Braves eyeing starters, relievers before Deadline

July 26th, 2019

ATLANTA -- With the Trade Deadline now just five days away, the Braves are continuing to evaluate various ways to make upgrades, including those that would require parting ways with at least one of their elite prospects.

Open to the possibility of dealing closer Edwin Diaz and starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard, the Mets sent top scouts to see Triple-A Gwinnett’s Kyle Wright (the No. 23 ranked prospect in MLB Pipeline’s top 100) and Double-A Mississippi’s Ian Anderson (MLB Pipeline No. 24) make their respective starts Thursday night.

The Braves will only include Wright, Anderson and either of their prized outfield prospects -- Cristian Pache (MLB Pipeline No. 12) and Drew Waters (MLB Pipeline No. 42) -- in a deal that would include a return of a controllable premium asset, which would be limited to front-line starting pitchers, closers or middle-of-the-order bats.

Diaz and Syndergaard fall into this category. So too would Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez, who could be controlled through the 2023 season (he is on a four-year/$22 million contract through ‘21, with team options in ‘22 and ‘23). But as is the case with the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, it currently seems doubtful Vazquez will be traded.

The Braves will make every attempt to add at least one reliever before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. ET Trade Deadline, and their pursuit of a starting pitcher will be influenced by how Max Fried and Kevin Gausman fare during this weekend’s key series against the Phillies.

Fried will make his first start since developing another blister during his July 15 start and Gausman will attempt to prove the seven strong innings he produced against the Nationals Sunday were not a fluke. Gausman’s successful return to the Majors last week slightly lessened the need to upgrade the rotation.

That said, when asked which area the Braves should prioritize, an American League scout said, “Their current bullpen is only as good as their starting rotation.”

Multiple scouts still believe familiarity may lead Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos to make a deal with the Blue Jays for Marcus Stroman, a 28-year-old right-hander who developed and debuted while Anthopoulos was Toronto’s GM. Stroman has posted a 2.96 ERA through 21 starts this year.

Upgrading the closer’s role would provide ninth-inning confidence current Braves closer Luke Jackson does not currently create. It would also move A.J. Minter and other relievers into more appropriate roles.

So there’s certainly a need for a proven late-inning asset like the Blue Jays’ Ken Giles, the Tigers’ Shane Greene or Diaz, who drew significant interest from the Braves before the Mets took Robinson’s Cano’s salary off the Mariners payroll this past winter in exchange for the closer.

Diaz, who will become arbitration eligible for next season, has been somewhat of a disappointment as he has posted a 4.81 ERA while converting 22 of 26 save opportunities this year. The 25-year-old reliever has worked five scoreless innings since the All-Star break and his 3.50 Fielding Independent Pitching mark indicates he’s encountered some misfortune (although it remains much higher than the stellar 1.61 FIP he posted last season in Seattle.)

Through 20 starts, Syndergaard has posted a 4.33 ERA and a 3.64 FIP, indicating he too has been adversely affected by the Mets’ defense. The 26-year-old veteran is making $6 million this year and can be controlled as an arb-eligible player through the end of the 2021 season. He has pitched like an ace in the postseason, but there are concerns about his ability to remain healthy.

Health will also be a primary variable as the Braves and other teams watch Zack Wheeler return from the injured list to start against the Pirates Friday night. There have also been recent reports the Mets are interested in signing Wheeler to an extension.

The Braves have also had recent contact with the Rangers, who could be willing to part ways with Mike Minor, who before last year was the most recent Atlanta starting pitcher to win a postseason game (Game 2 of the 2013 National League Division Series vs. Zach Greinke and the Dodgers). The 31-year-old pitcher will make approximately $9.8 million in 2020 and then be eligible for free agency.

Minor’s ERA has jumped to 3.00 as he allowed at least four earned runs in each of his first three starts of the second half. The All-Star hurler’s 4.19 FIP indicates he might be in line for further regression. This would be the greatest difference he’s ever had between his ERA and FIP. The most significant thus far was 2011, when he had a 4.14 ERA and a 3.39 FIP.

It does not appear the Braves have yet had a serious dialogue with the Tigers, who could be willing to deal Greene, top young starter Matthew Boyd or outfielder Nicholas Castellanos. With utility player Austin Riley fading over the past few weeks, there’s now more of a need for Atlanta to evaluate the possibility of adding a right-handed bat like Castellanos or the Reds’ Yasiel Puig, who would be the better option from a defensive perspective.