Coming into the 2010 season, the consensus was that the Braves had an excellent starting rotation, but that their hitters were just average and their bullpen was full of question marks.
Interestingly, the Braves have surged into first place on the strength of the two aspects of their team that were considered potential liabilities--hitting and relief pitching. This Braves team has not had a true weakness, but relatively speaking, the weakest link has been the perceived strength--starting pitching.
That sounds odd. After all, the Braves have a remarkably consistent ace in Tim Hudson. They have Tommy Hanson, who is capable of pitching like an ace on any given night. They also have four other quality starting pitchers.
Despite this excellent depth, the Braves have only the 7th-best starting-rotation ERA in the National League (16 teams). Some advanced metrics actually rate the Braves' staff even lower. For instance, Braves starters rank only 13th in strikeout rate and 8th in Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP).
(More analysis after the jump...)
By way of comparison, the Braves' offense has done quite well despite a slight dropoff recently. They are 5th in the NL in runs per game, 1st in on-base percentage, and 4th in wOBA (an advanced measure of all-around offensive prowess). Similarly, the Braves' bullpen measures up quite well. It is 4th in the NL in ERA, 2nd in FIP, and 1st in strikeout rate.
Given this data, the conclusion is obvious: if the Braves are to upgrade any part of the team, the best area to do so would be the starting rotation (barring injuries in other areas). Since they already have 6 decent (or better) starters, the solution is not to add another starter to the mix, but rather to upgrade a spot in the rotation. In short, what the Braves should do is trade for a true ace, the type of pitcher who can shut down a good offense in a playoff game.
Someone like Cliff Lee.
Lee has been one of the 5 best pitchers in baseball since the start of the 2008 season and proved last year with Philadelphia that he could anchor a playoff rotation. He has a 2.45 ERA, 2.34 WHIP, and 5 complete games already in 2010. Plus, he has walked only 5 men in 95 innings. Even better, Lee's salary this year is very manageable (he's due about $4.5 million for the rest of the season), so the Braves could probably get approval to add the extra payroll, especially given this season's increased attendance.
Lee is a free agent after the season and the Mariners stink, so he almost certainly will be traded at some point before the July 31st trade deadline. The only question is who makes the best offer; the Braves definitely have the players to entice the Mariners.
If I were Braves' GM Frank Wren, I would offer Jair Jurrjens straight-up for Lee. Jurrjens gives the Mariners a very good starter to build around, as he will be team-controlled for 3 more years. The Braves get an ace for the pennant chase and playoffs, plus they save themselves from having to pay Jurrjens huge amounts of money in arbitration the next 3 seasons. And once Lee leaves after the season, the Braves will get two draft picks in return. Each team gets what they need; it's the perfect baseball trade.
Of course, it will never happen. Wren seems perfectly content with his pitching situation at the moment, and rumors have focused on the Braves trading for an outfield bat. While a good-hitting outfielder would likely help the Braves, the improvement will be marginal at best (especially given the unimpressive names that are on the market). Unless Wren gives up next to nothing, such a trade is unlikely to be a wise long-term decision.
On the other hand, a trade for Lee dramatically upgrades the front end of the Braves' rotation. Plus, it has the secondary benefit of keeping Lee from joining one of the Braves' rivals--the Mets, in particular, have rumored interest in Lee. With Lee, the Braves would be the frontrunners to win the NL pennant. Without him, they are just one of many challengers. With Lee, the Braves would have a starting pitching duo that matches up with the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. Without him, the Braves would be in trouble in a short series.
Sure, we'd have to give up something pretty valuable to get him. But the point of the game is to win the championship, and in Bobby Cox's last season, don't we owe it to him to give him the best possible chance to go out on top? Every trade is a risk, but a trade for Cliff Lee has such a high potential reward that you have to do it if the risk is at all manageable.
Trading for Lee would signal that the Braves are going "all-in" on this season, and there's no better time to go all-in than when you've got a pair of Aces like Hudson and Lee.