Can Jason Heyward give Atlanta back-to-back National League Platinum Glove winners?
Braves right fielder Jason Heyward walked into the All-Star break with a comfortable lead in the defensive runs saved department -- the metric that tracks defensive value for all MLB players. Heyward's 25 runs saved puts him well ahead of Kansas City's Alex Gordon and Oakland's Josh Donaldson (17) -- positioning him as the frontrunner to take home the NL Platinum Glove. The guy that won the award last year? Teammate Andrelton Simmons, who also led all fielders in runs saved. Heyward is halfway there.
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY SportsAdam Hunger
Can Mike Minor bounce back from a forgettable first half?
In 2013, Mike Minor was the Braves' most productive pitcher, owning a 3.21 ERA through 204 2/3 innings pitched and establishing himself as one of the top lefties in the league. But after missing the first month of the season due to an offseason procedure, Minor has only been his former self in brief spurts. He's allowed three earned runs or more in seven of his 14 starts and he owns the staff's worst ERA. It's scary to think just how good this staff can be if Minor regains his form (and reestablishes his fastball) in the second half.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY SportsGeoff Burke
How will the front office handle the catcher situation after the break?
Evan Gattis was excellent behind the plate in the first half -- better than expected, hitting .290/.342/.558 with 16 homers -- and further justified the Braves' decision to let Brian McCann walk in free agency. It's his job to lose moving forward. But a back injury has sidelined Gattis since June 27 (he's reportedly nearing his return) and top prospect Christian Bethancourt entered the mix in the meantime. He's shown flashes but hasn't been nearly as effective, and it will be interesting to see if Bethancourt sticks on the roster or heads back down to Triple-A Gwinnett once Gattis returns. It's difficult to see the Braves running with a three-catcher roster like last season, especially with one roster spot being negated by Dan Uggla.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsDale Zanine
Will there be more shuffling at the top of the lineup?
Fredi Gonzalez started making drastic moves at the top of the batting order in late June. First, he moved rookie Tommy La Stella to leadoff with unimpressive results. Then he turned to B.J. Upton, who has improved at the plate this season (.215/.277/.341) despite being the least productive hitter in the everyday lineup. Gonzalez moved Simmons to No. 2 as well -- and the results have been surprisingly positive. The Braves are 10-4 with that combo at the top. Still, it's a dangerous proposition keeping Upton and, to a lesser extent, Simmons that high in the order when there are better options (Jason Heyward at leadoff, for one). Will those two show marked improvement or are more changes coming?
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY SportsEvan Habeeb
How far away is Julio Teheran from being officially tabbed as the Braves' ace?
Julio Teheran celebrated his first career All-Star selection with two of his worst starts of the season, allowing a combined nine earned runs against the Mets and Cubs. That being said, when the teams were released he earned his spot, and with a 2.71 ERA and 1.9 wins above replacement he's already established himself as the No. 1 starter in the eyes of many of his teammates. How long before Fredi Gonzalez publicly follows suit? Teheran needs to get back on track after the break, but he's proven he's capable of being the go-to guy on a playoff contender.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsDale Zanine
Is bullpen help on the way?
The Braves feature a top-10 bullpen in baseball, so the need for help here is relative. Lefty assistance is key, though. With All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, standout rookie Shae Simmons, Jordan Walden, Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter, Atlanta's 'pen is stocked with righties. However, left-handed specialist Luis Avilan has not followed up on a strong rookie year, posting a 4.85 ERA and a terrible 4.55 walks per nine innings. Reports are that the Braves are interested in Andrew Miller (Red Sox), James Russell and Wesley Wright (Cubs) to shore up the back end of games. Will they eventually make a move before the July 31 deadline ... and where would that leave Avilan?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY SportsKelley L Cox
What will the Braves do about Dan Uggla?
This sounds harsh, but it's proven true since the first week of May: the Braves are essentially competing with a 24-man roster as long as Dan Uggla is in uniform. He offers very little value as a pinch-hitter and he's a substantial downgrade as a defensive replacement. He's logged just 27 at-bats since May 6, reaching base just six times. Throw in a one-game suspension and it just gets worse. With around $19 million left on his contract, Atlanta remains in a bind. His trade value is in the negative, and cutting him means eating that money with zero return. However, playing with a 24-man roster means Uggla not only remains a huge financial burden but one that hurts the team in the process. It's been assumed that Uggla will not be on the roster at season's end, but the question remains: How?
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY SportsSteve Mitchell
Is Freddie Freeman on his way to another top-five MVP finish?
Very quietly, Freddie Freeman bounced back from an extended slump to put up an even better first half than he did last year. Hitting .295/.395/.538 with 13 home runs, the Braves' All-Star first baseman was one of the best hitters in the National League once again, finishing seventh in weighted runs created behind Andrew McCutchen, Troy Tulowitzki, Yasiel Puig, Paul Goldschmidt, Seth Smith and Giancarlo Stanton. That's not bad company at all, and if Freeman can get on a second-half roll like he did last year (and if the Braves stay in playoff contention), he'll be in the NL MVP mix once again.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY SportsJason Getz
Can the Braves' pitching staff continue to keep enough runs off the board?
Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell just doesn't get enough national credit for what he's done with this rotation. Working with two young arms (Teheran, Alex Wood), a struggling lefty (Minor), two veteran journeymen (Aaron Harang, Gavin Floyd) and a high-priced free agent that has not been very consistent over his career (Ervin Santana), McDowell it again. The Braves rank seventh in team pitching WAR and sixth in ERA. In fact, it is their pitching that has even kept them alive in the playoff race -- if it were up to the offense, the NL East race would be rather lopsided. They'll need more of it, too, because the Nationals have been even better on the mound and do not like they're going away quietly. It's probably safe to assume a slight regression in overall performance ... which will be fine if the offense makes improvements.
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY SportsDaniel Shirey
Where does one of the lowest-scoring offenses need to improve most?
The biggest question facing this Braves franchise remains at the plate. Despite some individual offensive talent, they rank 28th in runs scored and have leaned heavily on the pitching staff to hang around game after game. It's a dangerous proposition, and it's one Wren, Gonzalez and the front office must focus on in the second half. The power numbers aren't quite where they were a season ago, and they have not been enough to overcome a poor OBP (.309) and limited success with runners in scoring position. Plate discipline remains a glaring issue, not so much because the Braves strike out more than all but five teams but because the walks aren't there to match. Simply put: the Braves need to be better offensively in the second half, or they aren't going to meet this season's goals.