Coming into the 2012 season, the Atlanta Braves had high hopes for playing deep into October.
Finally healthy, Jason Heyward was looking to recapture the magic of his rookie season and take a couple steps forward. Atlanta fans were looking forward to a full season of Michael Bourn leading off, patrolling center and wreaking havoc on the basepaths, as well as a full season of productivity (as opposed to a half season) from Dan Uggla.
The starting rotation was looking to gain notoriety as one of the best in baseball. And after a wonderful Hall of Fame career, Chipper was going to call it quits at the end of the season.
Things were indeed looking up for the Braves in 2012.
Half a season later, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla are hitting under .250, Freddie Freeman has fallen victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, Jair Jurrjens has been demoted to the minors, and Brandon Beachy's season has been cut short by a torn UCL and Tommy John surgery.
Yet, in spite of all this, Atlanta stands firmly in the middle of a pennant run, just a few games behind Washington in the ferocious National League Eastern Division. The Braves find themselves in these surprisingly favorable circumstances thanks to incredible play from Michael Bourn and Martin Prado, a recent resurgence from Jason Heyward and excellent play from hotshot shortstop of the future Andrelton Simmons.
Needless to say, there's definitely hope for the Braves this season. Losing Brandon Beachy, who had taken many a step forward towards becoming an ace, is a very tough pill to swallow. However, it can be overcome.
Can the Braves still win the NL East?
The lineup does not need fixing. McCann and Uggla are professional hitters; they'll come around. Freeman has enough talent to reemerge as a middle-of-the-order threat. Everywhere else, Atlanta has been fine. The defense is even much improved from last year, with the addition of Simmons at short (a plus-plus defender).
The problem, ironically, lies in the rotation. Irony resides here because of Atlanta's wealth of arms. None of them, however, can replace Brandon Beachy. Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson have been solid, but that's about it.
Mike Minor has pitched terribly during the first few months of the season, Randall Delgado hasn't exactly given Atlanta much confidence when he takes the hill, Julio Teheran hasn't blown Triple-A hitters away this year, and Jair Jurrjens, although pitching extremely well in his first start since being recalled from the minors, has been a shell of himself returning from injury.
There's reason for this hope, though. To win in October, Atlanta needs three very good starting pitchers in a rotation of four. They currently have two: Hudson and Hanson.
If Atlanta trades for Ryan Dempster (which I wrote about in this slideshow), an option that would not cost a lot in terms of prospects, suddenly the rotation looks much more formidable.
Add to that the inevitability that another Atlanta pitcher will step up, be it Minor, Jurrjens or Delgado, and the Braves' weakness becomes a strength.
The bad news is that Atlanta will need to make a move (Dempster, Dempster, Dempster) to overtake Washington for the NL East crown.
The good news, however, is that Atlanta is still in the thick of things, and they should only look to improve as the season ages. During Chipper's final season, the Braves will start playing inspired baseball in the second half of the season, led by a resurgence in a pitching staff that has not seen its best starts yet.
So with much baseball left to be played, don't count the Braves out in the NL East just yet.