Braves’ Potential Trade Targets

With the Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline less than a month away, here are three players that the Atlanta Braves may target over the next few weeks:

Luis Valbuena, IF, Chicago Cubs
The Braves are in the market for a utility infielder to replace the injured Ramiro Pena, who will miss the rest of the season after undergoing right shoulder surgery last week. The Braves called up Paul Janish and Tyler Pastornicky to replace Pena, but Janish’s bat and Pastornicky’s defensive inabilities have left the Braves with a hole on their bench. The 27-year-old Valbuena has at least 25 starts at shorstop, second base and third base since his debut in 2008. Through 66 games this season, he has a .738 OPS with an impressive 13.5% BB% and 7.4 UZR. Valbuena is signed through 2017 and likely won’t cost more than a B-level prospect.

Joba Chamberlain, P, New York Yankees
The Braves are in the market for a veteran reliever after the season-ending injuries suffered by Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters. Since his debut in 2007, Chamberlain has gained more notoriety for how he was handled as opposed to his on-field performance. At 27 years old, Chamberlian no longer is looked at as the closer heir to Mariano Rivera and might be dealt at the deadline. He has struggled this season, posting a 5.75 ERA in 21 appearances with a career-high 4.43 BB/9. However, the hard-throwing right-hander has a career 9.15 K/9 and 3.53 BB/9 and is under team control through 2014. A Paul Maholm-for-Chamberlain-type trade would work out well for both teams.

Kyle Seager, 3B, Seattle Mariners
Over the past two seasons, Seager has quietly been one of the better third baseman in the American League. Over the past 1 1/2 years, the left-handed-hitting Seager has hit 31 home runs and driven in 122 runs, while playing above-average defense (2.6 UZR in 2013). The Braves are looking for a compliment to Chris Johnson, whose UZR ranks 18th among National League third baseman (min. 200 innings). With the Mariners’ infield depth (Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Dustin Ackley, Stefen Romero, etc.), Seager might be expendable. However, he would not come cheap.

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The Braves’ Offensive Struggles are Overrated

After the additions of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton to a lineup that already included Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman, expectations for the Braves’ offense were high entering the season.

Through the first half of the season, things have not gone as anticipated. The Braves have been shutout a major-league leading 11 times and fans are calling for the Braves to fire hitting coach Greg Walker. Through 79 games, they lead the National League in strikeouts (704) and are 10th in both hits (638) and batting average (.242).

However, while the Braves offense falls asleep at times, things are not as bad as they seem. The Braves not only are second in the National League in walks (279), but are also fifth in runs (326) and fifth in OPS (.720).

In other words, Walker has had a more positive effect on the Braves than fans might think.

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Since taking over as hitting coach in 2012, the Braves offense is getting better as a team at getting on base and scoring runs. While the batting average has slightly dipped, the offense’s OPS, wRC+ and wOBA have increased each of the past two years. Last year’s oWAR was higher than the previous year and should continue to increase at the current pace. In addition, their current 9.4 percent walk rate is also higher than the past two seasons.

If there is any reason for concern, it is the Braves’ struggles hitting with runners in scoring position. Through 79 games, the Braves were batting .225 with runners in scoring position and .189 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Both these amounts are the lower than they were in 2011 and 2012. These averages need to improve if the Braves want to make a run in the playoffs.

The Braves “ugly” performance through 79 games should be attributed to their change in offensive strategy. Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, who had high batting averages, moderate power and put the ball in play, were replaced by B.J. Upton, Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, who hit a lot of home runs, but strike out a ton.

In other words, panicking Braves fans are not use to today’s baseball culture. And as long as the Braves maintain their 5.5 game lead in the National League East, there should not be any reason for concern.

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The Braves are a Starting Pitching Hotbed

If you were to go through the current list of major league starting pitchers and see who originally drafted or signed them, you’ll find an interesting statistic. Of the pitchers who started a game by June 19, only two teams in the MLB originally acquired more starters than the Atlanta Braves.

Since the early 90s, former general manager John Schuerholz always made sure the Braves had a strong pitching staff. Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and Kevin Millwood, among others, were all drafted and developed by Atlanta, while pitchers John Smoltz and Greg Maddux were acquired before their 30th birthdays.

Current general manager Frank Wren has taken a page out of Schuerholz’ book, extending the Braves’ strong starting pitching tradition into the mid-to-late 2000s and beyond.

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As of Wednesday, 235 pitchers had made at least one start so far this season. 12 of those pitchers were either drafted or signed by the Braves to start their professional careers, which ranks tied-for-third behind the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Of those 12 players, only four remain on the Atlanta Braves’ current roster: Kris Medlen (drafted in 2006), Mike Minor (drafted in 2009), Julio Teheran (signed in 2007) and Alex Wood (drafted in 2012). The St. Louis Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright (drafted in 2000), the Rangers’ Matt Harrison (drafted in 2003), the San Diego Padres’ Jason Marquis (drafted in 1996), the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Charlie Morton (drafted in 2002) and Jeff Locke (drafted in 2006), the Los Angeles Angels’ Tommy Hanson (drafted in 2005), the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Randall Delgado (signed in 2006) and the Minnesota Twins’ Scott Diamond (signed in 2007) are the other eight.

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While it is one thing for players to just reach the majors, the 12 current and former Braves have also pitched well, combining for a 42-29 record in 125 appearances (117 starts) with a 3.48 ERA. Locke, Wainwright, Marquis and Minor have pitched exceptionally well and are candidates to be named to the NL All-Star Team in a little less than a month.

Just by looking at the numbers, the Braves are one of the best teams in the MLB in scouting and developing pitching. And with pitchers like J.R. Graham, Sean Gilmartin, Lucas Sims, Cody Martin, Mauricio Cabrera and Aaron Northcraft on track to reach the majors in the next few seasons, this trend should continue.

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Gattis on Pace for Historic Rookie Season

Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis is many things: a car valet, ski lift operator, pizza cook, housekeeper, a golf cart attendant and a janitor. He’s also a pretty good baseball player.

While the 26-year-old Gattis has gained notoriety after going from nomad to major league baseball player, his play on the field has been equally as unique as his life story.

Through 51 games and 160 at-bats, Gattis has hit 14 home runs and has driven in 37 runs. Among players with at least 100 at-bats, Gattis’ 11.43 at-bats per home run ranks second in the major leagues and his 4.32 at-bats per run batted in is fifth.

These numbers would put Gattis in position to challenge the rookie records for at-bats per home run (10.71, Rudy York in 1937) and at-bats per run batted in (3.64, York in 1937) for players with a minimum 350 at-bats. At his current pace, Gattis’ numbers would place him third in at-bats per home run behind York and Mark McGwire (11.37 in 1987) and sixth in at-bats per run batted in behind York, Walt Dropo (3.88 in 1950), Ted Williams (3.90 in 1939), Jim Gentile (3.92 in 1960) and Dave Orr (4.09 in 1884).

Gattis has also thrived in clutch situations. He is 6-for-14 with four home runs and eight runs batted in late or close situations, which are also among the league leaders. As a pinch hitter, Gattis is 6-for-8 with four home runs and 11 runs batted in, which put him on pace to break the single-season pinch-hit records of seven and 25, respectively.

While Gattis’ numbers through 51 games are already impressive enough, they are even more gaudy when compared to other 26-year-old rookies.

Five active players made their major league debuts at age 26 and went on to hit 19 or more home runs: Dan Uggla, Josh Hamilton, Yoenis Cespedes and Alexei Ramirez.

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Through 51 games, Gattis has more home runs, more runs batted and a higher OPS than all four of those players. If Gattis keeps up this pace, he has the potential to have a better rookie season than a group of players who have combined for eight All-Star Game appearances.

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Even more impressive is the fact that Gattis leads a team that includes Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla in oWAR despite ranking seventh on the Atlanta Braves in at-bats.

Just three months ago, the majority of people had no idea who Evan Gattis was. Now, he has not only become the most inspiring story in recent baseball history, but also one of the better players in the league today.

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I am Obsessed with Baseball

My name is Justin Sayers and I have an unhealthy obsession with baseball. I know, I know, it sounds pathetic. However, to me, baseball is as important to life as eating, breathing and sleeping.

I played the game since I was five years old, starting out in tee ball and ending as an 18-year-old outfielder at Milken Community High School. I recently figured out that I’ve watched more than 1,000 games of my favorite team, the Atlanta Braves. I have even attended more than 20 games in four Major League stadiums and have been outside of three more.

As a result of my obsession, my family and friends would always get me baseball memorabilia as gifts on my birthday and Hanukkah. Over my 20 years, I’ve accumulated a collection of items that includes a jersey, thousands of baseball cards and two foam tomahawks.

However, out of all the baseball memorabilia I have, it is something that I don’t have that means the most to me.

When I was seven years old, my dad got me Triple Play Baseball, which was my first baseball video game. Just a couple years removed from playing on the Atlanta Braves in my tee ball league, they automatically became my go-to team. I was addicted to the game’s Home Run Derby game mode and would always pick Chipper Jones as my contestant. As simple as it was, this was start of an unhealthy obsession with a baseball player.

“I am a huge Braves fan. I watch almost every game,” read a letter I wrote to Jones to third grade. My teacher had assigned us to write a letter to our role model and then actually send it.

With help from Turner Broadcasting System, the 8-year-old version of me would sit in front of the television at 4 p.m. on weekdays with a bag of sunflower seeds and chewing gum and watch every Braves game. Therefore it wasn’t odd for me for sign the letter with, “Your biggest fan, Justin Sayers.”

“Ball four!” I took my base with two outs in the bottom in the seventh inning of the championship of the Tournament of Champions as an 11-year-old. Squinting through my fog-filled goggles, I used my speed to steal second base. Standing on second base, my teammate lifted an innocent pop-up to the third baseman. The ball hit off the fielder’s glove and hit the ground with a thud. Already hustling because there were two outs, I scored the winning run easily.

With my baseball-playing career in full swing, I had forgot about the third-grade assignment. It was later that summer that I received an unexpected letter in the mail.

“I wanted to write to personally thank you for interest in me and the Atlanta Braves,” it said. “It is people like yourself that make the game of baseball the greatest sport in the world…In an effort to be fair to all those that send items to me, I have decided to purchase and sign and a photograph at my own expense and return it to you.” The name at the bottom read, “Chipper Jones.”

Extremely excited, I began digging through the envelope. Nothing. I unfolded and refolded the letter. Still nothing. I turned the envelope upside down and began shaking it. There was nothing there.

It did not take long for me to get over the initial disappointment of not finding the autographed picture. It had been a couple years since I had mailed the letter, so just receiving a response was satisfaction enough. The letter hung on my door for years before I took it down and stashed it in my desk drawer.

On June 4, 2010, the Milken Community High School Wildcats played the Cornerstone Christian Eagles in the CIF-SS Division 7 Championship and lost 5-1. With the score 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning, I was in right field when a line drive was hit right towards me. Giving my best effort, I dove for the ball and came up just short. Two runners scored and the deficit proved to be too much to overcome. That was the end of my baseball-playing career.

It took me over a year to file away all the memories of the second-place finish into my keep-safe box. During last summer, I decided to purge my room of all my unnecessary collectibles and sort them into one box. While going through my stuff, I stumbled onto something familiar that I hadn’t seen in a while. It was the letter from Chipper Jones.

Just a couple months before, Chipper Jones announced that he was going to retire at the end of the 2012 season. Even though I knew that at 40 years old his career was dwindling down, it was still shocking to realize my worst nightmare. He eventually played his final game in October, with the Braves losing to the St. Louis Cardinals 6-3 in the first round of the playoffs.

A few months before his career ended, I had decided to mail a follow-up letter to Jones, acknowledging that he had forgot to send me the autographed picture he had mentioned in his letter. I retyped my letter, explaining what had happened and included a picture of me at a Braves game that I had gone to at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz. That game was the last time I got to see Jones play in person.

Now that Chipper Jones’ career is effectively over, the upcoming season will be the first time since 1995 that Chipper Jones will not be playing third base for the Braves. With the 2013 baseball season set to start in less than a month, it is going to be weird to not see No. 10 on the Braves’ lineup card.

While there may never be another Chipper Jones, I don’t have to officially close the book on the 14-year chapter of my life until I receive a response. And if he writes back to me or not, baseball and the Atlanta Braves will continue to be an important part of my life.

*Note: This assignment was completed for my Journalism 413: Feature Writing class.

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Should the Braves Consider a Six-Man Rotation?

When the Atlanta Braves announced that Kris Medlen would move from the bullpen to the rotation to replace the injured Tommy Hanson, the move was intended to be temporary. But in two starts, Medlen has proven to be a capable starting pitcher in the MLB, posting a 1.74 ERA in 10.1 innings. The Braves won both games, pushing the Braves’ record in Medlen’s 20 career starts to 16-4.

The Braves’ pitching staff has been amazing since the All-Star break, as their 3.12 ERA since then ranks second in the National League. Medlen likely only has one start remaining before Hanson is eligible to come off the disabled list, but they would likely love to keep riding Medlen’s success. While the Braves would love to replace somebody else with Medlen, the other four starting pitchers, Tim Hudson (7-2, 3.13 ERA in last 10 starts), Ben Sheets (3-1, 1.46 ERA in four starts), Mike Minor (2-1, 1.74 ERA in last five starts) and Paul Maholm (5-2, 2.49 ERA in last 10 starts; 7 IP, 3 ER, 8 K, 2 BB in one start with Braves), have shown that there is no weak link in the Braves’ rotation.

With a staple of starting pitchers at their disposal, it would be smart for the Braves to at least consider using a six-man rotation.

It wouldn’t be completely out of the ordinary for the Braves to employ an innovative rotation idea, as managers are beginning to push the limits of conventional baseball wisdom. Already this year, the Colorado Rockies have experimented with a four-man rotation, while the Chicago White Sox have used a six-man rotation.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to a six-man rotation is that allows the pitchers an extra day of rest. This would be very beneficial for the Braves, as Tim Hudson is 37 years old, Ben Sheets has only thrown 35.1 professional innings over the past two years, Hanson is likely tired as his 5.73 IP/GS is the lowest in his career, and Medlen isn’t fully stretched out yet.

One of the arguments against a six-man rotation is that it takes one player out of the bullpen, leaving them understaffed. However, there is no reason that the Braves bullpen should fall into that trap. The Braves currently have Cristhian Martinez, Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin in their bullpen, along with Anthony Varvaro in the minors and Jair Jurrjens on the disabled list, who are all capable of providing more than one inning of relief. If one of the starters struggles, all of those five are capable of offsetting any pitching problems. At the back-end of the bullpen, the Braves have Eric O’Flaherty, Chad Durbin, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, who have been absolutely dominant in recent weeks. This season, the Braves are 51-1 when leading after six innings.

As the Braves find themselves only three games back of the Washington Nationals, it wouldn’t be surprising if manager Fredi Gonzalez sticks with what has got him to this point. However, if the Braves are going to rely on their veteran pitchers for a deep playoff run, it might be best for them to rest those players down the stretch.

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Braves Acquire Johnson, Maholm

Late Monday night, the Atlanta Braves announced that they have acquired outfielder Reed Johnson, pitcher Paul Maholm and cash from the Chicago Cubs for pitchers Jaye Chapman and Arodys Vizcaino.

The deal, completed less than a day before the non-waiver trade deadline, ends the Braves’ search for a right-handed bench bat and starting pitcher. The Braves still hope to acquire a bullpen arm before the 1 p.m. PST deadline.

In the trade, the Braves get two pieces that will help them contend for a playoff spot down the stretch. Reed Johnson, a 35-year-old right-handed hitting outfielder, was definitely the centerpiece of the trade for Braves general manager Frank Wren. Maholm, 30, wasn’t the top-of-the-rotation starter the Braves were seeking, but will help solidify their struggling rotation.

Johnson has enjoyed a very successful season for the Cubs as their fourth outfielder. In 169 at-bats, he’s compiled a .302/.355/.444 batting line, including 13-for-29 (.448) as a pinch-hitter. With the Braves, he will primarily be used against left-handers, who he is batting .313 off of since 2003, good for 6th in the MLB (min. 1200 AB). While his defense isn’t as good as it used to be (-2.4 UZR/150, -1 DRS), he can play all three outfield positions and is a good option to temporarily spell Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn and Martin Prado. Johnson is a free agent at the end of the season.

Maholm, who was never rumored to be on the Braves’ radar, is one of the hottest pitchers in the MLB. In his last 10 starts, he is 5-1 with a 2.39 ERA, including 45 strikeouts and 14 walks in 60.1 innings pitched. Overall, he has a 3.74 ERA, 6.1 K/9, 0.9 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9 and 49.9 percent ground ball rate in 120.1 innings pitched. Since 2006, he ranks 17th among MLB pitchers with a 0.84 HR/9 (min. 1000 IP). Maholm has posted four consecutive seasons of 2.0 WAR or greater, and is on pace for a fifth. His contract includes a $6.5 million club option for 2013, including a $500,000 buyout. He will take the rotation spot of the struggling Jair Jurrjens.

Vizcaino, 21, entered the season as the Braves’ third-best prospect according to MLB.com, and the 40th best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America. He has missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery, but had a 4.67 ERA, 8.8 K/9 and 4.7 BB/9 in 17.1 relief innings last season. He is viewed as a dominant back-end-of-the-bullpen reliever with the potential to start. The success of four members of the Class-A Advanced Lynchburg Hillcats, Gus Schlosser, Aaron Northcraft, J.R. Graham and Cody Martin, made Vizcaino expendable.

Chapman, 25, was not ranked among the Braves’ best prospects heading into the season, but was on their 40-man roster. He has a 3.52 ERA with a 10.1 K/9 and 4.9 BB/9 in 53.2 innings for Triple-A Gwinnett. He is viewed as a potential back-end reliever.

Johnson will join the Braves in Atlanta tomorrow, while Maholm will join the team on Tuesday.

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Predicting the Braves’ Deadline Deals

Despite being interested in the top available starting pitchers on the trade market, the Atlanta Braves have yet to complete a deal. At the top of their list was Milwaukee Brewers ace Zack Grienke, who has since been traded to the Los Angeles Angels. The Braves have also been connected to Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster, Tampa Bay Rays pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis and Miami Marlins pitcher Josh Johnson.

However, the asking prices for Shields and Johnson may be too high for the Braves, Dempster has already vetoed a trade to the Braves and Davis hasn’t started a game since Sept. 25, 2011. The Braves have to get creative if they want to acquire a pitcher before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Here are two scenarios that the Braves might pursue as they approach deadline day:

Scenario One
Chicago Cubs trade pitcher Ryan Dempster and outfielder Reed Johnson to the Atlanta Braves for pitchers Zeke Spruill and Navery Moore and catcher/oufielder Evan Gattis.

Braves general manager Frank Wren has certainly made it clear that Dempster is his main trade deadline target. Along with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, Wren already completed a deal that would have sent pitcher Randall Delgado to the Cubs, but Dempster vetoed it using his 10-and-five rights citing that he would rather play for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Epstein and Hoyer have since tried to work out a deal with Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, but the Dodgers seem more interested in trading for teammate Matt Garza. While it’s easy to question Dempster’s desire to play for the Braves after he vetoed the trade, he has said from the beginning that he wants to play in Atlanta.

If a deal does get done, it likely won’t be identical to the one that two teams agreed on last week as Wren would rather not include Delgado in a trade for a two-month rental. Also looking for a bench bat, Wren might be able to get the Cubs to include the right-handed hitting Johnson, who can play all three outfield positions. While his defense is below-average (-6.8 UZR/150), entering Sunday he has an .809 OPS in 166 at-bats. The acquisition of Johnson would be able to offset the injury of Matt Diaz, as the two have similar production.

Instead of Delgado, the Braves could include Gattis, Spruill and Moore. Gattis, 25, is enjoying a monster season in the minors, hitting .349 with 13 home runs and 44 RBI in 41 games split across three levels. Due to his age, the Braves might be inclined to sell high on the catcher-turned-outfielder. Spruill, 22, does not get as much publicity as Julio Teheran, Delgado, Mike Minor and Arodys Vizcaino, but is ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the Braves’ system by MLB.com. He is 7-10 with a 3.88 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 21 starts at Double-A Mississippi. Moore, 21, is 6-3 with a 4.20 ERA in 19 games (11 starts) for the Class-A Rome Braves. He is ranked by MLB.com as the Braves’ 16th-best prospect.

Scenario Two
New York Mets trade outfielder Scott Hairston to the Atlanta Braves for a player to be named later or cash considerations.

With the Mets fading out of the playoff picture, it seems very likely that they will deal Hairston. Entering Sunday, the 32-year-old has posted a .258/.299/.511 slash line in 221 at-bats. He would be a perfect complement to Eric Hinkse, as Hairston bats right-handed and has posted a .308/.341/.617 slash line against left-handed pitchers. The Mets likely won’t demand much more than a mid-level prospect for Hairston, as he is eligible to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Chicago White Sox trade pitcher Gavin Floyd to the Atlanta Braves for pitcher Jair Jurrjens and shortstop Tyler Pastornicky.

Both Jurrjens and Floyd have very little trade value, as the two have struggled this season. Just like the Jeff Francouer-for-Ryan Church swap in 2009, this would be a perfect change-of-scenery trade. Jurrjens has struggled one year after earning an All-Star selection, as he was recently moved to the bullpen in favor of Kris Medlen. However, Jurrjens is still only 26 and has one arbitration-eligible season remaining. Floyd, on the other hand, is 29 and has labored through and injury-plagued season. The White Sox have been trying to move Floyd for a while, and made that even more clear after acquiring Francisco Liriano from the Minnesota Twins. Floyd has a team option of $9.5 million for next season, but can be non-tendered after the season.

In Pastornicky, the White Sox would get the utility infielder that they need after trading Eduardo Escobar to the Twins in the Liriano deal. While he hasn’t completely fallen out of favor in Atlanta, Andrelton Simmons seems like the better option at shortstop for the Braves moving forward. While Floyd isn’t the top-of-the-rotation starter that the Braves are seeking, he would provide another quality starting pitcher for the Braves down the stretch. He might also be a better option than Medlen, who hasn’t started since Aug. 4, 2010.

While it is impossible to know the outcome of the always-unpredictable trade deadline, it’s fun to try and speculate what Frank Wren and his staff will do as the deadline approaches. And with the Braves just four games back of the Washington Nationals entering Sunday, here’s to hoping the Braves receive reinforcements heading into the final two months of the season.

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15 Players to Watch on Deadline Day

With the Trade Deadline just four days away, here are 15 players that may find themselves in an Atlanta Braves uniform on August 1 (listed in alphabetical order):

Josh Beckett, P, Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox have made it clear that they are going to shop around the three-time All-Star. The Braves might be the perfect place to resurrect a career that once showed a lot of promise. Beckett has won 15 or more games four times, along with a 13-7 record in 2011. He is disliked among Red Sox nation and might be in need of a change of scenery. Despite being just 5-9 with a 4.57 ERA this season, he has posted a strong 2.5 WAR, 0.75 HR/9 and 2.41 BB/9 in those 17 starts. Frank Wren should keep Beckett’s name in the back of his head as the deadline approaches.

Matt Capps, P, Minnesota Twins: This year’s market for relief pitchers is extremely thin. Capps, along with Kansas City Royals closer Jonathan Broxton, are the best right-handed relievers available. Currently on the disabled list, Capps is a veteran who can help shore up the back-end of the Braves’ bullpen. If the Braves were to make a deal, they will likely try to pry outfielder Josh Willingham away from the Twins along with him. However, the asking price will be steep, and the Braves need to use their prospects on starting pitching first.

Rajai Davis, OF, Toronto Blue Jays: Davis may end up being the most realistic bench option for the Braves as they approach the deadline. The 31-year-old outfielder has batted .255 with five home runs and 25 stolen bases in 82 games for the Blue Jays while playing all three outfield positions. His .719 OPS and 4.7 UZR/150 make him an attractive piece to be used as a defensive replacement and pinch runner.

Ryan Dempster, P, Chicago Cubs: Dempster has already vetoed one trade to the Braves and has publicly stated that he would rather play for the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are unable to work out a deal with the Dodgers, they already have the framework for a deal with the Braves. Dempster has a 2.25 ERA, good for second in the MLB, while averaging 6.5 innings per start.

Jeff Francouer, OF, Kansas City Royals: While Francouer and the Braves are likely not on good terms since his departure in 2009, he would be a solid offensive bat off the bench. Francouer is batting .242 with 9 home runs and 30 RBI for the Royals and has one year remaining on a three-year, $16 million contract. He hit 78 home runs over parts of five seasons for the Braves and is from the Atlanta area.

Zack Greinke, P, Milwaukee Brewers: After the Dempster deal fell through, Greinke was immediately catapulted to the top of the Braves’ wish list. While the Braves have the prospects to acquire Greinke, they want to make sure that they will have him as more than a two-month rental. A sign-and-trade for Greinke might spell the end of the Michael Bourn and Brian McCann eras in Atlanta, but would provide the Braves with an ace for years to come.

Corey Hart, OF, Milwaukee Brewers: Hart has been on the Braves’ radar ever since his name began surfacing in trade rumors a few years ago. The 30-year-old has 17 home runs and 24 doubles in 96 games for the Brewers. He would provide the Braves with a right-handed power bat with above-average speed who can play first base and right field. He is under team control through 2013, and could be a potential starter next season if Bourn decides to sign elsewhere.

Felix Hernandez, P, Seattle Mariners: While it is highly unlikely that Hernandez gets dealt, the Braves could mortgage their future to acquire one of the game’s best pitchers. Hernandez already has 96 wins at age 26 and is signed through 2014. He would be perennial 20 win pitcher if he had a better offense, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Braves at least called and made an offer. A similar package to the one that Frank Wren used to acquire Mark Teixeira might still not be enough to acquire “King Felix.”

Josh Johnson, P, Miami Marlins: The Marlins are definitely poised to sell, as they have already unloaded Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez to contenders. A deal for Johnson is highly unlikely because of the large return requested, as well as the Marlins’ unwillingness to make a division rival better. However, Johnson is attractive because he is signed through 2013, and has shown the potential to be an ace when healthy.

Reed Johnson, OF, Chicago Cubs: Johnson would be a good replacement for the injured Matt Diaz off the bench. He is batting .305 with an .807 OPS in 164 at-bats for the Cubs, while playing all three outfield positions. He likely wouldn’t cost much and would be a right-handed complement for Eric Hinske. If the asking price for other outfielders is too high, there is a good chance that Johnson finds himself in a Braves uniform by next month.

Jon Lester, P, Boston Red Sox: While all indications are that he is not available, the Braves might have enough in terms of prospects to pry him away from the Red Sox. The 28-year-old is just 5-8 with a 5.46 ERA this season, but has averaged 14 wins per season since 2008 and is under team control through 2013 (including a team option for 2014). The Red Sox are in last place in the AL East with a 49-50 record, so they might become sellers at the deadline.

Francisco Liriano, P, Minnesota Twins: Liriano is not on the Braves short-list of targets, but if they became desperate, he is considerably cheaper than other options. There isn’t much to like about the 28-year-old except his 24.8 percent strikeout rate. He’s had a history of injuries, is inconsistent and can be non-tendered at the end of the season. The only way that Liriano joins the Braves is if they are unable to complete a deal for one of the higher-rated pitchers.

Kevin Millwood, P, Seattle Mariners: Another former Brave, Millwood is a cheap starting option for the Braves. At 37 years old, he would not fit into their long-term plans, but would be a potential option to serve as a long reliever and spot-starter down the stretch. He is 3-8 with a 4.13 ERA in 19 starts, but that includes a 0.50 HR/9 and 2.00 K/BB ratio. If he isn’t acquired at the deadline, the Braves may look to trade for him via waivers during the month of August.

James Shields, P, Tampa Bay Rays: If a team is willing to match the Rays’ high demands for Shields, it could turn out to be the biggest impact acquisition of this season. The 30-year-old has quietly been one of the most consistent pitchers in the majors since 2007, posting at least 200 innings and 10 wins in every season since then (he’s on pace to do it again in this season). Shields has a team option for 2013 and 2014 for around $9 million, so he is extremely affordable. He has made over 30 starts in every season since 2007 and already has 16 career complete games (11 in 2011). For the Braves, Shields might be the consolation prize if they cannot acquire Greinke.

Edinson Volquez, P, San Diego Padres: Volquez has quietly enjoyed a solid season after being traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Padres. He is 6-7 with a 3.30 ERA and an impressive 8.21 K/9 in 21 starts. While his 5.12 BB/9 is high, he isn’t eligible to become a free agent until 2014. However, the Padres realize that and are commanding a lot in return for Volquez. While a deal for Volquez is unlikely, the Braves will at least have discussions with the Padres about the 29-year-old right-hander.

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Previewing the Trade Deadline

As the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline approaches, the trade scene has certainly been heating up as of late with the trades of Ichiro Suzuki and Hanley Ramirez. The Atlanta Braves will look to make a splash at the deadline, with the hopes of acquiring pitching and bench help.

The Braves are stockpiled with talent in their farm system. Young arms such as Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino (who is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery) and Mike Minor are appealing for teams looking for pitching prospects. If the Braves are looking to acquire a star-level pitcher, it will likely take two of the aforementioned four pitchers. Jair Jurrjens, who has struggled in his past two starts, will be dealt if the Braves can find a suitor for him. Catching prospect Christian Bethancourt might be moved, assuming the Braves plan to extend Brian McCann’s contract past its’ 2013 expiration date. Assuming (and hoping) shortstop Andrelton Simmons is untouchable, the Braves trade value lies in the pitching.

The Braves have been scouring for a starting pitcher, and actually had a deal in place to acquire Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster before he used his no-trade rights to veto it. Zack Greinke of the Milwaukee Brewers is definitely the Braves’ top target, as the Brewers are slowly falling out of contention. Greinke would likely cost Teheran and another of the pitching prospects, including Julio Teheran. The only downside to the trade would be that the Braves would want to extend Greinke, who is only signed another two months. Even if the Braves don’t trade for the 2009 Cy Young Winner, they will likely pursue him in the offseason. The Braves may also look to acquire Tampa Bay Rays pitcher James Shields, who is in the midst of a down year. Despite this, a pennant race and a change of scenery could change Shields’ fortunes. While Shields isn’t known as an ace, he has recorded over 10 wins and 200 innings every season since 2007. Another benefit for the Braves is he is only due to make an affordable $9 million next season, along with a team option for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. If he doesn’t perform well, the Braves would have the option to buy him out. Miami Marlins ace Josh Johnson is another target, but his injury history should serve as a caution to the Braves’ front office.

The Braves will also be in the market for a bullpen arm and bench help. With the exception of Craig Kimbrel, the bullpen has not been as good as in years past. Due to the poor starting pitching, they have been overworked and could use another reliever to eat up innings. As far as offensive help, the Braves are likely going to look for a bench replacement for Matt Diaz, who might be out for the season with a thumb injury. The Braves don’t have the space in their lineup for an every day bat, so a utility or role player is feasible and won’t cost much. The Braves will likely pursue a big bat in the offseason, once they decide what to do with their expiring contracts.

While Frank Wren and the Braves have a lot of work to do in the next week, it’s fun to speculate on possible fits to join the team in the stretch run. And hopefully those acquisitions will help lead the Braves into a playoff spot and beyond.

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