Almost half the 2012 season has come and gone, and it's brought a mixed bag of feelings for the Atlanta Braves. Some performances have given Braves fans reason for hope, such as the brilliant play of Martin Prado, Michael Bourn and Andrelton Simmons, and the encouraging recent hot streak of Jason Heyward.
Other events have given Atlanta cause for alarm, such as poor offensive production from Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman (I believe it's expected that Dan Uggla will hit .250), the season-ending UCL tear from Brandon Beachy, and the fact that after Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson, the rotation gets very shaky.
While moves must be made to kick the Braves into a higher gear, performance from a few key players must improve and others must continue having strong years.
So, without further introduction, I present to you the top five Braves that must have a strong second half.
When Brian McCann is hitting, the Braves are simply a different team.
This one is fairly obvious. Carrying an OPS of .724 is not going to cut it for Brian McCann, who should be OPSing (yes, I made it a verb) at least 100 points higher.
Freddie Freeman has been streaky, but his play will even out with time. For the most part, Chipper Jones hits when he's healthy. With Dan Uggla, what you see is what you get: a .250 hitter that as a ton of power and can go on unbelievable hot streaks. Brian McCann, though, must be consistent if Atlanta wants to stick around.
Of these players, McCann is the only player who is counted on to contribute every day, and in this aspect, he may be Atlanta's most important player. When McCann is on, the rest of the Braves lineup hits better. It's as simple as that.
McCann should get better based on probability alone, as his BABIP is a lowly .240.
Expect a big second half from the six-time All-Star.
Atlanta's fourth outfielder, Diaz must hit when in the lineup.
Matt Diaz will probably never again be the player he was in 2009, when he hit 13 homers, stole 12 bases and owned an .878 OPS. Atlanta doesn't need him to be, though.
Diaz only plays situationally, as well as when Chipper Jones is out of the lineup. But when he has played, he has been a black hole in the lineup, OPSing (again, it's a verb) .651.
Atlanta could make a move for a fourth outfielder, or call up Todd Cunningham, but like McCann, Diaz's season could be turned around with a fortune-shift. Currently, his BABIP is .268, which isn't terrible. The eye-opening stat is that Diaz's career BABIP is .343.
Besides, Atlanta needs their resources to go after Ryan Dempster. Even if GM Frank Wren went out and got a fourth outfielder from the trade market, there would be no place to play him with Chipper in the lineup. This is why Diaz's season must turn around. A simple .730 OPS would more than suffice.
Jason Heyward must continue his stellar play.
Jason Heyward is the one man on this slideshow whose performance need not change. In the middle of an incredible hot streak, Heyward has carried the Atlanta offense and has the organization extremely excited for what's to come.
With Heyward swinging a bat that will get him to many future All-Star games, playing top-shelf defense in right and being aggressive on the basepaths, he is showing promise of superstardom, something not seen in him since 2010.
As of June 27, in games where Heyward has multiple hits, Atlanta is 11-3 (Yahoo!). If that doesn't show Heyward's importance, I'm not sure what does.
He could afford to strike out a little less and walk a little more (a la his rookie season), but if his newfound aggressiveness is the key for him moving forward, I will back it 100 percent.
A reliable Jonny Venters is invaluable in the bullpen.
Coming into June 24, Jonny Venters' ERA is 3.81 (up two runs from last year), and his FIP is 4.30 (up about a run and a half). This is unacceptable from someone who is supposed to be lights-out.
It's not entirely his fault, as his xFIP is 3.07, which is pretty close to his career average. Actually, it may not be his fault at all, as his BABIP against is an incredible .419, and his HR/FB ratio has jumped an incredible 26.2 percent from last year, all while maintaining the same walk rate, strand rate and K/9 rate.
The problem, quite simply, is luck, and the fact that he is inducing fewer ground balls than what his career ground ball rate would suggest.
I wouldn't worry about Venters, but he is going to be heavily relied on to have a big second half. When he's on his game, opposing teams don't have a prayer after the seventh inning.
Venters will turn his season around very soon, and the Braves bullpen will return to the ranks of the National League elite.
Perhaps Jair Jurrjens will return to his 2011 form.
Here's the slide you guys have been waiting for. When Brandon Beachy went down with a torn UCL and required Tommy John surgery, Braves Country collectively went into panic mode.
Mike Minor owns a 6.14 ERA. Jair Jurrjens has been sent down to the minors this year. Julio Teheran has not blown hitters away at Triple-A. Randall Delgado has not exactly inspired much confidence when he takes the mound.
After Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson, the Atlanta rotation gets very unstable. It's pretty clear that a starting pitcher must be dealt for. But also, someone must step up.
Maybe that someone is Minor, who still has the stuff to be a good No. 3 starter. However, he has struggled mightily all year, and a trip to the minors may best service him.
I'm not going to be placing faith in Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran just yet. Too young, too inexperienced, too inconsistent.
That leaves Jair Jurrjens, who returned from the minors to baffle the Boston lineup through 7.2 innings, allowing just one run and walking only one.
Advanced pitching metrics have never been kind to Jurrjens, but he has always consistently pitched better than these metrics have suggested. He doesn't have to be in All-Star form; if he can be simply good, then with the addition of a pitcher from the trade market, Atlanta's rotation will look infinitely better.
And with Boston's batters shaking their heads after Jurrjens' brilliant display on June 22, maybe he has arrived once again as a deceptively dominant starting pitcher.