The Braves may have shocked much of the baseball world by leading the NL East for the majority of the first half and finishing it ten games over .500. That does not mean they do not have some significant room for growth if they want to compete for a World Series. Simply making it to the playoffs is admirable, but competing with the like of the Astros, Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers come October is a whole different story. Here are three areas they have to excel in to prove they are ready for the playoffs
After a shaky start to the season, the bullpen was red hot in May and for parts of June, only to return to skepticism the final month of the first half. This is an area that Alex Anthopolous will be addressing prior to the trade deadline in some fashion.
Now the back end of the bullpen has been lockdown for the most part. Throw out any pre-determined hate on Arodys Vizcaino being the team’s closer because he has been sensational. In seventeen save opportunities he has fifteen saves and boasts a minuscule ERA of 1.65. The hard-throwing lefty, A.J. Minter, has also blossomed into a reliable set up man.
What will have to be addressed is middle relief. Now, this can happen in a number of ways. The Braves could trade for a closer or set-up man, shifting either Vizcaino or Minter to an earlier inning. They could trade for some middle relief arms without giving up any meaningful prospects, or even try and find a diamond in the rough at the minor league levels. But there is no arguing, the bullpen has to improve. When the lights shine brightest, it is the teams with the most polished bullpens that will be able to make it through the 162-game grind, and right now the Atlanta bullpen is not cutting it.
The leadoff spot
Harrison Coburn talked about this in an article you can find here, and he is one-hundred percent correct. Last year’s lone All-Star from Atlanta, Ender Inciarte, has been abysmal in the leadoff position this year. Lucky for the Braves, the middle of the order has been able to pick him up but is Ozzie Albies going to hit another twenty home runs in the second half and is Nick Markakis going to come through with another one-hundred hits? If the Braves cannot get more production out of the leadoff spot, there is a chance this offense drops off in the second half.
The good news is Inciarte has been a reliable bat since coming to Atlanta, and first half slumps are familiar. He is a career .318 hitter post-All-Star break while just a .264 hitter before the break. His lowest yearly average is .278 and is currently hitting .241. There is reason to believe he will turn things around when the team returns for the final 68 games. If he does not start showing some progress, Brian Snitker is going to have to find a new combination at the top of the lineup.
The starting rotation for the Braves has probably been the most unanticipated part of this team so far. They currently rank third in the National League and fifth in all of baseball in ERA behind strong starts from Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, and Anibal Sanchez.
The problem is both Folty and Newcomb began to fall off heading into the All-Star break. Hopefully, that is not a sign of things to come because Atlanta will need them fully rejuvenated when they return from the break.
As far as Sanchez goes, he is putting together one of the best seasons of his career. Regression is almost certainly expected, but his teammate Julio Teheran could pick him up. Teheran has had a wacky up and down season. With that being said, he has looked his best in his last few starts and could be in for a special second half. If Sanchez can at least be a reliable end of the rotation option the rest of the season, Teheran should be able to pick up the slack and give this unit a whole different look.
A fresh new face would not hurt either. The Braves are going to be exploring all options at the deadline and maybe they find a deal that makes sense around acquiring a starting pitcher. However, starting pitchers available on the trade block are nothing to write home about. The Braves best option for a fifth man in the rotation may have to come internally.