If offense can click, Braves in good shape
Unlike lineup, pitching has performed beyond expectations
ATLANTA -- Through the first half of the season, the Braves have remained frustrated by the fact that their offensive woes have negated the strength of their starting rotation.
Consequently, the Braves entered the All-Star break with a mediocre record and the hope that they will be able to take advantage of the stellar efforts provided by Javier Vazquez, Jair Jurrjens and the rest of their pitching staff during the season's second half.
Serving as the symbol for the club's first-half record is the fact that Vazquez and Jurrjens have produced two of the National League's top 10 ERAs while constantly battling to produce winning records.
Brian McCann's vision problems and Garret Anderson's injury woes hindered the club during the season's first five weeks, and Kelly Johnson has been unable to regain the promising form he's displayed during the early portion of his career. Throw in the fact that Jordan Schafer's introduction to the Majors was forgettable and that Chipper Jones has struggled to produce his usual power, and it's understandable why it's easy to tab Yunel Escobar as the club's most consistent offensive threat to date.
There obviously aren't any guarantees that the starting rotation will once again prove to be as strong during the second half, but even if the pitching is still there after the break, Atlanta will be looking at a fourth consecutive dormant October if its bats continue to slumber.
Club MVP: The Braves have won 23 of the past 27 games that Rafael Soriano has pitched, and during that span, the dominant reliever has posted a 1.57 ERA and limited opponents to a .173 batting average. But the most influential player on a consistent basis has been Escobar, whose contributions with his glove and bat have been significant enough to negate his maddening mental flaws. The 26-year-old shortstop leads the team in RBIs and has hit .410 with runners in scoring position.
Call him "Ace": Vazquez has lived up to the expectations of being an innings-eater who gives the club a chance on a regular basis. His 6-7 record clouds the fact that he ranks second in the NL in strikeouts, fourth in strikeouts-to-walk ratio and seventh in opponents' batting average allowed. To cement this distinction, he posted a 1.96 ERA in his final eight starts of the first half.
Greatest strength: The starting rotation has proven to be even better than general manager Frank Wren could have imagined when he reconstructed it during the offseason. Jurrjens and Vazquez have been sensational throughout, and both Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami have enjoyed extended stretches of success. Tommy Hanson's early dominance has proven he truly could be the staff ace by the time the season concludes.
Biggest problem: With the June 3 acquisition of Nate McLouth, the Braves gained the offensive production that Schafer wasn't able to provide while hitting .204 and striking out 63 times in the first 50 games of his career. But to truly get the offense rolling, this club is going to have to start getting more production from at least one of the corner outfield spots and first base, where Casey Kotchman has also supplied limited power.
Biggest surprise: Given that he hit .342 in his final 48 games last season, maybe there shouldn't be reason to be too surprised by the fact that Martin Prado has proven to be one of the club's most valuable offensive pieces this year. His consistency allowed him to unseat Johnson at second base, and his determined work ethic has put him in position to lose the utility player tag that he previously wore.
Team needs: There's no doubt that this club could benefit from the addition of another bat, and it'll likely continue its search for an outfielder, while dealing with the fact that it is working without any payroll flexibility. In addition, the Braves may need to find another reliable veteran reliever to reduce the stress that has been placed upon Peter Moylan, Mike Gonzalez and Soriano.
He said it: "We are who we are right now. We're not in first place, and that's frustrating. But you're never out of this thing until you're 12 or 13 games out. When we won the division the first time [in 1991], we were [9 1/2] games out at the break." -- manager Bobby Cox
Mark your calendar: The Braves will exit the break with a four-game home series against the Mets and play seven games against the Dodgers (July 31-Aug. 2 in Atlanta and Aug. 6-9 in Los Angeles) before entering the second week of August. They'll play a pair of three-game sets against the Phillies in August (Aug. 14-16 in Atlanta and Aug. 28-30 in Philadelphia). The decisive stretch might occur from Sept. 15-23, when they encounter a nine-game stretch that pits them solely against the Phillies and Mets.
Fearless second-half prediction: With their pitching, the Braves will keep things interesting until September arrives. But their inability to take full advantage of the Phillies' woes in June will serve as a sore point when the defending World Series champs claim their third consecutive NL East title.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.