So here we stand, 3 days out from the trade deadline with the Braves firmly in the wildcard hunt in the National League. There aren't really any massive, gaping holes on the team...the starting pitching has been great all season, the offense appears to be getting in sync, and the bullpen has been solidly average/above average for most of the year. So if theres one real spot to fix, its the bullpen. But would a trade really provide much relief (no pun intended)?
Names that have been floated around thata the Braves may have interest in include Michael Wuertz of the A's, Jason Frasor of the Blue Jays, and Nick Masset of the Reds. First, we're going to take a look at Wuertz. After spending his career with the Cubs, Wuertz was traded to Oakland in the offseason, and has blossomed in the Bay Area. In Chicago, Wuertz's main problem was his command, as he always struck out a lot of guys. This year, that problem appears to have dissipated, as his walk rate is a career low 2.47, while his already great strikeout rate has gone through the roof, currently sitting at 11.79. When it comes to pitch selection, there is one major difference compared to the rest of his career, and that is the use of his slider: Wuertz is using it 62.6% of the time this year, while over his career, he's only used it around 50%. He's also using his curve a lot more, and his change a lot less. If the change in pitch selection is really at the heart of Wuertz's transformation this year, then the improvements should follow him to Atlanta should follow. One knock on him this season is that he's already thrown 47 1/3 innings on the season, which is nearly identical to the amount of innings that Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez have thrown. If the issue is to get the pressure off the top 2 guys in the pen, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to acquire a guy who could suffer from the same dead arm ailments as they could in September and October.
Another guy the team has been apparently looking at is Jason Frasor. I didn't realize how good of a year Frasor was having until I sat down to crunch the numbers. His strikeout rate is dead on with his career average, while he's cut his walk rate by a full batter and a half per inning. Another massive improvement is his homer rate dropping by .5, which is HUGE in the world of relief pitching. All of those components blended together result in the first season of his career with an ERA under 3, and only the second with one 4. Much like Wuertz, Frasor has changed the utilization of his pitches this year...he's cut his fastball % by a whopping 15%, and has essentially replaced that 15% with the use of his splitter, which he's used very sparingly over his career. He's also thrown 10 less innings than Wuertz on the year, which bodes well for my concerns about mileage on his arm.
The final name the Braves have been linked to is Reds righty Nick Masset. Masset was acquired by the Reds at last year's trade deadline in the Ken Griffey Jr deal, and has completely come into his own this year. The 27 year old has put it all together this season, as he's posting career best marks in both strikeout and walk rates (albeit, this is in a 3 full season sample size), and has a pretty good HR rate of 0.64. He's also getting 2 ground balls for every fly ball, which is an invaluable asset to have coming out of the bullpen. Some fans may be wowed by his .190 BAA, but be warned: his BABIP is only .237. Another interesting thing to look at with Masset is his velocity...its gone up considerably on his fastball, changeup, and curveball. Is this another situation where the guy is finally putting it together, or is the luck he's getting simply making him a little more confident?
There is one issue I have yet to address, and that is the issue of disabled players. The Braves currently have 3 players on the disabled list that are all rehabbing in Gwinnett that should be ready to go shortly. They are, of course, Buddy Carlyle, Jeff Bennett, and former ace Tim Hudson. Carlyle was having an absolutely hideous year for the Braves with an ERA of 8.84, aided by a near even K:BB ratio and a homer rate approaching 2 per 9. However, it is unknown how much of Carlyle's struggles this year were due to his unfortunate diagnosis of diabetes in June. Carlyle has never been too effective as a Brave, posting a 8-7 record and 5.21 ERA in 20 starts in 2007, and a 2-0 record with a 3.59 ERA in 2008 pitching out of the bullpen. The 2008 season is probably as good as it gets for Carlyle, so expecting much more out of him is probably silly. This is the kind of guy that really shouldn't have a spot in the bullpen of a contending team at the end of the year.
Jeff Bennett is a guy who's probably going to get another chance in the pen, as undeserved as it may be. Bennett is without a doubt, the luckiest pitcher in the Braves bullpen. For the season, his WHIP is higher than his K:BB (and its not even close), and he's outpitching his peripherals by a run and a half (and this is after he actually let some of his own runners score. Anyone know where I can find a reference for inherited runners scored? Link me. Thank you). Bennett strikes out an average amount of guys, walks a ton, but on the bright side, he doesn't allow a lot of homers! At best, he's an 11th/12th man in the pen...and since we're looking for someone who can fill in near the end of the game, I really wouldn't feel comfortable at all with him trotting into a situation like Gonzalez came into in tonight's game.
The final injured Brave is probably the best intriguing one. Tim Hudson has been out for a year following Tommy John surgery, and has pitched rather well in 3 rehab starts for Myrtle Beach and Gwinnett (8 2/3 IP, 3.12 ERA, 5:2 K:BB). The Braves have stated that Hudson will get a total of 6 to 8 rehab starts, which puts him approximately 3 to 5 weeks away from returning. The major question on the mind of Braves fans is "where is he going?" Will Hudson slot into the rotation to give the tired arm of Kenshin Kawakami a rest? Or will he slide into the back end of the bullpen in front of Gonzalez & Soriano? Its a really interesting dilemma, and not one I'd really like to have. Kawakami has pitched pretty well since his dire April, but his stamina is really lacking, and we're getting to the point in the year where he's usually finished for the season. But with a year away from pitching, can Hudson really be much better in the stamina department? Hudson has proven in the majors that he's a solid #2, but we can't expect him to be that good coming off injury. What the hell can the team do? Its really something that can only work itself out as the weeks progress. If the team falls out of the race, they can do something crazy, like alternating starts with Hudson and Kawakami (as dumb as it sounds...hell, who cares what happens when you're losing?).
Its going to be quite an interesting 3 days leading up to the trade deadline, and if the Braves end up making a move, you know I'll be right there to analyze it. What would I do, you ask? Let Bennett and Carlyle rot in Gwinnett, trade a low to mid level prospect (maybe someone like a Palica...or hell, maybe they'd want Stovall. I'd jump on that) for Frasor, and replace Medlen in the bullpen with Hudson or Kawakami. Once the rosters expand in September, bullpen stamina shouldn't be an issue because the floodgates will be opened with various AAAA pitchers who can suck up innings in blowouts. We shall see.