After the first game of the second half of the 2009 season, the Atlanta Braves are sitting at 44-45. The NL East leaders, the Philadelphia Phillies, are 6 games ahead of the Braves at 49-38. Surely, 6 games is a large deficit, but as Phillies fans know, it is definitely not insurmountable.
The Braves had all the makings of a good, if not great team entering this season. The rotation was set with the additions of Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, and Kenshin Kawakami to Jair Jurrjens as well as Tim Hudson as soon as he can return. The bullpen, anchored by Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, looked to be solidly above average. Chipper Jones was coming off one of his best seasons. Kelly Johnson was an up and coming young player at second base, as was Yunel Escobar. Brian McCann was arguably the best catcher in the NL. Jordan Schafer was a rookie of the year candidate, Jeff Francoeur had two decent seasons and a great arm, and Garrett Anderson could provide some veteran leadership in left field.
Obviously, it didn't all fall apart. The Braves are still in the playoff hunt. Our own playoff odds currently have them at a 19% chance to make it into October. Their pitching has performed quite well, and according to FanGraphs' Value Wins, they have been the 3rd best pitching unit in the National League, and according to StatCorner this group has been nearly 50 runs above average. The position players, however, have not lived up to their end of the deal. They've been 24 runs below average with the bat (by wOBA) and 19 runs below average with the glove (by UZR). So, according to this, the Braves have actually been slightly above average. Justin's power rankings confirms, calling the Braves a .511 team so far. It appears there's still hope. What needs to be improved?
Diving deeper into the Braves problems, when we restrict the scope to outfielders, Atlanta has been 32 runs below average (-21 wRAA, -11 UZR). The lion's share of the time this year has gone to Anderson, Schaefer, and Francoeur, although Nate McClouth has taken over in CF since the Braves acquired him from the Pittsburgh Pirates back at the beginning of June. These 3 players have combined to be a total of 1.3 wins below replacement. The Braves have already replaced two of these players, sending Schaefer back to the minor leagues to make room for McClouth, and then acquiring Ryan Church in a much discussed swap with the Mets for the struggling Francoeur. That leaves Garret Anderson and his -.3 WAR in LF.
Willie Harris broke into the major leagues in 2001 with the Baltimore Orioles and then was dealt to the White Sox for Chris Singleton. Harris would spend parts of the next 5 seasons bouncing between the White Sox and AAA, playing more than 100 games only once, in 2004. Then, after an uneventful 2006 season with Boston, Harris showed some real production with the Braves. A move from 2B to LF saw Harris's defensive value jump. Although Harris was actually a roughly average 2B (-1.2 UZR/150 in roughly 1460 innings), he put up a 7.8 UZR in 105 games in the outfield in 2007. At the same time, Harris's wOBA rose from a career sub-.300 clip to .325. A .325 wOBA is still below average, but when combined with his defensive prowess, lead to a 1.4 win season in a mere 344 PAs.
The Braves didn't appreciate this kind of production and non-tendered Harris, who signed with the Nationals and continued his resurgence with a 3 win season, thanks to great fielding (+17 UZR in LF) and a .340 wOBA. Harris signed a 2 year, 3 million dollar contract with Washington entering 2009, in one of Jim Bowden's few good moves, and has continued to perform well. Harris has missed some time due to injury and a move to CF has not treated him well, and as such he only carries 0.6 wins through the all-star break. Still, with a .363 wOBA, Harris's bat can still play in any of the outfield spots and his past performance suggests that his low UZR this year is a fluke. If the Braves plug him into LF they could see a 1 to 2 win upgrade over the aging Anderson. Factor in Harris's favorable contract, and the Braves would have a great option in the outfield for 2009 and 2010.
The Braves outfield, if this trade were made, would run Harris, McClouth, and Church from left to right. Harris has been roughly 15 runs above average the last two years. McClouth, despite his poor fielding, has been roughly 18 runs above average, and Church roughly 11 runs above average. These moves would take the Braves outfield from a -62 outfield (-32 over the first half pro-rated) to a +44 outfield, a change of nearly 10 wins over a full season, and a roughly 5 win change over this second half. The Braves, with these changes, would be instant contenders.
The Nationals may be reluctant to trade Harris within the division, but given the contract that the Nationals gave him, it seems apparent that he is not highly valued. If the Braves are willing to part with even a B-level minor leaguer, the should pull the trigger almost immediately. Let's take a look at Willie Harris's surplus value with Sky's handy trade calculator.
|Year||Sal (M)||WAR||Val (M)||Net (M)|
At $16.2 million, Harris is worth roughly a top 75 hitter or a top 10 pitcher. I don't think the Nationals will be asking for nearly that much. If the Braves could acquire Harris for the aforementioned Jordan Schafer, they should immediately pull the trigger. Harris's contract, defense, and improved hitting could vault the Braves over the Phillies and put the Braves back into the top of the AL East, where they once resided for 14 straight years .