July 28, 2008.
That will be the date Braves' General Manager Frank Wren will have to make the decisions on his team. His team will be coming off a six-game road trip to Florida and Philadelphia. That will be nine games after the All-Star Break, and three days before the trading deadline.
Entering today's game with Seattle, the Braves were three games under .500, six games out of first place, and seven and a half out in the wildcard. If they are in the same situation, or worse, on July 28th, it might not be such an easy decision. Does Wren roll the dice and try to improve the team for a run for the playoffs? Or does he admit this is not the year for this team and pulls the trigger on some deals for the future?
It's just not an easy call. The Colorado Rockies showed us all last year what can happen when you get hot at the right time. On September 1, 2007 the Rockies were six games out of the wildcard race. But they went nuts and won the wildcard and went all the way to the World Series. Now that doesn't necessarily mean the Braves could do the same thing, but it does show it can be done.
Most of us are all frustrated with the way things have gone since June 1st. The Braves are 7-11, and included in those games were some ugly losses. The one run games are still an issue. The road record (11-27) is still bad. The injuries continue. So we are all a bit perplexed at what has happened and what will happen.
It's still mid-June. Summer just started yesterday. Giving up now is a bit silly. Yes, we all have our doubts about this team. But forget about last year's Rockies' team for a second. We have seen this Braves' franchise have teams that got hot in the second half. We've seen several clubs that looked so-so in the first half, only to bounce back and play all the way in October. So we've got to remember that it is still early.
There's still a chance Mike Hampton, yes that Mike Hampton, can come back and contribute. There's a chance Tom Glavine will be back. There's still a chance Rafael Soriano could come back and contribute. There's still a chance Matt Diaz and Mark Kotsay return and get the lineup back in order. There's still a chance Jeff Francoeur can snap out of his first-half funk. And there's still a chance Mark Teixeira can have a strong second half.
If just some of those things happen, who knows how good this team might be in the second half of the season. And the second half, at least in terms of number of games, officially starts next Saturday in Toronto.
Let's just hope the Braves are not in that in-between area. Let's hope they either wet the bed and are completely out of it and there's no hope for August or September, or they play good ball and we know, without a shadow of a doubt, they have a chance to make the playoffs.
But let's say the morning of July 28th Frank Wren wakes up and the Braves are 50-54. Let's say they've gone 2-4 on the six-game road trip to Florida and Philadelphia. They are six games behind the Phillies and seven games out in the wildcard. Then what does Frank Wren do?
He has to make an educated guess. But to give up, even in late July, is not an easy thing to do. You have to think about getting people through the turnstiles for the final two months of the season. And yes, unfortunately, that is a consideration. Will waving the white flag turn people away? Or will a young nucleus perhaps energize a fan base that is hungry for this team to return to the playoffs?
And you also have to keep in mind what is on the way from the farm system. Jordan Schafer could be in the equation in the next few weeks. He is inevitably going to take over in center field. Then you've got to keep an eye on Gorkys Hernandez, who is doing great in Myrtle Beach. When Schafer is promoted, Hernandez will undoubtedly move on up to Double-A, which could make his major league timetable sometime next season.
Those two will definitely help an outfield that has been a weak spot this season. And then you have to remember the two monsters that are tearing up the South Atlantic League. Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman are both still 18 years old and are both a few years away. But with what they are doing at that age in that league, you've got to wonder how special these kids might be in a few years. You don't completely plan your future around them, but you can't ignore them either.
Then you think of the pitching staff. There is a great nucleus in place now with the 22-year-old Jair Jurrjens, the 23-year-old Jo Jo Reyes, and the 24-year-old Charlie Morton. It might not be Smoltz, Glavine, and Maddux, or even Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Justin Masterson, but it's still pretty impressive. Then on top of those three you think of Tommy Hanson, who could be ready sometime next season, and other young arms like Jeff Locke, Cole Rohrbough, and Julio Teheran - not to mention all the kids who just got drafted earlier this month. The Braves have a nice nucleus right now to build for the future in that rotation, which is refreshing considering the Social Security checks currently floating through the Atlanta clubhouse.
The main player people are curious about is Mark Teixeira. We all know he's not coming back to the Braves next season, and it doesn't seem like many people are crying about it. So if the Braves do decide to sell, Teixeira could be first in line on the block. And if the team decides to start planning for 2009, wouldn't it be tempting to get an arm to add to the mix for the future.
Think if the Braves were to get a Jair Jurrjens-type pitcher for Teixeira – someone with maybe a little service time but ready to get a chance to be in a major league rotation. Put a pitcher like that with Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, Jo Jo Reyes, and Charlie Morton and you've got a pretty good nucleus for next season.
And heck, that might be tempting for Wren right now with Teixeira being so mediocre. But he knows that if you take Teixeira out of what is already a so-so lineup, it might be even worse. Scott Thorman could be brought back up for another try, and that's probably what would happen. But you'd have to make sure you could survive offensively if the goal was to remain competitive the rest of this season.
But what if Boston offered Justin Masterson for Teixeira? Or what if the Angels offered Nick Adenhart and Jose Arredondo? Or what if the Yankees wanted to talk about Ian Kennedy and another pitcher? What if the Dodgers wanted to talk about Chad Billingsley for Tex?
On the other hand, what if Wren is able to acquire a right-handed bat for the outfield, which in turn makes the lineup more productive and more consistent? What if he's able to get another reliever to help a tired bullpen? He could easily wonder if a few moves to improve the club, along with a little luck with the currently injured players, would get this team on track.
Now we all hope the Braves rebound and start playing better on the road and in one-run games. But these are things that we, the fan base, and especially Frank Wren have to think about. The young pitching core that is developing is something to get excited about, regardless of what will happen the rest of the season. But there is a lot that could happen that could make this team extremely dangerous beyond this season.
The decisions, however, are still six weeks away. Either way, Wren is in the catbird's seat. He has a lot of flexibility, and a lot of options, to create the roster for the future. And that's exactly what a general manager craves when he's doing his job.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.