Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 6/19/12

I think it was Earl Wilson who said baseball is a nervous breakdown, divided into nine innings, or something to that effect. I imagine the Atlanta Braves are starting to relate to that sentiment.

On May 20th, the Braves beat the Tampa Bay Rays 5-3 in rather classic Braves style with a win, hold, and save from Tommy Hanson, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel. They were 25-15 and stood atop the National League East by a game and a half and appeared to be a serious playoff contender, if not the likely NL East champs. Since then, they’ve gone 9-16, they’re 4.5 games back of the Washington Nationals, and they’re fighting to stay in contention for a wild card spot.

What they need in order to right the proverbial ship is a little ironic, considering it was considered a position of strength heading into the season. Ligaments, it seems, are fickle.

The Braves opened the season with Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Jair Jurrjens, and Tim Hudson as rotation locks. The club was in the enviable position of choosing among Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, and Randall Delgado to round out the staff (well, technically two of them as Hudson returned from back surgery) and they had Arodys Vizcaino tearing through their minor league system. It was their pitching depth that allowed them to jettison Derek Lowe to save a few bucks in the off season.

And then the bell rang.

Jurrjens was throwing a change up and a fastball that were practically indistinguishable, earning himself a trip to the minors. Mike Minor has struggled with consistency and command, possessing a 6.04 ERA (5.14 FIP). Brandon Beachy faces the specter of Dr. James Andrews’ scalpel, which was inside the elbow of Arodys Vizcaino only weeks ago.

They’ve gotten a respectable performance from Randall Delgado, but his 4.48 walk rate rarely allows him to pitch past the fifth inning, a problem also shared by Minor. This is a big reason why the Braves have one of the hardest worked bullpens in baseball.

What they’re left with is Hanson, Hudson, two inconsistent starters in Delgado and Minor, and what appears to be the Jair Jurrjens reclamation project. And this could be enough. Delgado and Minor have shown some recent improvement, and reports are that Jurrjens was back to hitting 90 to 91 with his fastball in recent outings. If one of them falters, they could turn to Kris Medlen. They could turn to Julio Teheran. But the Braves rotation is no longer ironclad, and with few other holes on the team to fill (a point I’ll address in a moment), it might be the best possible place to provide an upgrade.

The Braves have a current payroll in excess of $93 million dollars, they’re already paying Derek Lowe $10 million to not pitch for them, and there’s been no indication that the team intends to take on payroll in a rent-a-player scenario. Still, the Braves could target any one of Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon McCarthy, Matt Garza, Shaun Marcum or even Joe Saunders and see a pretty immediate payoff.

The status of the Braves position players makes it difficult to see where other improvements could be made. Assuming good health, first base, second base, third base, catcher, and all outfield positions are accounted for. If Freddy Freeman or Chipper Jones wind up seriously injured, there is potential for making a trade for a guy like Kevin Youkilis. Given the fragility of Jones and the repeated cortisone injections in Freeman’s finger, that might not be a bad idea.

Of course, they didn’t get the kind of offensive or defensive production they expected from Tyler Pastornicky, who was recently sent back to the minors. On the season, Braves shortstops have combined for a -8.5 UZR and a .247/.284/.340 slash line, good for a wRC+ of just 68.

However, in his first 15 games, Andrelton Simmons is making them forget all that, hitting .333/.393/.529 and playing his signature great defense. But even if Simmons lays an egg, there’s not much in the way of shortstop talent on the market, unless you believe the Chicago Cubs would part with Starlin Castro or the Houston Astros would deal Jed Lowrie.

The Braves have the third highest team batting WAR at 14.5, wrapped up almost entirely in team defense, which is the best in baseball according to UZR. Their team pitching WAR is 4.7, 24th overall. They’re losing arguably their best starting pitcher in Brandon Beachy, replacing him with a guy that gave up 68 hits and 33 earned runs in 56.1 innings pitched at AAA this season, striking out just 28. Their #2 starter has bone spurs in his ankle.They have two starters averaging fewer than 6 innings per start and a taxed bullpen.

The addition of a starting pitcher would go a long way towards repressing the nervous breakdown.

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