Struggles behind them, Braves ready for second half
Struggles behind them, Braves ready for second half
By Mark Bowman
ATLANTA -- Looking back on what the Braves experienced before the All-Star break, a pessimist might focus on the past six weeks and determine that they are destined for more mediocrity in the season's second half. An optimist could choose to point out they are still in a good position despite being plagued by inconsistency since late May.
Those who choose to take the realistic perspective might view the Braves as a team that has the potential to be dangerous if they strengthen their starting rotation and see Brian McCann move further away from his first-half funk.
"I really feel like we've got a good team, and I'm not just saying that," Braves outfielder Michael Bourn said. "I think we have played one of the toughest schedules in the big leagues. I think we've got a chance to do something good if we play together. We've got good chemistry."
The Braves seemed to be in good position when they were 10 games over .500 and owned a 1 1/2-game lead in the National League East standings through their first 42 games. While dropping 23 of the 43 games that have followed, they were burdened by injuries, unexpected struggles and youth at the back end of their rotation.
Still, courtesy of the four-game winning streak they carried into the break, they trail the first-place Nationals by just four games in the division standings. Their confidence is strengthened in the fact that Brian McCann concluded the most frustrating first half of his career by hitting a home run in four consecutive games.
"I've been working really hard to stay consistent," McCann said. "I've been feeling really good at the plate. Hopefully I can continue this and help the team win in the second half of the season, because the first half, I was as bad as I'm going to get. We're still in the mix and I was hitting in the middle of the order and not doing anything. I feel like this second half is going to be a big one, and I'm excited for it."
MVP: MARTIN PRADO Along with being a consistent top-of-the-lineup contributor, the versatile Prado raises the energy in the clubhouse with his tireless work ethic.
Cy Young: Tommy Hanson Hanson has been the rotation's most consistent asset. He has made strides this year while continuing to prove he has the ability to compete without the high-octane fastball he once possessed.
Rookie: Andrelton Simmons Since arriving in June, Simmons has significantly improved the club's defense and impressed enough to already be considered one of the game's best defensive shortstops.
Top reliever: Craig Kimbrel In just his second full season, Kimbrel already stands as one of the game's most dominant closers. He has proven even more efficient this year while improving the command of both his fastball and curveball.
After being named National League Player of the Week twice in the season's first five weeks, Freddie Freeman endured a month-long stretch where he was plagued by vision problems and a badly bruised left index finger. As Freeman' vision problems worsened as May progressed, McCann was weakened by a virus and Chipper Jones was sidelined for three weeks with a badly bruised left calf.
But as the All-Star break approached, the Braves' offense appeared to be fine. Freeman was feeling better and Jason Heyward was in the midst of the most impressive stretch of his career. If Dan Uggla can follow McCann's lead by escaping his own first-half funk, the Braves could have one of the game's most potent offenses.
"We've certainly squandered some opportunities and we're lucky to be where we are," Jones said. "We've had a lot of injuries, but the inconsistency is just what frustrates you because it's about that time for some of these younger guys to be taking the diapers off and start getting a little more consistent in the games."
Without mentioning specific names, Jones was pointing toward Mike Minor and Randall Delgado, who have endured growing pains while pitching at the back end of the rotation. Their inconsistencies have become more troublesome since Brandon Beachy was forced to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. Beachy owned a Major League-best 2.00 ERA when he blew out his elbow.
Players to watch in second half
Brian McCann McCann says he feels more comfortable than he has in nearly three years. Homering in four straight games entering the break strengthened his belief.
Dan Uggla When Uggla was hitting .174 in July last year, he began an Atlanta-record 33-game hit streak. The second baseman's streaky nature can prove maddening at times and very beneficial at others.
Ben Sheets Just four years removed from starting an All-Star Game, Sheets is not the dominant pitcher he was before injuries wrecked his career. But if he can be a dependable middle-of-the-rotation asset, he will be exactly what the Braves need.
But the Braves have already started repairing their rotation. They recently signed former All-Star Ben Sheets who could make his first Major League start in two years as early as this next weekend. Jair Jurrjens, who was an All-Star last year, has done his part by proving dependable since ending a two-month demotion to the Minor League level.
Still even with Sheets targeted to join the rotation soon, the Braves are expected to aggressively pursue Zack Greinke and other experienced starting pitchers on the trade market.
With Jones set to conclude his legendary career at the end of this season, the Braves would like to give him a chance to participate in the playoffs one more time. Despite the struggles endured during the past six weeks, they are still in position to make this happen.
"I think the way it has played out in our division, we're in a good position," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We haven't been as consistent as we've wanted to be. But we're still right there."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.