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Braves' Teheran is trade deadline's best target, but will he be dealt?

Julio Teheran is likely the best pitcher on a thin trade market, but will the Braves make him available? Jay Jaffe on whether Atlanta should deal its ace.

The Braves haven’t had much to cheer about this season, but on Sunday, Julio Teheran provided a highlight by spinning a one-hit shutout against the Mets at Citi Field. The gem completed Atlanta’s three-game sweep of the defending NL champions, and it no doubt raised the stakes with regards to the 25-year-old righty, who is positioned to be the top pitcher in the July trade market—if the team decides to deal him.

Teheran didn’t get very far in chasing a no-hitter, as the lone hit the 25-year-old righty yielded was a leadoff single by Michael Conforto to start the third inning. That was actually the only base runner he allowed all day; over the course of his season-high 120 pitches, he struck out seven and didn’t walk a batter from an admittedly depleted Mets lineup, which was without David Wright, Lucas Duda and Travis d’Arnaud due to injuries and which scored just four runs in the three-game sweep. Here’s the highlight reel:

The shutout, the third of Teheran’s career, lowered his ERA to 2.66, which would be the lowest mark of his career. Likewise, his strikeout rate (8.4 per nine) and strikeout to walk ratio (3.83) represent career bests as well, though his 1.2 homers per nine is nearly a career worst and pushes his FIP to 3.83, suggesting the possibility of regression ahead. Still, Teheran has a track record of outpitching his peripherals (3.35 ERA, 3.89 FIP). His 2.8 Wins Above Replacement is seventh in the league, and he’s more than two-thirds of the way to his career high of 3.9, set in 2014.

Back in February 2014, the Braves signed Teheran to a six-year, $32.4 million extension, part of a wave of deals with their core youngsters—first baseman Freddie Freeman, rightfielder Jason Heyward, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and closer Craig Kimbrel were the others—geared toward allowing them to remain perennial contenders in the NL East. The team’s decision to plunge into rebuilding mode after a disappointing 2014 season, however, resulted in the trades of Kimbrel, Heyward and the Upton brothers, Justin and Melvin. This past winter, Atlanta dealt Simmons, and it seems only a matter of time before it deals Teheran as well.

At 23–46, the Braves currently own the NL’s worst record, and while they had hoped to coincide their move into their new Cobb County ballpark next year with a much stronger squad, right now that timetable seems overly optimistic. The question is whether now is the best time to deal Teheran. So far, the Braves have sounded lukewarm on the idea, at least based upon media reports:

• Earlier this month, general manager John Coppolella told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, “The days of us trading players like Teheran for prospects are over. We need to get better at the major league level. We would have to be overwhelmed to move Teheran,”

• Eight days ago, the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo reported, “There’s split opinions within the Braves organization on whether it’s better to trade Teheran or build around him, since he can’t become a free agent until 2020. Teams have already approached the Braves, but no one has met the caliber of package it would take to pry him away.”

• More recently, one Braves source told Today’s Knuckleball’s Jon Heyman, “I don’t see the Braves trading Teheran,” but stopped short of putting him in the same “untouchable” class as Freeman.

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Teheran is very inexpensive, making $3.3 million this year, with subsequent salaries of $6.3 million in 2017, $8 million in ‘18, $11 million in ‘19 and a $12 million option or $1 million buyout for ‘20. A team trading for him at the July 31 deadline would be adding only around $1 million in salary this year, a facet of the deal that would only increase the quality of the return. The trade market for starting pitchers is going to be a very lean one, with the names that have been tossed around thus far representing a mixture of those who have fallen upon hard times (San Diego’s Andrew Cashner, Oakland’s Sonny Gray, Philadelphia’s Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay’s Matt Moore) and those whose recent success stands out amid longer stretches of injuries (Oakland’s Rich Hill, San Diego’s Drew Pomeranz). Particularly given his cost certainty, Teheran would likely fetch the largest haul unless Gray, who has three years of club control remaining, begins to turn his season around from his current 5.54 ERA.

Teheran’s availability could interest contenders such as the Red Sox, Royals, Orioles, TIgers and Yankees, all of whom have rotations with ERAs of 4.41 or higher. Some of those teams—particularly the sub-.500 Tigers and Yankees—could slide out of contention between now and late July, possibly adding more pitchers to the market. On the other hand, an injury on a team whose rotation currently appears relatively stable could add to the number of suitors.

The arguments against trading Teheran in July are twofold. While the Braves have restocked their minor league system with high-caliber young arms, Teheran still represents more certainty to go with his affordability; he may very well be a key piece for the next contending Braves team, if not in 2017 than in '18 or '19. On the other hand, the market for him this winter would likely be bigger than in July, as the crop of free-agent starting pitchers appears woefully thin in the wake of Stephen Strasburg agreeing to an extension with the Nationals. Against a backdrop of underperforming hurlers with opt-out clauses (Scott Kazmir, James Shields), scuffling free agents-to-be (Cashner, Jake Peavy, Jered Weaver) and perennial question marks (Doug Fister, Scott Feldman), Teheran would again appear to be the belle of the ball, with non-contenders joining the mix in pursuit.

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As to what Teheran could command in trade, the Braves can dream on a Shelby Miller-like return (2015 No. 1 pick Dansby Swanson, rotation prospect Aaron Blair and young centerfielder Ender Inciarte), but it’s difficult to imagine another team being as brazen as the Diamondbacks were in that deal. It’s also asking a lot to believe that Teheran could command a package along the lines of what the Rangers used to get Cole Hamels and reliever Jake Diekmann from the Phillies (pitchers Alec Asher, Jerad Eickhoff and Jake Thompson, catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams), even given how much more affordable Teheran is than Hamels, who’s making $22.5 million a year through 2019, with a $20 million option and $6 million buyout for '20.

Coppolella told Rosenthal that he would only trade Teheran if he could get a hitter of comparable age and quality in return, suggesting not a prospect but a current regular, which may be a tough sell for a suitor given the higher risk attached to pitchers. More likely, Atlanta would net one MLB-ready piece and a couple of top-100 prospects who are further off.

Given the Braves’ high demands and apparent reluctance to move Teheran, a trade at or near July 31 may not come to pass. Still, like any pitcher, he represents a high-risk asset for Atlanta as much as any team acquiring him. He’s on pace to top 200 innings for the third year in a row, and his fastball velocity is down about 1.5 mph from 2013, according to Brooks Baseball. Moving him before it falls much further, or before he develops an arm problem, may be the safest course of action.