The Atlanta Braves improved their bullpen and bench on Thursday, acquiring left-handed reliever James Russell and utility player Emilio Bonifacio as well as cash considerations from the Chicago Cubs for prospect Victor Caratini just before the Jul. 30 trade deadline.
Russell, now in his fifth Major League season, joins a Braves bullpen that has been a bit disappointing outside of Craig Kimbrel and Jordan Walden. In need of an arm to make up for the struggles of Luis Avilan (4.85 ERA before being optioned on Jul.19) and the absence of Jonny Venters (recovering from Tommy John surgery), Atlanta made this move with the hope that Russell can solve the majority of the team’s problems.
Russell brings a high-80s fastball, a smooth delivery, and a career record of 10-15 to Atlanta. Russell’s 2014 season has been as expected for a pitcher within the Cubs organization, and at this point the former Texas Longhorns hurler holds a 0-2 record with a 3.51 ERA, 26 strikeouts, and just three home runs allowed in 33.1 innings of work.
Meanwhile, Bonifacio brings some extra speed to an Atlanta roster that ranks 14th in MLB with 60 steals. Bonifacio, who played for Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez with the Marlins from 2009 to 2010, has battled through an oblique strain to bat .279 with 14 steals in 69 games.
The twenty-nine-year-old has the ability to play several different positions for Atlanta. Some have speculated that Bonifacio may split playing time with struggling center fielder BJ Upton (.215 average, 7 HRs, 27 RBIs, and 18 stolen bases), although a secure spot on the bench seems to be more likely.
In order to make this deal, the Braves waved goodbye to Caratini, the team’s 8th best prospect according to Baseball America. The twenty-year-old is listed as a catcher and a third baseman and has shown some promise with the Rome Braves, hitting .279 with 5 RBIs in 87 games. Caratini was Atlanta’s second round draft pick in 2013 and looked to have a lot of potential, but Atlanta’s current backlog of catchers made him highly expendable.
The Braves had searched for a left-handed reliever for the better part of the last month, which made the acquisition of Russell a no-brainer. Many reports connected Atlanta with Boston Red Sox lefty Andrew Miller, who was dealt on Thursday to the Baltimore Orioles. Despite having superior numbers compared to Russell, Miller’s contract expires after this season, while the Braves will have control of Russell until 2016.
Addressing the roster’s depth issue as far as the bench was concerned seemed necessary but not exactly dire for Atlanta, but the addition of Bonifacio seems to have answered this problem sufficiently. Bonifacio brings a reliable bat and impressive speed to a bench that has played poorly through more than half of the season, quite a feat considering how little general manager Frank Wren had to give up to make it happen.
Some may look at the Braves’ strategy going into Thursday and feel like they underplayed their hand in a day that saw stars David Price and Yoenis Cespedes hit the road, but I believe the team was very successful thanks to focusing on quantity over quality. The Braves could have went shopping for a big name like Price or perhaps Austin Jackson, who was sent to Seattle in the Price trade, but the haul required for such a move would have been outrageous.
Parting ways with the likes of catcher Christian Bethancourt, starting pitcher David Hale, or shortstop Jose Peraza were possibly discussed over the course of the last few weeks as trade talks heated up, but the team opted to stay conservative and hold onto some very valuable pieces. Standing pat will not clinch the Braves a World Series title in the next few years nor even guarantee a playoff spot, but it does mean the team has plenty of talent waiting in the wings if some of the current starters flame out or bolt.