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Starting Nine: Cold, hard truths for Braves, NL after trade deadline

The wild-card round figures to be a dangerous place, the game’s best bullpen got better by addition and subtraction, and more

ATLANTA — As the trade deadline reached its final hours, and MLB Network’s coverage played in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse, breaking news after breaking news filed in.

Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres

Darin Ruf and Mychal Givens to the Mets

David Robertson, Brandon Marsh and Noah Syndergaard to the Phillies

The team in front of the Braves in the National League East (Mets) and the ones directly behind Atlanta in the wild card race (Padres, Phillies and Cardinals) were stocking up. Not that the Braves didn’t too, having already acquired Ehire Adrianza, Robbie Grossman and Jake Odorizzi, and then in the closing minutes before Tuesday at 6 p.m., trading for closer Raisel Iglesias. But as the whirlwind of the deadline was playing out in the clubhouse, and Atlanta went with need-filling deals over an industry-shaking move like Soto, first baseman Matt Olson was asked about the Braves being seen as underdogs in the NL.

“Personally, I prefer that,” Olson said. “I know that was kind of the way it was looked at last year, being on the outside looking in, not everybody gave them the credit they deserved. That can be nice to have a small chip on the shoulder. Harder to have the chip when you’re the reigning World Series champions.”

“There’s a lot of good teams out there, but it’s not always the best lineup or rotation that goes out there and wins the World Series each year. .... We are very confident with the group we’ve got in here.”

In the wake of the Soto deal, the Padres’ World Series odd skyrocketed, and there were now three teams ahead of the Braves, the Dodgers (+350), Mets (+700) and Padres (+850), with Atlanta at +1200.

Entering Thursday 3 1/2 games back in the East and 6 1/2 up for the first wild card spot, the Braves have a 99.2 percent chance of making the postseason per FanGraphs.

“It’s going to be a fun two months,” manager Brian Snitker said.

Here are nine cold, hard truths for the Braves and the NL after the deadline.

1. The wild-card round figures to be a dangerous place to be

The Padres, the clear winners of the trade deadline as the added Soto, Bell, Josh Hader and Brandon Drury. When (which we hope shouldn’t be replaced with ‘if’) Fernando Tatis Jr. makes his return, there may not be a more nightmarish four-batter run in any order than Tatis-Soto-Machado-Bell.

Barring a complete collapse by the Dodgers, who are 11 1/2 games up in the NL West, that star-studded San Diego lineup is going to have to settle for a wild-card berth being its ticket to the postseason. If you’re the Braves, that puts even more emphasis on winning the East and avoiding a potential matchup with what figures to be an extremely tough out in a best-of-three first-round series.

If the postseason were to begin today, that’s exactly what we’d have, with the Braves as the No. 4 hosting the fifth-seeded Padres. Meanwhile, the Mets would join the Dodgers with a first-round bye, while the Brewers would face the third wild card.

Obviously, every team’s goal is a division title over a wild-card spots, but if there wasn’t already enough heat in this Mets-Braves fight for the division, not facing San Diego in a short series adds some external elements.

2. The game’s best bullpen got better by addition and subtraction

In comes Raisel Iglesias, out goes Will Smith, as the Braves further strengthened a bullpen that is tied for the MLB lead with 15.6 fWAR, is tops in FIP (3.40) and second in K/9 (9.62) and HR/9 (0.84).

To be fair, Smith — along with Jesse Chavez, who went back to the Angels in the Iglesias deal — had a major influence on the tenor of the Braves relief corps during last year’s championship run, but he was also struggling mightily, with a 12.60 ERA in his last six appearances.

Iglesias comes in with an elevated ERA (4.04) in earning his 16 saves, but he also has a strikeout rate that’s in the top five percent of the league (32.9), is in the 94th percentile in chase rate (34.5) and 89th in whiff rate (32.9).

During an appearance on MLB Network Radio, general manager Alex Anthopoulos went into how Iglesias will be used, seeing him primarily moving into a setup role behind Kenley Jansen, though Iglesias will get save opportunities based on Jansen’s usage. But the bottom line is the Braves now boast the players who, since 2017 rank first (Jansen at 185) and third (Iglesias with 150) in saves.

3. Cubs’ holding onto coveted assets only helps the Braves

Willson Contreras was long one of the top names expected move ahead of the deadline, and in the weeks leading up to Aug. 2, speculation also grew that the Cubs would also move the versatile Ian Happ, who has another year of club control. The Mets were said to be heavily interested, only Chicago — in one of the more stunning developments of the deadline — didn’t move either of them.

That’s ultimately to the Braves’ benefit. The Mets did acquire a catcher, getting Michael Perez from the Pirates for cash considerations. But that was just to address depth as they await James McCann’s return from the injured list with an oblique issue. McCann is expected back for today’s series opener vs. the Mets, and New York is expected to have a timeshare behind the plate with McCann and Tomas Nido.

Catcher has been an offensive black hole for the Mets, where they rank 28th with 53 wRC+, and it’s not as if the return of McCann is going to fix things. He has one 162-game season on his resume in which he’s hit above league average. But if they had gained Contreras, who is enjoying the best season of his seven-year career (135 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR) we’d be having a different story. New York reportedly didn’t make a major splash for fear of a prospect it included in a deal becoming a star. Regardless, the division leader’s reluctance — which stopped them from filling the hole in their lineup — played to the Braves’ advantage.

4. Phillies made the move with the biggest upside, and potential to blow up in their faces

Remember when Noah Syndergaard was an All-Star finishing in the top 10 in the Cy Young voting? Yeah, the Phillies remember that too, hoping that six years later, Thor can be at least some facsimile of that and the additional arm they need to replace Zach Eflin (right knee) and pair with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. But much like the MCU’s Thor, who has moved from Mjolnir to Stormbreaker, this Thor isn’t exactly wielding the same weapon anymore, either.

The 29-year-old’s four-seam velocity (94.2 mph) is the lowest it’s ever been in a full season, his xWOBA (.348) is the highest, and so is the hard-hit rate (35.5 percent).

He was having a quality season with the Angels, pitching to a 3.83 ERA over 15 starts with 64 strikeouts and a .244 batting average against. Syndergaard has playoff experience, and plenty of upside, but due $7.7 million the rest of the year — which Philadelphia will pay all of — was a guy who has thrown all of 82 innings since 2019 the right gamble? If the wheels fall off again, the Phillies will be hurting in a big way with no timetable on Eflin’s return.

5. Philly’s biggest weakness isn’t a weakness anymore

Since Rob Thomson took over as the interim manager on June 3, the Phillies are tied with the Dodgers for the sixth-best bullpen (2.1 fWAR) compared to 17th before.

In that span, Philadelphia has four relievers with ERAs at 2.70 or lower in Connor Brogdon (1.32), Seranthony Dominguez (1.50), Andrew Bellatti (2.00) and Brad Hand (16.2) and Jose Alvarado has struck out 15.35 with a 3.18 ERA.

It’s a far cry from a year ago or 2020, when the Phillies were 28th in bullpen fAR. Ranking 23rd in 2019, they last had a top-10 bullpen in 2017.

That success has come even with Jeurys Familia posting a 6.09 ERA in 38 appearances, and the Phillies were able to move on from the struggling right-hander, designated him for assignment after the got David Robertson from the Cubs.

Robertson isn’t expected to take the closing duties, which will remain with Dominguez and Hand, while Robertson will take Familia’s role of pitching in high-leverage situations (Familia threw in the seventh and eighth inning 15 times each, and the ninth six times).

The 37-year-old Robertson has a 2.23 ERA and 11.38 K/9 in 40 1/3 innings over 36 appearances. He’s held opponents to a paltry .161 average, while generating a whiff rate (32.4 percent) that’s in the 89th percentile.

It figures to be better than the last time Robertson was with the Phillies, when he signed a two-year, $23 million contract in 2019, only to appear in just seven games with a 5.40 ERA before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

6. Moving Josh Hader made zero sense for Brewers

There was at least talk of Soto getting dealt, but nobody saw the Brewers shipping out arguably the best closer of this generation in Josh Hader. Not only that, but Milwaukee did so without any benefit to an offense that the last 30 days is 18th in runs scored.

After agreeing to a one-year, $11 million contract with Hader to avoid arbitration back in March, the Brewers clearly didn’t want to deal with a bigger price tag this winter and moved the left-hander with one year of club control remaining.

But what kind of message is Milwaukee’s front office sending to a first-place team by moving an All-Star, and swapping him out for Taylor Rodgers, who had a 9.31 ERA in 10 July appearances?

Now, if the Brewers had moved Hader knowing they have a closer-in-the-making in Devin Williams, and done so to get an impact bat, it would have been at least understandable. The deal they made, though, was one of the biggest head-scratchers.

7. Joey Gallo deal shows the gall of the Dodgers

The Dodgers have a track record of reclamation projects, with Justin Turner, Max Muncy, and Chris Taylor among them becoming major contributors.

But this new fixer upper may even be beyond Andrew Friedman and his ability to get the most out of undervalued assets.

Joe Gallo is a mess. He’s at a career low 82 wRC+ for a full season, and even for the poster boy of the Three True Outcomes, there’s not enough home runs (12) or walks (14.7 percent rate) to accept the 38.8 percent strikeout rate — which is in the bottom one percent of the league — or his .159 average.

Granted, Gallo is a great defender, but the issue here is that he’s not a part-time player, and there’s no path to consistent at-bats with the Dodgers to try and get his swing right.

Plus, if the pressure of the market were the issue — remember, he thrived with the Rangers before — going from the pressure of New York to another big market with the business-like atmosphere of the Dodgers isn’t exactly the recipe for a turnaround.

8. Cardinals’ rotation just improved, a lot

There’s been little separation between the Brewers and Cardinals since June 1, with 42 days in which the NL Central lead was just 2 1/2 games or less in span. From that end, Milwaukee’s bizarre Hader deal had to be a welcome sight to St. Louis, and the Brewers had to be pleased the team that’s chasing them — the Brew Crew is currently up two games — didn’t land Soto.

But the Cardinals did take big steps to improve a rotation that’s been hit hard by injuries — Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz are both out, with the latter potentially out for the season if he needs surgery to repair his torn MCL — and hasn’t been at the same level as a Paul Goldschmidt-led offense that’s third in fWAR (20.1).

They brought in Jordan Montgomery (3.69 ERA, 1.4 fWAR) from the Yankees and a sneaky-good move in getting Jose Quintana (3.50 ERA), who has his best ERA+ (120) since his All-Star season of 2016 and is allowing home runs at his lowest rate (0.65 per nine) in eight years.

Ranking 25th in rotation fWAR (4.5), St. Louis can’t exactly match Milwaukee’s staff with Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, but it just got better and with the way that offense is performing, it assured there’s going to be zero letup in this Central battle.

9. Barren Nationals are going to have an impact on the postseason picture

Three years after winning the World Series, the Nationals don’t have a remaining position player from the decisive game after the trade of Soto. FanGraphs has Washington’s projected at 104 1/2 losses, and should you be of the betting type, the other seems like a strong play.

While the Nationals did win their first game post-Soto, beating the Mets 5-1 in Jacob deGrom’s season debut, they figure to be very, very bad.

They also figure to be the kind of fodder that teams with postseason aspirations will look to build their wins total against, and the Nats face a lot of them over the next nine weeks.

Among NL contenders, Washington will play the Phillies 11 times, the Padres seven times, the Braves and Mets each six times and the Cardinals four times.

Philadelphia stands to benefit from the state of the Nationals, and another team that was fleeced at the winning percentage, the Reds. Philly will see Cincinnati seven times, part of a remaining schedule that, based on opponents’ winning percentage, is the third-easiest slate (.475) in the NL. The Cardinals (.467) may currently have an easier path, but they have 10 vs. the Cubs — count St. Louis among those hoping Chicago would have unloaded its stars — and nobody has more matchups against MLB’s worst team that Philly does.

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