Braves look to find consistency in second half
Atlanta hopes to tap into talent that struggled to gain momentum early on
ATLANTA -- Unpredictable seems to be the most appropriate way to describe this year's Braves team, which has to feel fortunate to enter the All-Star break tied for first place in the National League East. This might not have been the position they envisioned when they won 17 of their first 24 games. But given they produced the NL's third-worst winning percentage over their next 48 games, they have to be happy with the resurgence they've had the past three weeks.
As they won 16 of their final 24 games before the break, the Braves essentially repeated their hot start and built some momentum to carry into the season's second half. Now, as they attempt to defend their division crown, they can only hope that their underachieving offense builds off some of the improvements that were recently seen.
Five Key Developments
1. The suspect injury-depleted starting rotation that proved masterful throughout most of April has simply been mediocre during the 2 1/2 months that have followed. While Aaron Harang has already been a bargain, Ervin Santana has some work to do to live up to his $14.1 million salary.
2. While the relief corps is not going to match the franchise record bullpen ERA set last year, it gained a great asset with Shae Simmons' May 31 promotion. With Simmons and Jordan Walden, the Braves have two setup men capable of bridging innings to closer Craig Kimbrel.
3. Freddie Freeman struggled near the end of April and went silent for three weeks beginning last May, but the 24-year-old first baseman looked like himself over the past month. His .878 OPS is quite similar to the .854 mark he carried into last year's break.
|MVP: Freddie Freeman
While Heyward has positively impacted the club on multiple fronts, Freeman gets the nod because he's been more consistent with the bat.
|Top starter: Julio Teheran
Along with having the necessary stuff, Teheran has proven he has the mentality necessary to serve as an ace at a young age.
|Top rookie: Tommy La Stella
While recognizing Shae Simmons has been quite valuable, La Stella has had a greater impact as he has proven to be Dan Uggla's antithesis.
|Top reliever: Craig Kimbrel
The only debate is whether this dominant closer remains the game's top reliever.
4. Jason Heyward has proven why he is often described as a center fielder playing right field. Heyward easily leads all Major Leaguers with 27 defensive runs saved. If he starts hitting lefties again, he could easily be the club's most valuable player down the stretch.
5. Despite benching Dan Uggla after one month and promoting Tommy La Stella's contact presence in late May, the Braves are still in position to break the franchise strikeout record for a fourth straight season.
Five storylines to watch for in the second half
1. As the Braves approach the Trade Deadline, they will be looking for bullpen depth, preferably of the left-handed variety, and bench players. They do not have much financial flexibility, having gone over budget to sign Santana in March. But general manager Frank Wren has proven he can make deals in this situation. He threw in an extra prospect to get the Astros to pay all of Michael Bourn's remaining salary in 2011.
2. Evan Gattis had established himself as one of the lineup's most dangerous assets before he was sideline with a bulging disk in early July. If Gattis stays healthy and immediately regains his power, the Braves will have plenty of power potential in the middle of their lineup. They just have to hope Justin Upton proves to be more consistent over longer periods of time.
Players to watch in second half
Though he has yet to live up to the promise he created the previous year and a half, Minor could round into form as he distances himself from what was an unorthodox Spring Training.
If the Braves are going to distance themselves from the Nats, they may need Upton to go on one of his patented tears, like he did during the past two Aprils and during last year's 14-game win streak.
The Braves hope the power barrage Johnson had this past weekend at Wrigley propels him to a second half that is closer to what he did last year, when he competed for a batting title and proved to have a knack for delivering key two-out hits.
3. It will be interesting to see how long the Braves stick with B.J. Upton in the leadoff role. Upton has hit .260 with a .296 on-base percentage in the 18 games played since he moved to the top of the lineup. Heyward might seem to be the better choice. But while the numbers are pedestrian at best, this is as productive as the Braves have seen B.J. over a three-week stretch since he arrived last year.
4. The Braves have reason to feel good about a bullpen that counts Walden, Simmons and the improved Anthony Varvaro as its most dependable assets to date. If David Carpenter can round into form and Juan Jaime starts throwing strikes again for Gwinnett, the Braves would have a more favorable bullpen than last year.
5. Despite totaling 21 runs in their final two games, the Braves entered the break having scored more runs than only the Cardinals and Padres. But this maddening offense did show some consistent signs of life as it hit .275 and averaged 5.1 runs during the past 17 games. Time will tell if that was a sign of things to come or a product of facing sub-.500 clubs throughout this stretch.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.