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Starting Nine: Burning questions as Braves enter All-Star break

Will the NL East title streak come to an end? Does the offense or bullpen get an upgrade? Key questions facing Braves in second half

MLB: JUN 29 Mets at Braves
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies give the Braves two of the top 26 in fWAR, but they’re also using four replacement-level in the everyday lineup.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Historically speaking, it’s so close, but feels so, so far away.

During the Braves’ run of 14 straight division titles, they overcame deficits of nine (1991) and 9 1/2 games (1993) at the All-Star Break. Since then, Atlanta has reached the postseason trailing by as many as four games (2012), making the current 4 1/2-game deficit in the National League East somewhat ... doable?

Look, there’s still a chance that the Braves could enter the break above .500 for the first time this season — though reaching that season milestone would mean mastering the Marlins, something they haven’t in 2021 — and stay within striking distance of Mets. But a team that has chased a 20-2 win over New York by losing as series to the lowly Pirates hasn’t generated much faith that they can actually put the erratic play that has defined this season in the rearview.

As the Braves and baseball break this weekend and Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman pack their bags for Denver, there are plenty of questions in need of answers for the season’s second half. Let’s dive in.

1. Does the division title streak come to an end?

Per FanGraphs, the Braves have a better chance of winning the East (9.8 percent) than they do of claiming a wild-card spot (3.3 percent), what with the NL West seemingly destined to claim both of those additional postseason spots. The current wild-card leaders in the Padres and Giants are at 73.8 and 73.5 percent, respectively, of claiming those spots. The surest path to October seems clear, and as maddening as these Braves have been as they’ve struggled to find any consistency, one of the best things they’ve had going for them is the Mets’ inability to pull away in the division. New York is just a game above .500 (19-18) against the East, the worst in-division record of any first-place team, though you could make the argument that the rest of the division being bad has allowed the Mets to keep its division lead since May 9 often in spite of themselves. The Braves do have the best record in East vs. East games (21-22), though that mark includes a winning mark against only the Nationals. The Braves will get a five-game set in Queens before August, but — as we’ll discuss shortly — what happens before that showdown will be crucial.

2. Will the offense get an upgrade?

The offense has put up 20 runs twice and is tied for the MLB lead with four games of 13 or more. It’s also the same group that has scored two runs or fewer 22 times, including two against the Pirates and their 5.21 starters ERA (26th). Promoting Orlando Arcia, who hit 13 home runs at Triple-A Gwinnett before joining the big-league club, and proceeding to hit another bomb, is a band-aid, not a solution. An MLB Network hypothetical deal with the Yankees that would bring Aaron Judge to Atlanta for Cristian Pache, Kyle Muller and Bryce Elder could certainly provide the kind of right-handed power that has been missing without Marcell Ozuna. It would certainly be splashy, but the Rangers’ Joey Gallo seems the better fit with Texas (20 back in the American League East) in a clear seller spot, while the Yankees have been linked to the likes of Gallo despite the perception, they should be sellers at 8 1/2 back. The easy move would seem to be bringing in a left fielder, though don’t discount the idea of Austin Riley shifting to the outfield if general manager Alex Anthopoulos could find offense at third base at a cheaper rate like the Diamondbacks’ Eduardo Escobar or trying to add depth at the catcher spot ahead of Travis d’Arnaud’s potential late-August return. But remember, an underlying point of adding another bit of firepower is in protecting Freddie Freeman in the lineup now and in the future and making the kind of move that the reigning MVP wants to continue that future in Atlanta.

3. Will the bullpen get an upgrade?

The relief corps have unraveled time and time again, most recently Tyler Matzek, giving Pittsburgh a walk-off walk of a win on Tuesday. Atlanta is tied for 22nd in bullpen ERA (4.70) a year after finishing fourth in MLB and second in the NL at 3.50 and a Shane Greene hasn’t helped matters (11.57 ERA). Three names to keep an eye on are the Pirates’ Richard Rodriguez — who will have no shortage of suitors with a 2.43 ERA and paltry 0.81 BB/9 — the Angels’ Raisel Iglesias — 13.73 K/9 on an expiring deal and the added benefit that Los Angeles is led by Anthopoulos’ former assistant GM, Perry Minasian — and Texas’ Ian Kennedy, which, if the Braves were included, could be part of a Gallo package that meets both of the team’s needs. But there are plenty more bullpen arms available than impact bats, making this the most logical and likely move.

4. Can Acuña run down 40/40?

Whatever loops, twists or turns the Braves’ nightly roller coaster takes, Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 40/40 chase continues to be the most watchable and bankable thing about this team. He’s sitting on 24 home runs and is on pace for 47 on the season, along with 32 stolen bases. Two years ago, Acuña finished three steals shy to go with 41 homers as he was shut down with four games to go, a precaution as he was dealing with a groin strain with the postseason looming. The way things are trending, the Braves may need everything Acuña has to make a return to the playoffs, which certainly bodes well for his chances of joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano. The craziest part of this season is that Acuña isn’t alone in that pursuit. The Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. is on pace for 63 homers and 44 steals, which could make the duel between the two of them a major piece of the NL MVP picture.

5. Albies, RBI king?

Five Braves have led the NL in RBI, with Ozuna doing so last year, while Hank Aaron did it four times, Dale Murphy did so twice, while Andruw Jones and Wally Berger also had one season atop the circuit. None of them were second basemen, which brings us to Ozzie Albies, who is just one behind former Brave and current Marlin Adam Duvall’s 60 for the best in the NL. Albies has surged behind 14 runs drive in over the last 14 days, including seven in one night, and is on pace for 115 on the season. In just two of the last 25 full seasons would that total be enough to top the league, though it would be enough to tie Albies with Bobby Lowe in 1894 for the most of any second basemen in franchise history and would be topped by 22 years at the position ever, with Rogers Hornsby’s 152 leading the way. Albies has never driven in more than 86 in a season, and it seems a given that he’ll obliterate that total from 2019.

6. What to expect from those in-house boosts?

If they don’t do anything ahead of the trade deadline, expect the narrative for doing so to revolve around the potential August returns of catcher Travis d’Arnaud and right-hander Huascar Ynoa. But what, exactly, would the Braves be getting out of them at that point? D’Arnaud was a Silver Slugger during the pandemic-shortened 2020, but before his thumb injury he was in a bad way, sitting on a paltry 59 wRC+ and a .122 ISO as that .411 BABIP of a year ago slipped to .262. He may help provide stability behind the plate, where Jonathan Lucroy has come in and William Contreras has been moved to Triple-A, but can he be the consistent offensive threat he was last season? Before punching a bench and breaking his hand, Ynoa was a revelation with a .215 batting average against and 50 strikeouts to 11 walks, not to mention his exploits at the plate. But is there time to build up his arm again after a layoff to get Ynoa back in the rotation? He could provide a boost to the bullpen without the Braves having to give up anything in the process (a sentiment you may be hearing again depending on what happens in these coming weeks).

7. Most important stretch is ...

As previously mentioned, the Braves will have five games in four days against the Mets from July 26-29, part of a daunting first two weeks of the season’s second half that has make-or-break potential. They’ll open up with two pitching-rich opponents in the Rays — who sans Tyler Glasnow have stayed in the top 10 in starter ERA (eighth at 3.73) and are fourth in bullpen ERA (3.38) — and the Padres — they have the game’s top bullpen at 2.91 ERA and, behind Yu Darvish, the fifth-ranked rotation (3.40). It doesn’t provide much confidence for those matchups that Atlanta is 2-10 against Tampa Bay’s AL East brethren this season or that San Diego’s offense has ranked fifth in the last 30 days with 119 wRC+. Then it’s the Phillies for four games even before the Braves get to that trip to New York. An opportunity to erase or seriously eat into the division lead in that series ta Citi Field would be optimum, but the Braves are going to have to earn that chance with a gauntlet beforehand that could provide some helium to this season or turn thoughts to 2022.

8. Next prospect up

Cristian Pache was the Opening Day center fielder, Kyle Muller has made four appearances with three starts and Tucker Davidson logged four starts, giving three of the Braves’ top 10 prospects (based on MLB Pipeline rankings) playing time in 2021. Will they be the last? The Drew Waters watch continues, with the outfielder’s next moment in the spotlight coming in the Futures Game (where he’ll be joined by fellow toolsy outfielder Michael Harris) and the production of Arcia and what does or doesn’t happen ahead of the trade deadline could provide some indication as to whether Waters’ debut will come this season. But the prospect most likely to be the next up might be Jasseel De La Cruz. The right-hander, who is ranked eighth in the organization, has an ugly 7.18 ERA in 31 1/3 innings this season in Gwinnett, but he’s also struck out 10.05 per nine. He received two callups last season, though he never appeared in a game and that 97-98 mph fastball and nasty slider could be worth a look, ghastly ERA or not.

9. Who will the Braves take with their first-round pick?

This is the question we’ll get the quickest answer to with the first round of the draft taking place Sunday night. The mock drafts have been all over the place with what the Braves will do at No. 24. FanGraphs pegged Eastern Illinois shortstop Trey Sweeney, CBS Sports went with Nebraska shortstop/right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach and had them taking UC Santa Barbara right-hander Michael McGreevy. Local product Bubba Chandler, a righty arm, has also been mentioned in other mocks. Of course, we know that the MLB draft isn’t always about fit and picking the best player available, it’s about signability and playing with slot value, especially with the high school players. From that end, Chandler, who is also a Clemson quarterback commit, could be tough to keep out of Death Valley. But if the Braves are approaching this from the end of organizational needs, shoring up corner infielders — with just two first baseman Bryce Ball and third baseman C.J. Alexander in the top 25 — would seem to line up, making Southridge, Ind., third baseman Colson Montgomery an interesting target.

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