In the short tenure of Atlanta Braves General Manager Frank Wren, we have observed that he has not been shy when making moves to improve his team. He has moved quickly this season to upgrade the offense in center field by demoting the struggling rookie Jordan Schafer, and trading for the affordable Nate McLouth. But it has become obvious that this may not be enough to overcome the Braves inability to score runs on a consistent basis. How long can the team continue to hope that internal options for more offense -- Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson -- can turn things around.
The Braves don't just need another bat, they need a true impact bat -- a player on the order of magnitude of Mark Teixeira who can bridge the gap from the front of the lineup (McLouth, Escobar, Chipper) to the back of the lineup (McCann, Johnson, Kotchman). But Mark Teixeira is not available this year, and anyway, the Braves are out of money to trade for someone like that... or are they?
The last few trades have seen the Braves trade from positions of strength and depth in the minor leagues, but after dealing away five of the team's top-20 prospects in the last eight months, there's little left with which to deal that doesn't include Jason Heyward and Freedie Freeman -- and the team has apparently put those two players in the untouchable category. Is there another affordable and prospect-cheap Nate McLouth-type player out there? I doubt it.
In the quest for more offensive help, the Braves have to ask themselves the question, is it worth sacrificing a strength on the major league club to strengthen a weakness on the major league club? Their strength is starting pitching, and their best trade chip right now is Javier Vazquez. He's a mid-to-top of the rotation starting pitcher with the ability to strike people out -- something a lot of teams are looking for. For us to add a real impact bat to this club we would need to move Vazquez, not only to clear salary room, but also to acquire prospects that we could then use in a trade for that impact bat.
This move may not be practical until Tim Hudson begins his minor league rehab, and the team can evaluate how effective he is against live hitting and how far away he is from returning to the rotation. But with the expected return of Hudson nearer to being a reality, the team should be able to safely trade Vazquez, even if they have to use some combination of Kris Medlen, Jo-Jo Reyes, or Jorge Campillo to bridge the few games from when Vazquez is traded to when Hudson is ready.
Dealing Vazquez for prospects, while adding one or two prospects of our own (and not our top-guys) to a trade, should allow us to put together a competitive and compelling offer for an impact bat. And who would that bat be? Could Carlos Lee become available if the Astros fall further back? How about Jermaine Dye? Could a Cleveland fire sale make Travis Hafner available, and could he even play the outfield? Even if we're able to trade Vazquez, finding a bat who will fit in with our team and our budget will still be difficult.
Whoever the bat turns out to be, the cost in dollars and prospects is likely going to be high. The question the Braves will have to ask themselves is whether or not they want to weaken one area of their team to bolster another. Is it worth sacrificing one starting pitcher a week for seven days of offense?
When Casey Kotchman returns to the lineup this week, we'll finally have the full compliment of starters in the lineup since the McLouth deal. We'll also be playing some very tough teams, and we'll get to see if that lineup can score runs and win ballgames. If they can't, in the interest of trying to win this year, should the team put it on the line to add more offense, or should they wait until more affordable internal options are available? The problem with the latter, is that Heyward and Freeman, and any other foreseeable grade-A offensive help is at least two years away. It's highly unlikely that either of those guys will be ready at the start of next year, and they may even be doubtful for the start of 2011.
Maybe the acquisition of McLouth is a sign that the stop-gap approach to the offense (Anderson and Francoeur) is changing to more of a two-to-three year approach. If that's the case, then at least one more bat is needed, and preferably for more than one year. Should that disqualify us from the eventual Matt Holliday sweepstakes? Even with Holliday, we probably don't have the prospects on hand needed (and that we're willing to trade) to acquire him, so any discussion of even a one-year solution like that also has to include dealing Vazquez for more parts.