The Atlanta Braves currently find themselves staring up at the first-place, smooth-throwing Washington Nationals in the NL East. As of the start of games Wednesday, the Nats had allowed the fewest runs in the National League thanks to a stellar staff and good bullpen.
If that wasn't enough, in a bit of a surprise twist, the Miami Marlins, New York Mets and even Philadelphia Phillies are all hanging around in the East division, with no one more than 5.5 games out of first place. It is the tightest division race in all of baseball.
The bad news for Atlanta is the Braves are not playing well and have some serious holes to fill on this roster.
One of those chasm-sized holes was addressed through the farm. Atlanta recently promoted Tommy La Stella to play second base full time, and he's done well with the promotion. However, the team as a unit still ranks terribly in most offensive categories heading toward July.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Atlanta was 29th in the majors in runs scored, 25th in batting average and 25th in OPS, not to mention ranking 26th in offensive strikeouts.
One of the reasons for the sluggish start on offense had been the hot corner. Third baseman Chris Johnson, after a stellar 2013, got off to just a putrid start in 2014. Luckily for the Braves (and for himself), he has picked it up in June. That should not preclude Atlanta from looking for some infield depth, though.
2013 was a career year for Johnson. He was bound to regress a little bit this season, even if his first two months were a worst-case scenario. Combined with the fact that La Stella is an unproven rookie with little speed and less pop, the Braves would be wise to search out a player capable of playing multiple infield positions, who can also swing the lumber.
Prado can play third and second, as well as the outfield. He is a career .291 hitter and put together a number of good seasons in a Braves uniform a few years back. The other factors that make this possibility intriguing are that Arizona is fumbling around in last place in the NL right now, which makes dealing a veteran like Prado very realistic. And Prado's contract is a bit high, as he's owed $10 million a year through 2016.
The combination of Arizona's place in the standings with Prado's deal means the Diamondbacks will not be looking for much in return for the utility man. Atlanta will not have to give up any top-flight prospects to bring Prado back to A-Town.
A small move like bringing in a good bench bat is all Atlanta can really aim for with its lineup's current construction. Everyone hopes Jason Heyward continues his current good hitting. The truth is, other than maybe B.J. Upton being replaceable (which is why Prado's outfield eligibility helps even more), the Braves have a set team with some players who just aren't going to be big on-base guys...ever.
Andrelton Simmons isn't going anywhere. He's also a mediocre hitter who never walks. Evan Gattis isn't going anywhere. He's a superb hitting catcher who still struggles to get on base and limit his strikeouts. Heyward has an almost identical on-base percentage to Gattis (.341 to .342) even though the former is batting 32 points lower than the latter!
A complete roster overhaul may be in store for this team somewhere down the line. For 2014, though, adding a versatile piece like Prado could be enough to get the offense back in gear.
On the pitching side of things, with Alex Wood sliding back into the rotation to replace the injured Gavin Floyd, Atlanta's shallow area now becomes the bullpen.
Luis Avilan and David Carpenter have not been very good. Craig Kimbrel even leads the relievers in walks. If this team was going to do anything to improve the pitching, adding a reliable bullpen arm is the way to go.
Luckily for the Braves, finding a reliever near the trade deadline is often the cheapest and easiest position to fill. Everyone out of contention has arms that are either being paid too much or are not a long-term part of their plans. Some, like Glen Perkins, will cost more than others.
A good team to look at is the San Diego Padres. The Padres are awful everywhere except the bullpen, where they excel. Closer Huston Street has been amazing, but so has Joaquin Benoit, Dale Thayer, Alex Torres and others.
Grabbing just one of these arms who, let's be honest, San Diego isn't really going to need the second half of this season, would be a huge boon for the Braves. A middle reliever should also not cost much in the way of prospects. Throwing the Padres a lower-level starting pitching prospect could be enough to bring stability to the Braves pen and bring them back on track to win the NL East.
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