The Phillies are coming, and the Braves can feel it. The day after Philadelphia activated Chase Utley from the disabled list, the Braves have acquired first baseman Derrek Lee and cash from the Cubs for a trio of minor league pitchers in the hope of holding off the two-time defending National League champions who trail the Braves in the NL East by 2½ games entering Wednesday night's action.
With Lee in the fold, the Braves are expected to send incumbent first baseman Troy Glaus to the disabled list. Glaus, whose career has been plagued by injuries, has been playing on a bum left knee since the end of June. Signed to a $1.75 million one-year contract in January after a season largely lost to a back injury, Glaus was hitting .280/.380/.494 on June 20, but has hit just .175/.285/.266 in 179 plate appearances since then. That performance, combined with the season-ending ACL tear suffered by Chipper Jones last Tuesday, has carved a huge hole out of the first-place Braves' offense. A hole widened in recent weeks by second baseman Martin Prado's broken pinkie and rookie right fielder Jason Heyward's sore right knee.
Prado was activated from the disabled list on Tuesday and moved to third base, where he will serve as Jones' replacement for the remainder of the season, with All-Star utility man Omar Infante staying put as Prado's replacement at the keystone. Infante has hit .365/.390/.500 since taking over for Prado, fluffing his already impressive season rates, and Prado went 3-for-5 with a double in his return Tuesday night while also batting in Jones' vacated third spot in the order.
Infante is sure to cool off, but as a replacement for the aging Jones, who was hitting just .265/.381/.426, he could well suffice. Indeed, the Braves have gone 6-1 since Jones injury. That makes Lee, who is in the final months of his five-year contract with the Cubs, pure upgrade over Glaus's miserable performance over the last two months, which is good, because Lee is having his worst season as a major league regular. The good news for Braves fans is that Lee has started to click in the second half, hitting .313/.356/.583 with six home runs in 24 games since the All-Star break, .306/.381/.694 in August, and joins the Braves having just gone 5-for-11 with four home runs in a weekend series in St. Louis.
That the 34-year-old Lee is a far better hitter than his miserable first-half (.233/.329/.366) is what the Braves are hanging their hat on here, as Lee has struggled at Turner Field over his career (.237/.338/.388) and doesn't have any other favorable splits this season that would suggest his performance could be maximized through platooning or by escaping what is indeed the hitting-friendly Wrigley Field. If Lee can simply perform at a level equal to his career rates of .282/.367/.499, he'll be a huge upgrade for the Braves, equivalent to having the early-season version of Glaus back. In fact, with Infante effectively replacing the OBP-only version of Chipper Jones, Prado back in the lineup, and Lee and Alex Gonzalez representing upgrades on the aching Glaus and slumping Yunel Escobar, the Braves infield might actually be stronger now than it was with Jones in the lineup, both at the plate and in the field.
That's important, because the Braves' outfield is still a mess. Heyward has hit just .140/.241/.280 since July 31 due to the discomfort in his right knee. Deadline acquisition Rick Ankiel has hit just .191/.309/.234 as a member of the Braves, failing to solve the team's season-long problems in center field, and the left-field platoon of lefty Eric Hinske and righty Matt Diaz hasn't done much better of late. Fortunately, the Braves' first-place status owes less to their hitting than to their pitching, which has been stingier than every NL staff but that of the Petco-assisted Padres. As long as manager Bobby Cox can resist putting Ankiel's co-conspirator Kyle Farnsworth into any high-leverage situations, that pitching, buoyed by a huge comeback season by Tim Hudson (14-5, 2.13 ERA) and the dominant relief work of veteran closer Billy Wagner and rookie lefty Jonny Venters, and recently reinforced by the strong early showing of 2009 first-rounder Mike Minor, just might win out.
As for the three pitchers headed to the Cubs, right-hander Robinson Lopez is an unexceptional 19-year-old Dominican who has seen time as both a starter and reliever this year in his first full minor league season. The other two, righty Tyrelle Harris and lefty Jeffrey Lorick, are relief pitchers drafted out of southern colleges in the middle rounds of the 2009 draft. Lorick, a 22-year-old taken out of the University of Virginia in the 20th round, just reached High-A and thus has yet to really be tested. Harris, 23 and taken out of the University of Tennessee a round earlier, is a large man (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) with similarly large strikeout numbers (11.3 K/9 in his minor league career) who impressively hasn't allowed a home run in 67 minor league innings. Harris just reached Double-A, which is were his true potential as a major league set-up man will start to be revealed. None of the three are serious prospects.
With Lee in the fold, Atlanta has improved its chances of holding off the defending champs, or at the very least landing a wild-card berth (the Phillies currently hold a one-game lead over the Giants in that race), but neither of those races seems likely to hinge on his acquisition. Meanwhile, the Phillies will likely get Ryan Howard back from the disabled list next week, and the Phillies and Braves will play six of their final dozen games against each other including the final three contests of the season. Chances are, even with Lee in the fold, the NL East will come down to those final three games.