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July 31, 2014

Braves analysis: If Braves make moves, where will they upgrade?

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Posted: Saturday, June 28, 2014 7:45 pm | Updated: 9:24 pm, Sat Jun 28, 2014.

July is two days away, the MLB all-star break is two weeks away and the trade deadline is 33 days away. Things are about to start heating up in front offices all across baseball, including the suite of Atlanta Braves' general manager Frank Wren.

So what should Wren and the Braves do? Should they be buyers, or sellers came the end of July?

As things stand today, Atlanta is hovering near the top of a weak National League East, battling the Washington Nationals and upstart Miami Marlins. To this point, the Braves have done little to inspire confidence that they can actually win the division or wild card and sneak into the playoffs. It got so desperate this week that manager Fredi Gonzalez batted B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot — for multiple games.

Since starting the season 17-7, the Braves were 23-31 in their past 54 games heading into the weekend.

But it's safe to assume that as of this moment, Wren will seek to improve the team in July through trades. How much money Liberty Media will allow him to take on remains to be seen.

In two weeks, we will examine what Atlanta should do if they become sellers. Today, let's look at the areas Wren could look to improve if the Braves remain buyers.

Second base

So far: Dan Uggla is who we were afraid he would become. Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena were badly exposed with regular playing time. Rookie Tommy LaStella started well after his call-up, but stalled after moving into the leadoff spot. He hasn't had much more success in the second spot in the lineup. Maybe Gonzalez will move him back down in the order, or maybe LaStella can find a way to be the on-base machine he was in the minors.

Who to target: It should be a buyer's market for second basemen. Aaron Hill, David Murphy, Martin Prado and Luis Valbuena will be available, as could several others. The ideal fit for Atlanta, however, would be Ben Zobrist of the Tampa Bay Rays. Zobrist can play second base and outfield, and even short and third in a pinch. And while he has struggled for the Rays this year, he has a track record of success and has one more year on his contract at a reasonable $7.5 million. He could take over at second full-time, or play in a reconfigured Braves outfield if they decide to put B.J. Upton on the bench. He also could fill the leadoff spot or bat second if Jason Heyward moves back to the top of the lineup. Zobrist won’t come cheap in terms of prospects, however.

Starting pitcher

So far: Atlanta's starters have been the best thing about this year's team. So why would they be on the market for a starting pitcher? Simple — Wren has long said if he could have his choice of one piece to add to his team, he would want a top-flight No. 1 starter. Julio Teheran is working in that direction. Mike Minor might get close to that one day, too. But when you look at the other top teams in baseball, the depth of Atlanta's rotation doesn't quite match up. There is no shutdown starter.

Who to target: Look no further than central Florida again. David Price is the No. 1 pitcher available this summer, and he is signed through 2015. He has struck out 10 or more batters in each of his past five starts. He's playoff tested and hungry to win. Every team in baseball would love to have him. Whether or not Wren is willing to give up what it would take to get him — any package for Price would probably start with Alex Wood and minor league catcher Christian Betancourt — is another thing entirely. I don't see the Braves seriously considering any other starter, including Jeff Samardzija.

Relief pitcher(s)

So far: Craig Kimbrel is still a beast, so there is no issue at the back end of the bullpen. The bridge to get to him has been a bit creaky, though. Atlanta recently recalled hard-throwing righties Shae Simmons and Juan Jaime, and Simmons immediately was installed as the eighth-inning man. Lefthander Luis Avilan hasn't been as reliable this year, nor has righty David Carpenter. Jordan Walden's health also is a big concern. Interesting note: Kimbrel, now in his fifth year, is the longest-tenured major leaguer in Atlanta's bullpen. It's a young group.

Who to target: Any lefthander that can come in and square off with Bryce Harper, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard et al and win the battle more often than not. The Chicago Cubs' James Russell would be a good fit as would lefties Alex Torres, Oliver Perez and Tony Sipp. Wren might target an experienced right-hander who could help out in crucial middle-inning spots, too.

Of course, some bench help has to be considered, and possibly an outfielder, too. There was a report that Atlanta was considering moving Evan Gattis to left field, with Justin Upton shifting to right and Heyward to center. Atlanta could call up Betancourt to catch in that scenario. But all that really does is weaken Atlanta defensively, and it doesn't upgrade their offense.

The bottom line is that Atlanta has a flawed roster with many immovable pieces. Upgrading will be tough and expensive in terms of prospects. I'm not sure the Braves can make enough moves to upgrade their putrid offense this year. Their best move might be to stand pat. Or better yet, become sellers.

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