If trade isn't made, kiss hopes of a ring goodbye

UPDATE: The Atlanta Braves on Sunday announces a trade deadline trade with the Houston Astros to acquire center fielder Michael Bourn.

 

Braves general manager Frank Wren held firmly to his top prospects, dealing in return outfield Jordan Schafer and minor-league pitchers Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens and Juan Abreau.

Bourn, who leads the majors with 39 stolen bases in his fifth full season, is hitting .303 with 32 RBIs and is expected to fill the lead-off role in Atlanta. Before going on the 15-day disabled list last week with an injured finger, Schafer typically led off for the Braves and had  15 stolen bases.

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ATLANTA --- The annual arms race among National League contenders is turning into a body count for the Atlanta Braves.

The week leading up to today's trade deadline saw three key players go on the disabled list, one fragile star reduced to day-to-day duty and two prime targets become the property of the Braves' biggest challengers.

Meanwhile general manager Frank Wren holds tightly his stash of long-term prospects and watches Atlanta's best hopes for the immediate future pass by. Either he really likes their chances in 2013 or he's afraid to pull another Mark Teixeira.

Carlos Beltran filled the gaping power need in the San Francisco Giants lineup. Hunter Pence is now the coveted corner outfielder bolstering the Philadelphia Phillies offense with his .307 batting average.

The Braves, for the moment, can only sit back and admire their division leader making a significant deadline move to improve its club for the third consecutive season.

"They've made every move you can make in order to try to go for it," Dan Uggla said after the Phillies added Pence.

The Braves -- who rank 14th among 16 NL teams in batting average (.240) and 13th in on-base percentage (.309) -- are culling through the remaining options as the teams they're trying to catch forge confidently ahead. The most enticing options before the pickings get slimmer are White Sox right fielder Carlos Quentin or Houston's speedy center fielder Michael Bourn.

"I'm confident that we'll do something," said 39-year-old Chipper Jones, hoping for one last shot at the World Series. "What it is? I don't know. To what magnitude? I don't know. I'm pretty confident we'll better our ballclub in the next couple of days."

The Braves are indeed a fine ball club right now. Their 63 wins to date are only bettered by two teams in the major leagues. Unfortunately one of them is leading the NL East by five games and has a pitching staff that rivals the Braves of the '90s.

With a big lead in the NL wild-card race and a strong pitching staff of their own, the Braves are in prime shape to go back to the playoffs and contend. But after two decades of mostly playoff-caliber talent and only one World Series ring to show for it, people around here are too familiar with not-quite-ready-for-late-October squads.

Even the Braves recognize their own shortcomings.

"I think we all know we need a piece," said catcher David Ross, the capable reserve for All-Star Brian McCann. "I don't think we're desperate for a piece, but another presence in the lineup would be nice."

In preseason when everybody was wondering how the Braves could compete with Philly's four-man rotation, the offensive lineup seemed the least of Atlanta's worries. But that was before Uggla spent half the season hitting in the .100s and Jason Heyward turned into a shadow of his rookie self.

Now with McCann, Jordan Schafer and Nate McClouth going on the 15-day DL in the past week and Jones still nursing soreness around his surgically repaired knee, the fragility of Atlanta's lineup has never been more apparent and seemingly increased the magnitude of the Braves' need for a quality bat.

Wren is holding his finger steady on the trigger.

"We should be able to put our team back together," he said of the recent rash of injuries.

But is that enough? The Braves have made it this far on the strengths of their pitching, but counting on everyone to get (and stay) healthy and Uggla not reverting to early-season form and Heyward to start playing like it's 2010 again are a lot of variables grounded in hope. A year ago, the Braves lost Jones at this point in the playoff race and were never able to fill that hole in the lineup and fell short once again in the playoffs.

Knowing that, Wren still balked on two primary options while the Braves' competition did not. He's searching carefully for the right fit at the right price and not a costly short-term rental.

"It's really a lot like every trade deadline I've ever been involved with," Wren said Thursday. "You have your lines in a lot of water. You're trying to see what works best for you, what the ask is, how that particular player fits on your club. So we've got a lot of different options out there."

Unless Wren becomes more willing to part with some of his treasured pitching prospects for Quentin or Bourn, the Braves will likely settle for a second-tier "upgrade" like B.J. Upton, of Tampa Bay; Ryan Ludwick, of San Diego; or Coco Crisp, from Oakland.

Based on the caliber of the competition, they need to do something.

"All teams can probably benefit from an injection of new blood when it's a quality player," said Jones. "But we don't have 60-plus wins for nothing. We're a pretty good ballclub. We do it our way. As long as we pitch, we're going to win. If we don't pitch, we're going to struggle."

If they don't move, however, we've all seen this show before. Good enough to make the postseason. Not good enough to win it all.

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