ATLANTA -- With all due respect to the 2010 club that made Bobby Cox’s final season quite memorable, this year marks the first time since '03 that the Braves might feel legitimate disappointment with anything short of a World Series title.
Ronald Acuna Jr.’s return to the leadoff spot, Austin Riley’s arrival and Freddie Freeman’s construction of yet another MVP-caliber season has helped the Braves produce the National League’s best record (MLB’s second best) dating back to May 10. The six-game lead they own in the NL East is their largest division advantage through 91 games since 2003, when they captured the 12th of their record 14 consecutive division titles.
Though the Nationals are charging with a more than formidable starting rotation and the Phillies could turn things around, there’s certainly reason to argue the Braves are strong enough to win a second straight division crown.
Current status: Buyer
The Braves need to stay healthy and productive over the regular season’s final 2 1/2 months. But their ultimate destiny will be most significantly influenced over the next three weeks as general manager Alex Anthopoulos attempts to acquire the pitcher or pitchers capable of helping Atlanta reach the World Series for the first time since 1999.
What they are seeking
Dating back to May 28, the Nationals have gone a MLB-best 25-10 while producing the NL’s second-best starting pitching ERA (3.22). The Braves have produced MLB’s third-best record (24-13) despite posting a NL-worst 5.61 starters’ ERA within this span.
The June 7 signing of Dallas Keuchel was a must for the Braves, who can consider Mike Foltynewicz nothing more than a wild card right now. A healthy and confident Foltynewicz would certainly be capable of being a solid No. 3 starter. But as things stand, Mike Soroka and Keuchel are the only attractive options to make a postseason start.
In other words, the club is back where it was in the days of "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain."
Acquiring a front-line starter would significantly increase the Braves’ odds of winning a postseason series for the first time since 2001. It would also provide some insurance as Soroka and Max Fried might need some rest down the stretch.
The pursuit of a starter is the priority. But the Braves could benefit from adding a proven late-inning piece to their much-improved bullpen. Sean Newcomb has found comfort in a relief role and A.J. Minter has recently shown some encouraging signs. The hope is Anthony Swarzak will be healthy down the stretch. But to assume so would be a gamble, given the fact this is the second right shoulder ailment he has battled this year.
What they have to offer
Most contenders will once again be looking to upgrade their rotation and bullpen. But few organizations can match the pipeline possessed by the Braves, who have five players within MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects. Three of those five are pitchers -- Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson and Bryse Wilson -- and the other two -- Cristian Pache and Drew Waters -- are ranked among the game’s top 10 outfield prospects.
Look for Atlanta to attempt to keep both Pache and Waters, who could soon team with Acuna as the Braves’ outfield of the future. This would set them up to deal from their area of strength, which is pitching depth. It would hurt to part ways with Wright or Anderson, but the recent strides made by Huascar Ynoa and Patrick Weigel at the Triple-A level have enhanced the club’s MLB-ready rotation depth.
Current internal options for the 2020 Braves rotation include Soroka, Fried, Foltynewicz, Wright, Anderson, Gausman, Wilson, Ynoa and Weigel. Julio Teheran could return at a cost of $12 million, but it seems much more likely the club would attempt to re-sign Keuchel, whose appreciation for his new environment is strengthened by the presence of Brian McCann.
Even if Gausman or Foltynewicz were to be non-tendered this winter, Atlanta would still have a healthy base from which to build a rotation for 2020 and beyond.
To win the bidding for Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler or possibly Trevor Bauer, the Braves will need to dip into their wealth of pitching prospects.
Bumgarner might not be the beast that he once was, but interested clubs know he has the potential once again be a monster over four or five October starts. Acquiring both Bumgarner and closer Will Smith from the Giants would come at a steep price that would definitely include Waters or Pache.
San Francisco needs to fortify its Minor League system with pitching prospects and young high-upside outfielders. In other words, Adam Duvall and Ender Inciarte would be nothing but an add-on in any potential deal.
The cost to get Bumgarner from the Giants will be a painful one. But the consequence of not acquiring him or another front-line starter could result in the reintroduction to the October agony that might be felt during a postseason matchup against the rotations possessed by the Dodgers or Nationals.