Here are the Braves, six games up in the NL East at the all-star break despite star players underperforming and a recent rash of injuries. Ahead are the dog days of summer, when a postseason berth is at stake. Forsyth County News sports editor Brian Paglia looks at five of the Braves’ biggest storylines to watch following the all-star break.
1. The struggles of Heyward, Uggla and Upton
The Braves lead the league in home runs, are second in slugging percentage and third in runs scored. So imagine what kind of lineup Atlanta would have if outfielders Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla were performing anywhere near their potential.
Heyward is battling injuries for the fourth straight season and hitting just .227. Uggla leads the team in home runs (18) but also leads the league in strikeouts (116) and is hitting .200. Upton, after signing the biggest free agent contract in team history, is hitting a paltry .177 and just landed on the disabled list. With runners in scoring position, the three are hitting a combined .152.
And yet, for the glass-half-full types, it means if the three perform closer to their career averages after the all-star break, the Braves lineup could really become formidable.
2. Fitting in Brandon Beachy
It is the luxury that has seemed to define the Braves success since 1990: starting pitching. But Atlanta’s rotation had question marks entering the season: Could Kris Medlen duplicate his impressive 2012 season? Was Mike Minor’s strong second half last season a sign of things to come? Was top prospect Julio Teheran ready to contribute?
Well, Medlen has been solid this season, Minor has arguably been the team ace with Teheran right behind him. All of which gives Atlanta a perplexing mid-season question mark – where does Brandon Beachy fit in? The 25-year-old right hander was having an all-star season a year ago before needing Tommy John surgery.
Now, he’s scheduled to make his first start Friday, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of moves the Braves make, trade or otherwise, for his return.
3. What happened to the Nationals?
They were anointed before the season began, a sure-thing World Series participant with a three-headed pitching monster of Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann and the one of the game’s most exciting young hitters in Bryce Harper.
But at the all-star break, the Washington Nationals are 48-47 and six games behind the Braves in the National League East. The three-headed monster has performed well (24-14, 3.11 ERA) and Harper has shined when not injured, but the Nationals have been beleaguered with problems. Like free agent-signing Dan Haren, who is 4-10 with a 5.61 ERA. Or troubles with the No. 5 starter after an injury to left-hander Ross Detwiler. Or a bench that’s significantly underperformed.
The problem is, if Washington puts it all together in the second half, they could make things really tough on the Braves.
4. Can the Braves heal in time?
The Braves had injury issues going into the season – specifically Beachy and catcher Brian McCann returning from surgeries. They managed those thanks to a well-stocked pitching staff and the thrilling emergence of rookie catcher Evan Gattis.
Then the bullpen was almost gutted with season-ending injuries to Cristhian Martinez, Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters. More recently, utility infielder Ramiro Pena was lost for the season, fourth outfielder Jordan Schafer suffered a fractured ankle and will miss up to six weeks and B.J. Upton went on the 15-day DL. Not to mention, outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton are day-to-day with leg injuries.
With incredible organizational depth, the Braves have managed to get by. The injury bug bites every team, but the Braves need their four outfielders healthy and performing to make the postseason.
5. Braves can take a breath
No more criss-crossing West Coast road trips. No more awkward scheduling quirks (remember that back-to-back two-games series against Toronto?).
On paper, Atlanta’s schedule looks extremely favorable for a team still looking over its shoulder at a talented Washington club. The Braves play only 19 of their 67 remaining games against winning teams and they have any road games against NL West teams.