week with a left wrist contusion.

Whether or not Beachy would take in the next turn in the rotation in Maholm’s absence has not been revealed.

Another decision regarding the rotation could bring Atlanta’s trade deadline strategy into focus.

Elsa/Getty Images
Kris Medlen was 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA in 12 starts in 2012.

Righty Kris Medlen has been struggling to recapture his 2012 form. With chronically low run support also taking its toll on his record, Medlen has yet to find a prolonged stretch of comfort and success.

The return of Beachy and the emergence of Wood could lead to Medlen’s return to the bullpen.

If that happens, then the Braves will have requisitioned a relief arm that could negate the need to look for multiple relievers on the trade market.

Medlen, 27, is just 6-10 with a 3.78 ERA in 2013. He has seen his walk rate jump and strikeout rate fall from season ago as well. An unfortunate trend that has risen is the number of home runs surrendered by Medlen this season as opposed to 2012.

Over the course of his career, Medlen has a 2.92 ERA and averaged 7.8 K/9 IP in 90 relief appearances.

If Atlanta must make a trade, it should be for a left-handed reliever to compliment Luis Avilan.

As they did in 2012, it appears that the Chicago Cubs may hold one of the more desirable arms for the Braves at the trade deadline, according to Mark Bowman of MLB.com.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
James Russell has lowered his ERA in each of his four big league seasons.

James Russell, 27, is enjoying his best season to date and is under team control until 2015. He has turned in a 2.70 ERA in 49 appearances (36.2 IP) while holding left-handed hitters to a .182/.229/.273 line in 2013.

The catch is that Russell’s effectiveness pretty much stops there. Righty bats have lit him up for a .328/.409/.552 slash line this season. Still, in the proper role, Russell could be an asset.

Also out of the NL Central, left-hander Mike Gonzalez of the Milwaukee Brewers could be a trade target. He is a former Brave who has been with four clubs since departing Atlanta as a free agent after the 2009 season.

Gonzalez, 35, has limited lefty bats to a .247/.313/.370 line in 83 plate appearances this season and .213/.282/.332 over the course of his career.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Jake Peavy is a three-time All-Star.

According to Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune, the Braves are also evaluating a pair of White Sox right-handers in starter Jake Peavy and reliever Jesse Crain.

Peavy, 32, is fresh off the DL and started against Atlanta on July 20. The Braves attempted to trade for Peavy before, only to see the San Diego Padres deal the former NL Cy Young Award winner to the White Sox in 2009.

With the Cubs having traded starter Matt Garza to the Texas Rangers, Peavy is likely to be near the top of the wish lists for other contending clubs.

The high demand, Peavy’s potential $29.5 million price tag over the next two seasons and Atlanta’s current in-house starting options all lead me to believe that Wren would only be interested under the right circumstances.

Crain, 31, has already been highlighted in my seemingly endless series of bullpen trade options. He remains sidelined with a sprained right shoulder, but could be activated over the weekend.

He was named to the AL All-Star team after turning in a 0.74 ERA in 38 appearances in the first half. Crain has struck out 46 batters against just 11 walks in 36.2 IP this season.

The rumblings on other arms are sure to pick up steam or fall by the wayside over the next week, but the Braves are aiming to have their pitching plans mapped out before the deadline passes.

Grant McAuley covers baseball for Sports Radio 92.9 The Game in Atlanta. All statistical and salary information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. You can follow Grant on Twitter.

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