In the near future, the question’s going to come: Are the 2009 Atlanta Braves buyers or sellers?
That is, are they good enough to justify paying for rental talent, or are they bad enough to start trading off every expiring contract that isn’t nailed to Frank Wren’s desk?
A little past the quarter mark of the season, the answer isn’t clear yet. The Braves are 23-23, and sit three-games back of the front-running New York Mets. The pitching is solid, the power hitting is absent (the Braves rank near the bottom of the league in home runs and slugging percentage, and dead last in those categories among big league outfields).
There was a time, before Mark Teixeira, the question didn’t need to be asked. For 15 years, the Braves always seemed to be one move away from greatness.
There was also a time, before Alejandro Peña, when fans were just happy if there was a reason to ask. Peña swooped in midway through 1991 and saved 11 games in 15 appearances to help the Braves complete their worst-to-first miracle season.
But 18 years later, Alejandro Peña isn’t walking through that clubhouse door. Neither are Fred McGriff and Andres Galarraga, for that matter. The pool of players believed to be available through trade isn’t a deep one this year.
ESPN’s Buster Olney reported this week that the Braves "haven’t gotten fully engaged yet" in an attempt to upgrade the outfield. Other reports say the team is in the market and shopping hard.
The majority of fans are pulling for the latter, but I hope Olney’s right.
Unlike the glory days when a big bat or a closer was all the team needed to maintain dominance in the NL East, this year’s weaknesses require more than a quick fix — one that could require selling big chunks of the farm.
Jeff Francoeur is 40 points off the league average in on base percentage and his slugging percentage is worse. Garrett Anderson is just as bad in both categories and hasn’t hit a home run in more than 100 plate appearances this year. Jordan Schafer leads the league in strikeouts.
Even if they were willing to pay the tab required to pick up Matt Holliday for a few months, this isn’t the Braves’ year. That’s the bad news.
The good news is help is on the way, and they won’t have to give up a thing to get it. The Braves have five prospects on Baseball America’s top 100 list, including two in the top five (Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward). And that list doesn’t include Elvis Andrus or Neftali Feliz, because the Braves traded them (and more) to the Rangers for Teixeira when they were in a similar position two years ago. Tex didn’t help then, and last season he was dealt for Casey Kotchman and the yet-to-be-seen-in-Atlanta Steve Marek – hardly worth the four current starters the Braves sent to Texas the year before.
Even so, the Atlanta farm system is rated as one of the richest in baseball, which is why general managers around the league are eager to send a slugger Atlanta’s way. But the organization can’t survive another fleecing like the Rangers dealt it in 2007.
It won’t be this year, and maybe not next, but Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Cody Johnson are on the way. All three have the potential to be big league All-Stars (as long as Johnson cuts down on the Ks). If Wren can wrangle a deal for a legit bat without giving up any of those coveted pieces or a few others (Hanson, Jeff Locke, Cole Rohrbaugh, Gorkys Hernandez, etc.), then a deal might be worth the short-term payoff.
I just don’t think that’s likely to happen. Too many bidders, too few batters. Barring a major shake-up in the standings, it looks like a seller’s market in 2009.
That’s why for the long-term good of the franchise, patience is more important than right-handed pop.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. His column appears every Friday. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.