If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that John Coppolella will trade anybody. I make this prediction knowing that, within 24 hours if not by Aug. 1, the Braves’ general manager could prove me as wrong as I’ve ever been, which would be saying something. But I make it nonetheless:
The Braves will not trade Julio Teheran.
I base this largely on what Coppolella told me last week. “I’m not trading Julio Teheran for prospects,” he said. There was no equivocation in his voice. The only way the Braves would consider trading Teheran is for proven big-league hitters of a comparable age under comparable contract, and therein hangs the tale: There aren’t many of those, and what few there are almost surely are unavailable.
Example: Boston has baseball’s best offense, but ranks 18th among the 30 MLB teams in starters’ ERA. Its most effective starting pitcher hasn’t been David Price, for who the Red Sox paid $217 million, but the knuckleballer Steven Wright. They demoted Clay Buchholz to the bullpen only to return him to the rotation because they have nobody else.
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As much as they hit, they’re no lock to make the playoffs. They could use a big-time pitcher, and their assistant GM — Frank Wren, of whom you’ve heard — knows Teheran well. So let’s say the Sox make a call. If you’re Coppolella, you say: “I want Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts.”
Not either/or. Both.
Bogaerts, 23, is a shortstop who leads the American League in hitting. Betts, also 23, is a right fielder who leads the AL in runs and is fourth in RBIs. These are ridiculously young players already of All-Star caliber. There’s no way the Red Sox would trade both even for Clayton Kershaw, who leads baseball with a WAR (wins above replacement) value of 4.6. Because the combined WAR for Bogaerts/Betts is 6.6 — and they play every day.
Another example: Texas is having a surprisingly splendid season — it has won 46 games, one fewer than the rampaging Cubs — but could use a starting pitcher. (Yu Darvish, who’s coming off Tommy John surgery, is again on the disabled list.) The Rangers don’t have a full-time position for Jurickson Profar, who was once baseball’s No. 1 prospect and who has manned every infield spot this season except catcher.
Profar, 23, is hitting .345, albeit in spot duty. But the Braves have Freddie Freeman at first base and figure to deploy Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies as middle infielders soon. Profar remains a major talent, but by himself he wouldn’t nearly be enough for Teheran. Texas would have to dangle the 20-year-old outfielder Nomar Manzara as well, and it probably wouldn’t. Even if it did, the Braves still mightn’t bite.
Both the Red Sox and the Rangers have minor-leaguers they could offer, but let’s take Coppolella at his word: He’s not trading his best pitcher for prospects — and he shouldn’t. His best pitcher would be the best pitcher on most big-league teams.
There were times over the past year that I wondered if Teheran would become the No. 1 starter — I worried about his drop in velocity — but his recent work has convinced me. His ERA over the past 81 innings is 1.89. He’s second in baseball to Kershaw in WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched). He’s 10th among starters in WAR. He has yielded no more than five hits in each of his past 10 starts. On Father’s Day, he came within a Michael Conforto single of a perfect game.
At this moment, how many pitchers rate above Teheran? Kershaw, duh, and Jake Arrieta and Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto. Probably Chris Sale and Jose Fernandez. Maybe Corey Kluber and Noah Syndergaard. But who else? Jon Lester? Masahiro Tanaka? Felix Hernandez, who’s on the DL, or Zack Greinke, who’s having a down year? Stephen Strasburg? Max Scherzer? Cole Hamels?
Even if you take all of those ahead of Teheran, he’s still among MLB’s top 20 pitchers. If you take only half, he’s in the top 10. If that’s not enough to qualify as a No. 1, what would be?
His velocity has steadied, but the real news – this according to the essential Brooks Baseball – is that he has de-emphasized his two-seamer (or sinker) and thrown his slider more. In May 2015, Teheran’s threw his sinker 25.7 percent of the time and his slider 24.5 percent; in June 2016, he has throw his slider 29.4 percent of the time and his two-seamer 11.5 percent.
When Teheran arrived in the majors, he didn’t have a sinker. He learned one and, as can happen, grew infatuated with it. But his four-seamer and his slider were always better pitches, and Teheran has grasped that now. Lest we forget, he’s 25.
Back to that list of No. 1s (or thereabouts): Of the 15, Teheran is younger than all but Fernandez and Syndergaard. The argument voiced by some about the Braves’ rebuild around young pitching is that, for all their machinations, they haven’t acquired a true No. 1. It could be that they had their No. 1 all along.
The Braves would be crazy to trade Teheran for anything less than Fort Knox. As we know, Coppolella is fearless. But he’s not crazy.