The Atlanta Braves sit at 54-38 going into the Midsummer Classic and are poised to continue their winning ways after the break. What are some big predictions that can logically be made about the Braves for the second half?
That's what I plan to throw out today.
This article comes on the heels of an embarrassing loss to division rival Philadelphia Phillies 14-1, but baseball is a sport that requires a week-to-week or even month-to-month overview rather than day-to-day.
With that being said, predictions for the entire second half of the season are reasonable, hopeful and always exciting, so without further ado...
This is a big step. The Atlanta Braves are currently ranked 26th out of the 30 major league teams in batting average at .239.
It's unacceptably low for a team that sports the third best record in the MLB at the All-Star Break. I'd go as far to say that if things don't improve, there should be a change at the hitting coach position.
With players like Dan Uggla, Martin Prado and Jason Heyward all on the team, it's unnecessary to make every game a low-scoring nail-biter, even though the Braves are capable of winning that way.
That's why I'm boldly (and hopefully) predicting a surge after the break. If the Braves bat .275 in the remaining 71 games, that will be a season average of approximately .255, which puts them in the middle of the pack.
The .275 batting average for the second half will most likely me among the MLB leaders. Atlanta has the talent to do it. It's time.
I'm sorry, Chipper Jones fans, but we've seen this story before. His legs have bothered him for years now, whether is a hamstring or knee, and at 39 years old, who can blame him?
Jones hasn't played more than 140 games in a season since 2004, and he missed from August 11 through the end of the playoffs last year due to a separate knee problem.
While his torn meniscus isn't a major surgery in and of itself, the fact that his body appears to be breaking down again this season is a red flag.
If Chipper's not completely done for the year, he's done being able to contribute in any major way for long stretches.
Not to fear, though. Martin Prado is a third baseman by trade and will feel comfortable moving back to the infield once he gets of the DL after the break. The key will be what the Braves do with left field.
Man, have I caught heat over proposing this deal in a previous article!
Whatever the pieces are (which is primarily where people have objected), GM Frank Wren will see the glaring hole in the corner out field when Prado moves in and also the need for some right-handed power in the lineup.
The best right-handed power the Atlanta Braves have now is Dan Uggla, and he's been far from consistent. The need is quite clearly there, especially when you consider the tough lefty duo in Philadelphia of Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
Enter the Houston Astros' right field Hunter Pence. Since drafting him in my fantasy league—yeah, I just played the fantasy baseball card—I've been watching him much more closely than ever. The guy is a tremendous raw talent.
His arm is perhaps the best in the league at right field, and his bat is hotter than it has ever been in his career. Pence is batting .323 with 11 homers and 60 RBIs at the break.
Keep in mind that pitchers usually pitch around him since there is little power behind him in the lineup.
The move would shift Jason Heyward to left field and provide a legitimate third batter that we haven't had since Chipper Jones hit .364 in 2008.
Assuming the trade wouldn't completely decimate the farm system, it's hard to object to the potential of this move.
There is reason to believe that Dan Uggla is heating up for a big late summer run.
No second baseman has hit more homers than Uggla in the past 30 days, who has eight. His 18 RBIs tie him with Robinson Cano and Neil Walker for third among second baseman over that same span.
After a dismal start, Uggla is batting .260 over the last 15 days, which is right at his career average.
Unlike many other sluggers, he power doesn't taper off after the All-Star Break. Over the past three seasons, he has averaged a home run every 16.9 at-bats before the break and a home run every 18.3 at-bats after.
If prediction No. 10 is met and the team begins hitting for a higher average, those extra two at-bats could be seen in the same game.
Uggla's competition to Second Half NL Home Run King is weak, too.
Lance Berkman is bound to realize his age, Prince Fielder is going to begin to be pitched around due to the trials of Casey McGehee and Carlos Pena is Carlos Pena.
Fredi Gonzalez isn't getting near enough attention for the incredible job he's doing of managing the Atlanta Braves. Sure, the team was chock full of talent when he arrived at the beginning of this season, but he has still done a great job.
His shortshop is 13 years older than his first baseman, who turns 22 later this summer. Two of his starting pitchers are 35 and 38, while the other three are younger than 26. His closer is 23. His third baseman is 39.
Obviously, there's a bit of an age gap with many of the key players. If the Braves were underperforming, we'd be calling it a bad mixture of young and old. Instead, because of Gonzalez's mastery of bridging the gap, we're calling it a wonderful blend of energy and experience.
Gonzalez made the tough (and at the time controversial) call of naming Jonny Venters the eighth inning set-up man after a lights out 2010 season. Craig Kimbrel has racked up 27 saves and proven Gonzalez to be a genius.
He has led his team to victories despite having to play back ups at every outfield position for a couple weeks, playing the part of psychiatrist for Dan Uggla, and having to balance his starting rotation with timely prospects when Tim Hudson or Tommy Hanson missed a start.
But most of all, he has made the retirement of Bobby Cox, a great manager, a non-issue in 2011. He's the NL Manager of the Year after the second half.
As an Atlanta Braves fan, you simply couldn't have asked for a better first half from rookie closer Craig Kimbrel.
He leads the entire MLB with 27 saves, breaking Jonathan Papelbon's record of 26 saves as a rookie during the first half of the 2006 season.
Kimbrel is on pace to save 48 games this year, which would shatter the rookie saves record of 40 set by former Braves prospect Neftali Feliz just last season.
His 2.40 ERA and 1.07 WHIP are numbers of a veteran closer, but Kimbrel is owning them at age 23. His 14 Ks per nine innings stat leads the entire Atlanta pitching staff.
The question isn't if he's capable of winning the NL Rookie of the Year. He quite clearly is. The question is, are the Braves going to play enough close games for Kimbrel to continue racking up saves, and if so, he's the run away favorite to win the award.
The last of my regular season award predictions is for the NL Cy Young, to be awarded Jair Jurrjens after another stellar half season as an Atlanta Brave.
Jurrjens got off a great start to 2011 after starting the season on the DL. He threw seven scoreless innings and allowed only two hits and a walk against the New York Mets.
I thought it was just a nice game from a B/B+ pitcher, but Jurrjens has only gotten better.
His 1.87 ERA leads the NL 30 points over San Francisco Giants' Ryan Vogelsong. His 12 wins is also tops for any NL pitcher. Jurrjens is the first half NL Cy Young, in my opinion.
ESPN's computers disagree. They value strikeouts highly, which is curious because Bud Norris, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kennedy are all in the top 10 in NL strikeouts, but are all having mediocre seasons.
Obviously, I don't value the K as much. Jurrjens' ability to pitch to bad contact impresses me more than a whiff. A solid second half is going to put him over the top and earn the team's first Cy Young since Tom Glavine won it in 1998.
Merely 3.5 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies for first in the NL East division, the Atlanta Braves will be able to be four games better than their division foes in the second half.
Atlanta is getting healthier just as Philadelphia is beginning to ail.
Chase Utley's hip seems to be healed, but it could easily reinjure after a collision or diving play. Shane Victorino was just placed on the DL, and 2010 standout Roy Oswalt seems destined to be on the DL for a long time after several back injuries. Placido Polanco is likewise fighting back problems but has avoided the DL.
The Phillies are down to their fourth string closer after injuries have destroyed their bullpen. Their amazing three-headed pitching staff of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels has carried the load, while Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard have also nursed their nicks and dings.
In contrast, Jason Heyward and Nate McClouth have gotten back into a nice rhythm after DL stints. Martin Prado is scheduled to be back after All-Star Break, and Tommy Hanson quick DL trip seemed more like a vacation than anything else.
If the trend continues, Atlanta will only need to keep its pace to eventually win its first division crown since 2005.
Destiny will win out here and match the Atlanta Braves against wildcard winners Philadelphia Phillies.
While their pitching staff is set up to individual series, the Braves have a shown a knack for being able to get into the Phillies' bullpen early enough in games to exploit them.
Meanwhile, the youth of Atlanta will provide both mental and physical energy in the clubhouse, whereas Philadelphia is wearied from the last half decade of divisional pennants, deep playoff pushes and World Series games.
I expect Brian McCann, now a respected veteran on the team and across the league, to be extremely influential in both calling the games for his young pitching staff as well as providing timely drives into the gaps to score runs and topple the Phillies in six.
At the beginning of the season, I had the Atlanta Braves playing the Boston Red Sox in the 2011 World Series. I went really went out on a limb for the AL representative, I know.
After watching the first half of the season, I have every reason to believe that the Braves can and will win the World Series.
First, Dan Uggla has been terrible until recently, and yet, the Braves have the third best record in the game. Any improvement from Uggla at all will be huge for Atlanta.
Second, the pitching staff has a never-ending supply of great hurlers. Tommy Hanson is great as usual. Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor (to some extent) have been excellent young arms, too. Jair Jurrjens is having a career year. Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel are the best eighth and ninth inning combo in the game.
Need I say more about the pitchers?
Finally, it's one of those years, folks. As many things that could have gone better for the Braves, the team is still one of the game's best. With so much room to improve, so many young players chomping at the bit to taste the championship and such great clubhouse leaders as Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, you have to ask yourself who could stop them.
Enjoy the second half, Braves Country.