Late July and early December are the two times of the year baseball fans stayed glued to their computers, hitting their refresh buttons every sixty seconds. Maybe a trade is near, they hope. But for Atlanta Braves' fans, you can throw late March in there as well.
Braves' General Manager John Schuerholz has engineered four late March trades in three of the last four springs. In 2002, he dealt catcher Paul Bako and reliever Jose Cabrera for catcher Henry Blanco. Two years ago, with his bullpen ailing, he made two trades on consecutive days, dealing for Juan Cruz and Chris Reitsma. And then last spring, only hours before the Braves were pulling out for Atlanta, he dealt infielder Nick Green for reliever Jorge Sosa.
And now, this spring, the rumors are rampant again. Considering the roster situation, there is little doubt a deal will be completed this week before the season starts on April 3rd.
Okay, so the "situation" is quite clear: the Braves have too many starting pitchers. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson are the two aces. There's little question about those two. Horacio Ramirez is the only left-hander, so that gives him some security. And then it gets complicated.
On one hand you have a 32-year-old right-hander named John Thomson. He's the perfect third starter, a fourteen game winner two years ago. But he missed half of last season with a finger injury, and except for his impressive audition last week in front of fifteen scouts, his spring has been shaky.
Then you have a soon-to-be 28-year old right-hander named Jorge Sosa. He had his best season as a pro last year, going 13-3 after being placed in the rotation in June. He's missed most of the spring participating in the World Baseball Classic, but there are no concerns about the rubber-armed Sosa being ready to pitch come Opening Day. The only wonder is whether or not he can go 13-3 again this season.
And finally, you have a 22-year-old right-hander named Kyle Davies. Even though he started fourteen games for the Braves last season, he was forced to come into camp and win a spot in the Atlanta rotation. Being the kid, he was against the eight ball. But all he's done is post a 0.64 ERA in his four spring starts, convincing almost everyone he deserves one of the five spots.
Therein lies the "situation." Go figure - the Atlanta Braves have too much pitching. But just because they have too much does not mean there are not questions.
Irregardless of anything going on in the bullpen, this rotation "situation" has got to shake out somehow. The easy thing to do, you would think, would be to place one of those last three starters in the bullpen. But that can be easier said than done. First off, Sosa, the natural fit for that move considering his history, doesn't want to go back there. And secondly, Thomson and Davies are starters - pure and simple.
Okay, wait, there's another option. Davies could be sent down to Triple-A Richmond until there is room for him. Well, that's just not happening. That kid has done everything in his power to prove that he is truly ready for the big leagues - just in case anyone else had any question.
If Sosa won't go to the bullpen, and since Davies doesn't need to be in Richmond, the obvious solution to the rotation situation is a trade. We could sit and argue about whom to trade of the three until June, but the Braves have obviously decided Thomson is the man to be shopped around.
It makes sense, really. Thomson's got tremendous value. Yeah, Davies is the one everyone wants, but why would the Braves do that? Thomson's in the last year of a deal that will pay him $4.75 million this season, very affordable for almost any team in the game. And Thomson is good enough to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter for almost any team in the game.
While Thomson is a tradable commodity, it's also imperative that the Braves get equal value in return. Yeah, they need to make room in their rotation for Davies, but not at the expense of giving Thomson away. Teams will try to take advantage of Atlanta's rotation situation, but there's no way Schuerholz will allow that to happen.
But there are several things that make this a very tricky situation.
On the surface, it's easy to say that the Braves could spin Thomson for bullpen help. However, there are several things to consider when looking at the one area Schuerholz seems to be always fixing.
It's safe to say that four of the seven bullpen spots are nailed down right now. Chris Reitsma will be the closer, with Joey Devine, Oscar Villarreal, and Lance Cormier setting him up. With Blaine Boyer's performance on Sunday in Vero Beach, it's looking more and more like he could be ready for Opening Day.
So that's five of the seven. Then you look at the lefties. Macay McBride's blood buildup in his left wrist is clearing up, and he hopes to throw a bullpen early this week. While he might not be ready for Opening Day, it's very probable that he could be ready as soon as the home opener on April 10th.
The Braves do not believe McBride's going to be out long, so it's difficult to think about him not being one of the seven relievers. Chuck James will probably be his temporary replacement, and then go back to start in Triple-A Richmond. As of now, Mike Remlinger's the second lefty, but we all know his spot is not in cement.
If Thomson were traded, a lefty might be the favored target. There is no guarantee John Foster is going to return this season, despite the front office's hope he could be ready to start throwing in another week or so. And again, Remlinger's not blown anyone away this month, even though he's looked much better in his last three appearances.
Of course, trading Thomson wouldn't necessarily mean you have to acquire a reliever. It's possible the Braves could be interested in getting another bat. But is that really needed? Okay, Craig Wilson, the right-handed hitter rumored to be on the block from the Pirates, is enticing. But with Matt Diaz batting .365 and James Jurries batting .444 this spring, is that really necessary?
Diaz, and remember it's DIE-AZ, has proven he can be a perfect compliment to Ryan Langerhans in left field. The questions about his defense have been more than answered. And Jurries has gone above and beyond the call of duty to prove he's qualified to be Adam LaRoche's backup at first base. I don't know about you, but I want those two on our roster. They're good, and I think they can help us this season.
The Thomson-for-Wilson and Salomon Torres rumor that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette Sunday morning makes sense. Thomson is the one the Braves obviously want to deal, and the Pirates could use a decent middle-of-the-rotation starter to compliment their young starters. Torres would be a perfect addition to the Braves' bullpen, even though he's not a lefty. He's a solid reliever, and there's no doubt the depth would improve with his addition.
Even though I'd prefer to keep Diaz and Jurries, acquiring Wilson would be fair value for Thomson. If the Braves were to get only Torres for Thomson, that would not be equal value. But if the Braves threw in a minor leaguer, maybe the son of their former catcher Tony Pena, that deal might get done.
Tony Pena, Jr. suspiciously played third base Sunday in Vero Beach. No, he didn't just play there, he started and played the entire game at third base. Pena is a shortstop, and even though the excuse could be that Chipper Jones didn't want to make the trip, which is highly probable, couldn't they have played Wilson Betemit, the clear backup third baseman, at third and have Pena is his natural position at shortstop?
Yeah, that looks like Pena was being showcased. And it makes sense. Pena's dad, the former Royals' Manager and current Yankees' first base coach, was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. So acquiring his son, who is good enough to be a reserve major leaguer right now on the right team, would be perfect. And while Pena has talent, he's been passed on the prospect chart by Yunel Escobar and Elvis Andrus, two players the Braves believe will be major league stars in a few years.
Right now, Escobar is slated for Double-A Mississippi. He's played well enough in spring training to show he can bypass Myrtle Beach and play in the Southern League. But the Braves were prepared to return Luis Hernandez, an excellent defender, to AA as well. So with Bobby Cox falling in love with second baseman Martin Prado this spring, and believing that Prado could be a future reserve infielder with the big league club, the plan is to rotate all three at second, short, and third.
It's very possible, however, that Hernandez could prove he's ready for Triple-A early in the season, enabling Escobar to play everyday at short in AA. That would allow the Braves to have a short-term fix at shortstop in Richmond (maybe Josh Arteaga?) and place Pena in a deal with Pittsburgh.
The options are endless. And as scattered as this article may seem, just imagine the different options the front office is going through in their meetings:
Option 1: Smoltz, Hudson, Thomson, Sosa, Ramirez - Davies to AAA
Option 2: Smoltz, Hudson, Thomson, Sosa, Ramirez - Davies to the bullpen
Option 3: Smoltz, Hudson, Sosa, Ramirez, Davies - Thomson traded
Option 4: Smoltz, Hudson, Thomson, Ramirez, Davies - Sosa to the bullpen
Option 1: Reitsma, Devine, Villarreal, Cormier, Boyer, Remlinger, James - McBride back April 10th
Option 2: Reitsma, Devine, Villarreal, Cormier, Remlinger, James, ACQUISITION - McBride and Boyer back April 10th
Option 3: Reitsma, Devine, Villarreal, Cormier, Boyer, McBride, Remlinger
Option 4: Reitsma, Devine, Villarreal, Cormier, Boyer, McBride, James
Option 5: Reitsma, Devine, Villarreal, Cormier, Boyer, McBride, ACQUISITION
Option 1: Pratt, Jurries, Orr, Betemit, Diaz
Option 2: Pratt, Jordan, Orr, Betemit, Diaz - Jurries in AAA
Option 3: Pratt, Wilson, Orr, Betemit, Jordan - Jurries in AAA
Option 4: Pratt, Wilson, Orr, Betemit, Diaz - Jurries in AAA
Option 5: Pratt, Jurries, Orr, Betemit, Wilson - Diaz in AAA
Option 6: Pratt, Jurries, Orr, Betemit, Jordan - Diaz in AAA
The options are plentiful, and while we love to play pocket GM everyday, even I'm not sure I'd want to tackle these decisions.
It's going to be an interesting week.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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