The past couple of week have been especially exciting for sports fans who enjoy ‘the art of the deal’. After finally agreeing to the end the lockout, the NFL went into a free agent frenzy, as teams rushed to sign hundreds of players to new deals in time to get them into training camp. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball’s annual trade deadline came to a head as nearly a dozen ballclubs fought to improve their chances at making the playoffs. Whether its football, baseball, or any other sport, when you intend to make an addition to the club, you are looking to fill a specific need.
Look at the major moves to happen in the past week: the Philadelphia Eagles ranked near the bottom of the league at giving up touchdowns in the air, so they sign Nnamdi Asomugha, the top defensive back on the market. The San Francisco Giants, the defending World Series champions, desperately need to improve their offense – so they trade for switch-hitting slugger Carlos Beltran. But for my money, no team has been better at addressing and filling needs than the Atlanta Braves. Capped off with this week’s acquisition of speedy center-fielder Michael Bourn, Braves General Manager Frank Wren has managed to fill all of the Braves needs in a very short time span.
After the blockbuster trade that brought power-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Braves, and the subsequent trade a year later that sent him to the Angels, the Braves have employed a series of stopgaps at the position: Casey Kotchman, Adam Laroche, Troy Glaus, and Derrek Lee. Entering 2011, Braves fans wondered, “Who is going to be our long-term first baseman? We can’t much more of these oldtimers who can’t play a whole season!” In walks Freddie Freeman. The rookie struggled through the early portions of the season, but has since gone on a tear. Batting .300 with 15 homers, Freeman potentially has the lead for NL Rookie of the Year. Paired with his Gold Glove-caliber defense, Freeman has solidified himself as the stalwart at first Braves fans can expect to see for many years to come.
Since John Smoltz left his closing duties to go back into the starting rotation, the Braves have struggled to keep a consistent arm at the back of the bullpen. They burned through the likes of Kolb, Wickman, Reitsma, Gonzalez, Soriano, all pitchers who were either inconsistent on the mound or couldn’t stay healthy. The signing of Billy Wagner for the 2010 season turned out to be an incredibly shrewd move, as he was arguably the most dominant closer of the season. But after suffering an injury in the playoffs, Wagner stepped away from baseball and retired. The door was left open to a group of young, hard-throwing relievers, led by Craig Kimbrel. He looked the part, like a right-handed version Wagner. His devastating fastball and slider combination conjures images of Smoltz. 33 saves later, Kimbrel is on pace to shatter Neftali Feliz’s rookie record of 40. His 87 strikeouts is more than Braves ace Jair Jurrjens. The Braves found their closer, and he’s only 23 years old.
RIGHT-HANDED POWER HITTER
Before last season, Troy Glaus was acquired not only to address our need at first-base, but also to fill the need of a right handed power bat in the middle of the lineup. With Brain McCann, Jason Heyward, Nate McLouth, and now Freddie Freeman, the Braves lineup had become overloaded with left-handed hitters. We needed a right handed hitter to hit for power, and hit in the middle of the lineup to break up all the lefties. Now, on July 1st, you might have argued that we still need that right-handed power hitter. But on August 6th, I think we can all agree that the Braves already filled that need. During the offseason, the trade for second baseman Dan Uggla looked like an incredible move by GM Frank Wren. By only giving up a utility player and a middle reliever, Wren appeared to have stolen Uggla from a division rival, the Marlins. He was the perfect fit to address our needs: a reliable power source from the right side, and could plug him into the middle of the lineup. It may have taken him three months to get going, but Uggla, currently on a 26-game hitting streak, has exploded into the monster power hitter the Braves thought they had traded for back in December. Any thoughts of the Braves needing to acquire Beltran, Hunter Pence, Carlos Quentin, or a similar batter became moot as Uggla tore through July. No, the Braves were left with just one glaring need, and Wren knew exactly how to fill it.
Jordan Schafer, Nate McLouth, and Martin Prado have hit leadoff for the majority of the 2011 season. Schafer and McLouth, though speedy, maintain low on-base percentages and struggle to get to first base. As the old saying goes, ‘you can’t steal first.’ Prado does not have such problems, but he’s a prototypical 2nd-place hitter, and not who you want leading off. Shortly after the Braves missed out on Astros slugger Hunter Pence, who was acquired by Philadelphia to protect Ryan Howard in the lineup, I couldn’t help but think that the Braves dodged a bullet. Rather than give up one or more of our top prospects, Wren told the Astros that they were off limits, even for Pence. So after Pence was dealt, and the Astros had already examined our entire farm system looking for alternatives, Wren jumped back into the fray by asking for All-Star leadoff hitter Michael Bourn. Bourn leads the majors in steals, has won two Gold Gloves, and is batting over .300 – he would be the perfect acquisition. Two days later Bourn is in a Braves uniform, and no top prospects were moved to Houston as part of the deal.
Now with a high on-base speedster at the top of the lineup, the Braves have put together a prototypical lineup 1 through 8. Bourn at the top. Prado, the contact hitter who can move him over. The boppers, Chipper, McCann, Uggla, and Freeman to drive in the runs. End it with Heyward and Alex Gonzalez at 7 and 8, and you’ve got one of the most potent lineups in the National League, when healthy. Frank Wren identified the Braves’ most pressing need was to solidify the top of the order, get a run creator, not another bat to drive in runs. He managed to not only fill that need, but did not give up anything we would miss in the future. That’s how you build teams.