Braves’ Second Half Crystal Ball

BravesThose who know me know I’m a stark realist when it comes to the fortunes of the Atlanta Braves.  I’m usually far more optimistic with my beloved Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Bulldogs’ football squads, but when it comes to the Braves, I suppose the 23-year run of (mostly) success under the John Schuerholz/Frank Wren and Bobby Cox/Fredi Gonzalez era has given me all the “instinct” I need to watch and cheer – with plenty of doubt.

So going into the second half of the season, it wouldn’t shock many if I projected a dour second-half for Atlanta; there’s plenty TO be concerned about, after all:  B.J. Upton has shown little to give us the impression he’ll hit above .210.  The rotation has no true “ace,” and the bullpen is decimated with injuries.  Despite all that, I actually think the second half will show better – that’s right, better – play out of the Braves than the first half did.

First, the schedule: of the 67 games left on their schedule, the Braves play 35 against teams with sub-.500 records, and also have 35 home games.  With a six-game lead, if they just went .500 (let’s even say 33-34) the rest of the way, the Washington Nationals would have to go 39-28 just tie the Braves.

Are the Nats capable of that kind of run?  Yes. Are the Braves capable of only going 33-34 the rest of the way?  Absolutely.  Since their 12-1 start, the Braves are only 42-40.  Let’s not overlook the Phillies, either, who are only a half game behind the Nats.  But with Ryan Howard a shell of his former self and persistently injured, to me, their threat is a muted on, at best.

But let’s go with the “glass half-full” thought process, here, and focus solely on the Braves.

Dan Uggla’s contacts seem to have made a difference, as he’s contributing more at the plate.  He’s hitting .221 the last 30 days (Ted Williams-like by his standards), and has knocked 4 homers and brought in 9 RBI’s in just the last ten games.  If Dan hits .220 with power and brings in runs in the second half, he stretches the lineup quite a bit.

Justin Upton, prior to his injury, had finally started contributing at the plate, going .279 with a home run and seven runs batted in the last ten days.  With he, Uggla, All-Stars Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann all contributing at the plate, and with an improved Jason Heyward showing signs of figuring it out with the bat, and with the return of Evan Gattis in whatever role he finds a spot to play in, the Braves shouldn’t lack for runs scored.

The offensive area to watch: center field and/or the lead-off spot.  B.J. Upton will return before Jordan Schafer will, but if Schafer keeps contributing (.312 / 3 / 15) while Upton scuffles, the pressure will mount to bench B.J., money be damned.

The starting rotation has been a mixed bag so far, but WILL improve – one way or another (or many others).  Tim Hudson SHOULD be somewhere around 9-4 or 8-5, even with his 4.02 earned run average (ERA).  When he’s good, he’s splendid, but the offense has been spotty for him.  When he’s off, he’s REALLY off. but at his age, he’s still a viable mid-to-back-end rotation arm.  Mike Minor and Julio Teheran show flashes of “ace” stuff, but Teheran is settling into an “every other start is great” sort of rhythm, while Minor is usually “decent” with the occasional “wow” performance.

With Brandon Beachy eventually returning, the question is whether it will be Paul Maholm or Kris Medlen losing a roster spot.  Frankly, if Beachy gets back to form, losing either from the rotation will be a net-positive.  Both have given just five “quality starts” (at least 6 innings pitched with three earned runs or fewer) in their last five starts.  The hunch here is Medlen gets shipped to the ‘pen.  Maholm’s had a few spurts of near-genius runs this season while Medlen’s been nowhere near the record-setting starter he was at the end of last season.  Then there’s Alex Wood, who’s shown us why the team is so high on his future.  All he did is go 4-2 with 1.26 earned run average while in the bigs – and out of the bullpen, which isn’t what he’s even tailored to.  He’s got “ace” stuff and will be a part of the Braves’ rotation plans either this year and/or definitely next. 

The conventional wisdom is that the Braves will make a move to bolster their bullpen, which is already managing to “get by” without Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Christian Martinez (all lost to season-ending injuries) quite fine.  They lead the majors with a 2.62 ERA and .213 batting average against.  Even with that track record, outside of closer Craig Kimbrel, none of the arms are household names with much experience behind ’em.  That will likely be addressed prior to the trade deadline at the end of this month.

I do think the Braves have enough to hang onto first place in the National League East and earn a full-fledged playoff series.  If the season ended today, they’d face the winner of the play-in game between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.  The Braves and Reds are mirror images of one another, basically, and I’d give the edge to Atlanta only because I think their starting pitching options are deeper; Pittsburgh scares me, but something tells me there’s a mini-slide coming for them because they’re bullpen’s already over-taxed, so that could be their achilles come playoff time.

What the Braves need to start working on (if they aren’t already) is generating runs without the “big hit” – using speed and bunting to move runners over.  “Smallball.”  I say that because the lineup’s loaded with strikeout potential – and while I don’t always WANT a Freeman/McCann/J-Up bunt, I would like to see more attempts out of B.J. and J-Hey and Andrelton Simmons .  All three are speedy and can leg out a bunt hit, but more importantly can move a runner over instead of striking out at the alarming rates all are.  Sharpening that “weapon” in their arsenal can make them a World Series threat.

And that’s why, currently, I don’t see them AS a serious World Championship-caliber team.  If they can learn to generate runs better, they’re darn-near unbeatable.  They’d have the division nearly sewn away by now.  I suppose we’ll see what dealing GM Frank Wren does and what wrinkels Fredi Gonzalez brings to the field.  Credit where it’s due, Fredi should be mentioned in “Coach of the Year” discussions.  No ace, as many as three starters at some point batting under .200 deep into the season, McCann out for the first six weeks … and the Braves have a six-game lead at the break.  He’s done a solid job so far.

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