Buy or Sell?

The Atlanta Braves are in a tough situation.  They’re 6 games under .500 and dealing with injuries across the board.  Several stars the team was depending on are underperforming and there’s no fire in this team’s belly.

But on the other hand, the Braves are only 6 games away from 1st place and only 8 games away from the Wild Card spot.  If they’ve managed to stay this close with such a trying and, at times, miserable first half of the season, the 2nd half can’t get much worse, can it?  So, in the last few weeks before the July 31 trading deadline, what should Atlanta do?

At 43-49, it’s easy to write this team off as an also-ran that will plummet in the season’s waning months.  However, that 43-49 doesn’t really tell the whole story.  A popular story that has been negatively spun all over Atlanta is the team’s record in one-run games.  Now, for all practical purposes, let me just tell you that the team’s record in one-run games is mostly meaningless.  In many of these games, the team was down by multiple runs only to score late in the game to bring it closer.  It doesn’t mean the team is poorly managed, unclutch, or whatever other attribute you can conjure up.  What you can take from the one-run game record is actually something positive, and when you think about it, it’s the mark of a team that is tough to beat:  when the Braves win, they win big, but when they lose, they barely lose.  When you’ve got a chance to win in nearly every game, that’s a good thing.  It’s not as psychological as the mainstream media would have you believe.  It really is some terrible luck. Throughout baseball history, looking at runs scored and runs allowed can, most of the time, accurately predict what a team’s record will be.  The Braves right now have an expected winning % of .538, which would put the team’s record at either 49-43 or 50-42.  What does this mean?  Even though the standings don’t reflect it, the team has played well enough to be in 1st place right now.

I know what you’re thinking; this is all well and good for imaginary baseball, but how does this knowledge help the team get to the playoffs in 2008?  Put simply, it lets the team know that natural improvement may be on the way.  This has happened in baseball before. In 2005, Houston, at the same point, was piddling around at 46-46.  They were 5 games out of a playoff spot.  However, their expected record was 48-46, and more importantly, one of the teams they trailed, the Washington Nationals at 54-40, had an expected record of only 46-48 at the time.  The Astros didn’t bail on their aging team, and they kept fighting.  From that point through the end of the season, the Astros were the NL’s best team, winning 42 of their final 69 games.  The Nationals, on the other hand, plummeted quickly finishing on a 27-41 run as the NL’s worst team.

Sometimes it doesn’t turn around.  The Diamondbacks eluded the cold hard facts last year and made the playoffs while giving up more runs than they scored.  But most of the time, it does balance out.  The Marlins are a team that’s a prime candidate to stumble badly.  The Brewers were headed for a similar fate, but they made the right trade at the right time to try to save themselves.

Am I saying the Braves will reach the playoffs?  No.  They probably won’t.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t, and much, much stranger things have happened in baseball.  The East is still a very winnable division, so now isn’t the time to start bailing on Atlanta’s chances.  Atlanta shouldn’t be a strong buyer this July, because the division is a bit of a long shot, but if there’s any way the team can improve while keeping its top prospects, the Braves should be looking for a trade.  Another arm to stabilize the bullpen, an innings eater in the rotation, or a left field bat would and should all interest the Braves, if the price is right.  At the All-Star break, I’ll get a little more specific on the Braves’ options in this trade market.  For now, I’m just hoping they ignore that ringing phone, because history points to a quick turnaround.

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