What strikes might Braves make at MLB commerce deadline? Jim Bowden weighs in on 5 concepts

You might recall that an outfield entirely remade by July trades — for Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall — helped Atlanta turn things around last August and roll to its fourth consecutive NL East title and first World Series championship since 1995.

With baseball’s trade deadline less than a month away (Aug. 2), let’s assess what the Braves might be looking to add in preparation for a playoff drive they hope will be as rewarding.

The Braves don’t have outfield needs this year. Instead, their main priority at the trade deadline figures to be a proven starter or experienced back-end reliever.

The level of urgency could be affected in the next couple of weeks by the performance of lefty Tyler Matzek, who returned from the IL on July 4 after missing six weeks for shoulder inflammation. If he can regain something close to his 2021 form, the Braves would be less inclined to give up significant talent to acquire a reliever.

A potential factor in whether they pursue a starter could be Mike Soroka, who is expected to begin a 30-day rehab assignment soon. But Soroka hasn’t pitched in any real games in nearly two years since having three Achilles surgeries, and the Braves aren’t counting on him to rejoin the rotation this season, though he will get a chance to show if he can contribute down the stretch.

A wild card in the decision on whether the Braves prioritize rotation or bullpen help could be Spencer Strider, the rookie with a 100-mph fastball and 102 strikeouts in 65 2/3 innings. He excelled in multi-inning and high-leverage relief before moving to the rotation at the end of May, and the Braves might have to decide which role will help them better control his late-season innings of him. He threw less than 100 innings in his first year of pro ball in 2021.

With those and other factors potentially affecting trade decisions, I wanted to present some trade scenarios that might make sense, including some modest proposals and a couple of big-splash propositions, and have The Athletic‘s resident general manager, Jim Bowden, evaluates the viability of each.

Note: these are not potential deals I’ve heard mentioned by anyone in the famously tight-lipped Braves front office. They just make sense to me. Let’s see if Jim agrees.

Trade 1: Going big in bullpen

tiger trade: LHP Gregory Soto

brave trade:
LHP Kyle Muller, OF Drew Waters

Now that Harris and Strider have become impactful rookies at the major-league level, the Braves might not have the elite prospects necessary to land Soto, 27, who has become an elite closer and is under contractual control through 2025.

However, the Braves could be willing to give up at least two top prospects from their current top five in order to land Soto, given the three-plus years of control, plus the fact that Braves lefty Will Smith, the closer on the 2021 World Series-winning team, is in the final year of his contract and current closer Kenley Jansen is on a one-year deal.

Muller is a 6-foot-7 hard thrower who pitched splendidly in a few of his eight major-league starts in 2021 but issued too many walks for the Braves to use him during the stretch drive and postseason. This season, he has a 2.99 ERA in 14 Triple-A starts with 102 strikeouts and only 26 walks in 81 1/3 innings.

While Waters’ stock has slipped considerably during the past two years, he is still just 23 and has all the tools that made him a consensus top-40 prospect entering the 2021 season.

Bowden: You can never have enough pitching, including back-end relievers. I’ve believed that baseball cliché ever since we won a world championship in 1990 with the Nasty Boys: Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton. Without that Reds trio of impact closers, I wouldn’t have a World Series ring on my finger.

When healthy, the Braves bullpen doesn’t need another impact reliever, but I like general managers who are “greedy” and would want another closer of Soto’s ability, especially given his low salary (he’s not arbitration-eligible until next year) and contract status (he’s not a free agent until after the 2025 season).

However, if I’m the Tigers, as much as I like Waters’ swing, he doesn’t have enough power to play a corner and he lacks the on-base skills to make up for it. I’ve always liked Muller’s pitchability, but at 6-foot-7, he has trouble repeating his release point, which leads to too many walks. I don’t think he has the command to be anything more than a back-of-the-rotation starter. So, the Tigers would need more for Soto, and the Braves would have to start that conversation with catcher William Contreras.

Trade 2: Going bigger in bullpen

pirate trade: RHP David Bednar

brave trade: LHP Kyle Muller, LHP Tucker Davidson, OF Drew Waters

Not bigger in the sense that he’s any better than the Tigers’ Soto, but Bednar is on a similar level and he’s under contractual control even longer than Soto. Bednar won’t be a free agent until after the 2026 season, and the Pirates won’t give up the Pittsburgh native for anything less than a bevy of legitimate top prospects.

The three Braves prospects I mentioned include two potential starting pitchers controllable for six seasons, something the Pirates need more than they do an elite closer since they don’t figure to contend for at least the next couple of seasons. And a change of scenery might be just what is needed for Waters, who was leapfrogged in the Braves’ system by Michael Harris II, who should be Atlanta’s center fielder for many years to come.

If the Braves need to sweeten the pot in this proposal, they could consider replacing Davidson in the deal with 18-year-old shortstop prospect Diego Benitez, or consider adding Benitez to the package above for Soto. Benitez was the prize of the Braves’ 2022 international signing class, but they already have ascendant shortstop prospect Vaughn Grissom, who could be ready within a couple of years.

Bowden: Despite Bednar’s track record — a 2.95 ERA in his first 109 relief appearances in the majors, along with 13 saves, 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.8 walks per nine this season — I don’t value him as highly as the left-handed Soto . However, I like the idea of ​​adding Bednar to the Braves bullpen in the short term, and more importantly, the long term, as he won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2024 and won’t be a free agent until after the 2026 season .

This is a strong “quantity-over-quality” package of prospects that I think would make sense for the Pirates because they wouldn’t need to hit on both Davidson and Muller (just one of them), and Waters still has upside if they could improve his launch angle and add at least average power to his game. Because of how much back-end relievers’ performance can vary year to year, getting two starting pitchers and an outfield prospect for Bednar makes sense for the Pirates. When they’re ready to win in three years, who knows if Bednar will still be as effective, so landing three of the Braves’ top prospects seems like a good gamble.

From the Braves’ perspective, I’d prefer Soto over Bednar or to use these prospects to acquire starting pitching depth, but if neither can be accomplished, I’d probably make this deal at the trade deadline buzzer.

Trade 3: Back-end rotation depth

Diamondbacks trade: RHP Zach Davies

brave trade: 1B/OF Greyson Jenista, 2B/utility Luke Waddell

What’s the going rate for a rental back-end starter who can provide a solid five or six innings? The Braves don’t have a dire need for a starter, particularly if Ian Anderson pitches more consistently and if Soroka is ready by late season.

However, as mentioned above, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that Soroka can shake off two years of rust and take regular rotation turns during a playoff race, and Anderson had a 5.31 ERA and 6.28 home ERA before pitching one of his best games of the season Tuesday against St.Louis.

If the Braves decide to boost their bullpen by moving Strider back from the rotation in August, a trade for a pending free-agent pitcher like Davies or Johnny Cueto — assuming the White Sox fall from contention and wave the white flag — could be a good fit at a relatively small cost. Though I’m thinking the Braves might need to throw in another fringe prospect to the offer proposed above. That, or replace one of the two listed with a higher-rated prospect.

Bowden: This wouldn’t be a “sexy” trade but I like the concept of adding starting pitching depth and an innings-eater as a fifth- or sixth-starter type, and Davies can fill that role. This would be a helpful acquisition for the regular season, but I wouldn’t want Davies making a postseason start unless injuries forced it. I’m not even sure he’d make the Braves’ postseason roster if all goes well. However, the fringe prospect cost of Jenista and Waddell makes this deal work for me, especially with Davies on a $1.75 million salary this year.

Trade 4: Under-the-radar starter

Rockies trade: RHP Chad Kuhl

brave trade: SS Cal Conley

Kuhl never had an ERA below 4.20 prior to this season, but he’s posted a 3.83 ERA through 15 starts with Colorado despite an unappealing ratio of 59 strikeouts with 30 walks in 82 1/3 innings. He’s had unusual success pitching at Coors Field, with a 3.27 ERA in seven starts and 25 strikeouts with only seven walks at that hitters’ haven.

Conley or Waddell are fringe prospects, each in the Braves’ top 30, and the Rockies might have some interest in one or both as future utility players.

Lefty Kyle Freeland is the Rockies starter whom the Braves and plenty of others would love to land, but after he signed a five-year extension in the spring, what do you think it would take to pry him away, Jim? Probably a lot, right?

Bowden: I’m loving your attempt to improve starting pitching depth, and Kuhl is certainly having a career year. However, at 82 1/3 innings pitched, he has already surpassed his 2021 and 2020 innings totals and nearly eclipsed his 2018 total (he missed 2019 after Tommy John surgery), and I’m not convinced he’ll be able to maintain the success over his next 12 to 15 starts. So I would pass on Kuhl and his $3 million salary from him.

I like Freeland a lot and think he’d really benefit from getting away from Coors Field. However, I can’t find a pathway for the Braves to acquire him. I just don’t think prospects such as Muller, Davidson and Waters would be enough to pry him away.

Trade 5: Rental reliever

Diamondbacks trade: RHP Ian Kennedy

brave trade: LHP Tucker Davidson

If the Braves just want to strengthen the bullpen with an experienced veteran on an expiring contract, the well-traveled Kennedy could be just the ticket. If Matzek is back to form — he looked good in his first appearance off the IL Tuesday — and with Strider as a bullpen option, the Braves might decide they don’t need to make any major additions.

But they could still add plenty with one of several veterans on expiring contracts who are having good seasons, including the likes of Kennedy, the Cubs’ Mychal Givens and David Robertson (although the latter has been so good, it might take a little more to top other offers) and the Tigers’ Michael Fulmer.

Jim, what kind of return do you think the Cubs would be looking for with Givens or Robertson?

Bowden: I’m a fan of adding more bullpen depth but I don’t think Kennedy (and his 4.2 walks per nine innings) is a fit, nor do I think Givens (4.3 walks per nine) makes sense. However, I love the idea of ​​landing David Robertson, who is 2-0 with a 1.89 ERA and has allowed just 17 hits in 33 1/3 innings while striking out 45 and logging 12 saves. He is a proven winner who’s authoring a great comeback story after a long journey back from Tommy John surgery. Robertson has an “Atlanta Brave type” makeup and he’s a tremendous teammate. I’m not sure what it would take to land him, but if I were the Braves, I’d keep suggesting mid-level prospects until the Cubs agreed to a deal.

(Photo by Gregory Soto: Rick Osentoski/USA Today)

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