The Braves see opportunity in the National League East, and they're seizing it.
The first-place Phillies have the worst rotation in baseball by ERA (5.72) and just lost No. 2 starter Brett Myers to a hip surgery that will likely end his season.
The Mets have had injury woes of their own, with Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Oliver Perez, and Ryan Church among the players currently on the disabled list. And Delgado, who also had hip surgery, is unlikely return until late July.
At .500, the Braves sit just 5 1/2 games out of first place. Seeing their chance, they took it by trading three prospects to the Pirates for All-Star center fielder Nate McLouth.
The Braves saw their chance in the offseason, too. That's why they traded for Javier Vazquez, spent big money on Derek Lowe and also added veteran free agents Garret Anderson and Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami. The additions of Lowe, Vazquez, and Kawakami, along with holdover Jair Jurrjens, have turned the Braves rotation, which was 20th in ERA in 2008, into one of the best in the majors (the Braves starters' 3.93 ERA ranks fifth in the majors this year).
Unfortunately, Anderson hasn't proven to be the solution the Braves needed in the outfield. Nor was 22-year-old rookie center fielder Jordan Schafer, who won the starting job out of spring training, and the Braves offense has sputtered as a result, scoring just 4.43 runs per game, better than just five other teams in the National League. Schafer, who had never played above Double-A, made an instant splash with an Opening Day home run and another two days later. Since then, however, he'd hit just .197/.302/.248, leading to his demotion Tuesday. The acquisition of McLouth goes a long way toward filling that hole in the Atlanta lineup, though perhaps not as far as you might think.
McLouth is an asset at the plate, but he's not a true impact talent. Even in his breakout, All-Star season last year, he failed to slug .500 or get on base more than 36 percent of the time. Thus far this year, he's failing to live up to even his modest .276/.356/.497 line from a year ago, hitting .256/.349/.470. McLouth is a real weapon on the bases (in his major-league career, he has stolen 64 bases in 69 tries), but the Gold Glove he won last year is one of the bigger gaffes the history of the award. Advanced fielding metrics reveal McLouth to have been one of the worst fielders in all of baseball in 2008, though they're far more kind to him this year, ranking him as roughly average in center. Most significant, McLouth, despite having just "arrived," is already 27, which means he's unlikely to get much better. There's no doubt McLouth will be a significant upgrade for a Braves outfield that bookended the undercooked Schafer with the remains of Anderson (.263/.290/.377) and Jeff Francoeur (actually underperforming his disastrous 2008 at .251/.275/.359), but the real questions are: Will that be enough and was it worth the cost?
Taking the latter first, the three prospects the Braves sent to Pittsburgh were center fielder Gorkys Hernandez, left-handed starter Jeff Locke and righty starter Charlie Morton. Morton is nothing special. The tall, skinny righty failed in his first shot at the majors last year, in part due to a back injury, and though he's pitching well at Triple-A this year, he's already 25 and not considered a top prospect. Hernandez, 21, is considered a top prospect, but he's behind Schafer in the Braves' system, and as a speed-and-defense center fielder, isn't expected to hit enough to move to a corner. Locke is somewhere in the middle. He's not a top prospect, but a projectable 21-year-old lefty starter -- even one showing some control problems in High-A ball -- is not a commodity with which a team casually parts.
It's Locke's inclusion in this deal that makes one question the cost. Hernandez was one of Atlanta's top trade chips, particularly after they dealt slugging catcher/first baseman Tyler Flowers to the White Sox for Vazquez, but it made sense that Pittsburgh would want a center field prospect in return for their center field starter and made sense for the Braves to include one given that they already had Schafer in the system. Morton was a throw-in. Locke was the mid-season tariff, the price the Braves paid to get a player they thought would allow them to make the playoffs this year rather than down the line. In that sense, the success of the deal from Atlanta's perspective hinges on Locke's future success and their ability to squeeze past the Mets and Phillies in the NL East. I don't think McLouth is going to be enough to enable them to do that, however.
Put simply, the Braves' offense is a mess. Brian McCann and Chipper Jones continue to rake, but at age 37, Jones has looked more fragile than ever and isn't hitting for his typical power. We've already discussed Anderson and Francoeur. Kelly Johnson is merely adequate; Casey Kotchman, despite a similar OPS, has been considerably less than that as a first baseman slugging .405 and reaching base just 34 percent of the time. Yunel Escobar has been an asset, but he, like McLouth is merely a competitive advantage given the defense-first position he plays, not a game-changing force. McCann, 80 percent of Chipper Jones, a few solid soldiers (with McLouth now among their ranks) and two black holes does not add up to a division-winning offense, which is why I have to continue to pick against the Braves in the NL East.
All of which goes to show just how far away the Braves were at the end of last season, and why I believe they should have focused on building a perennial pennant winner for the coming decade around coming talents such as Schafer, righty starter Tommy Hanson (who will make his big-league debut Saturday), first baseman Freddie Freeman and right-field prospect Jason Heyward, as well as the still-only-25-year-old McCann and 23-year-old Jurrjens. The good news is the Braves still have all of those players in the system, and can move McLouth (who is signed through 2011 with an option for 2012) to left once Schafer proves he really is ready for The Show.
As for the Pirates, the deal clears room for top prospect Andrew McCutchen, 22, who will be called up to take McLouth's place after hitting .303/.361/.493 with 10 steals in a dozen tries with Triple-A Indianapolis. It also clears nearly $15 million from the books and brings in two valuable prospects in Hernandez, who could ultimately push McCutchen to a corner, and Locke, who has a much higher ceiling than the collection of mid-20s righties the Bucs got from the Yankees in last-year's Xavier Nady deal. McCutchen could prove to be McLouth's equal before long and should be the better player in the long term, and far cheaper in the short term. This could prove to be a deal in which there is no loser -- neither team gave up something they couldn't afford to lose -- but if the Braves aren't playing baseball in October, it could be, in a literal sense, one in which there's no real winner.