The Atlanta Braves rebounded from a paltry and powerless 15-36 record through the first two months of the 2016 season to play competitive baseball in June and July, heading into the All-Star break with a 31-58 record. Still, with multiple trades already completed and host of options remaining, the Braves figure to be one of the more active teams in the second half — both on the trade market and with intriguing minor-league decisions. FOX Sports South compiles the top storylines to watch.
David Banks-USA TODAY SportsDavid Banks
Will the Braves make a splash on the trade market?
John Coppolella’s involvement in MLB’s various trade deadline discussions is all but a foregone conclusion, so Atlanta’s pivotal question becomes just how high is the front office willing to go? Three major names — Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Nick Markakis — have come up in recent months and would warrant divergent returns, from Teheran’s ultra-valuable contract to Markakis’ steady hit tool on an unappealing deal through 2018. Much like the 2015 deadline, veterans on one-year deals (Jim Johnson, Erick Aybar, Gordon Beckham, Jeff Francoeur, even Lucas Harrell) will be thrown around, but unless the Braves are willing to part with one of their big names or big prospects — Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy's name keeps popping up — it could be a relatively unassuming deadline.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY SportAnthony Gruppuso
Can Julio Teheran replicate his All-Star form in the second half?
This is arguably the best Julio Teheran baseball has ever seen. The 25-year-old right-hander’s slow start notwithstanding, the 2015 struggles have almost disappeared in the rearview mirror, clearing a path for a 2.96 ERA and 1.7 WAR through 18 starts. Advanced numbers continue to be wary of Teheran, but he’s one of the better arms in the National League this season and, at 25 with a club-friendly deal, he should be valuable commodity for years to come. Trade rumors continue to swirl, but the Braves might be better off hanging onto Teheran this summer, banking on a similar second half and either opening up trade talks across the league this offseason or heading into SunTrust Park with at least one proven arm.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY SporDennis Wierzbicki
Is Freddie Freeman’s bat back for good?
Given Freddie Freeman’s first-half numbers (.286/.373/.518, 132 wRC+, 2.6 WAR), it’s easy to gloss over the fact that, at one point, the 2016 season looked rather disappointing. Freeman’s bat was cold from April through a mid-June series against the Cubs … and then the 26-year-old took off. Over the past 30 days, he ranks fifth in WAR among all position players behind only All-Stars Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant, Mike Trout and Anthony Rizzo. It’s no surprise the Braves offense improved dramatically once Freeman started raking, and it will need similar production as summer gives way to fall.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY SportsJason Getz
Should there be a Swanson-Albies sighting?
The Braves’ minor-league super duo made headlines before the break by joining forces in Double-A Mississippi. Albies made the shift to second base and now it’s just a matter of time before the organization’s top two position prospects land in Atlanta. But how much time? There are financial considerations when starting a prospect’s MLB clock — as a few MLB teams have learned the hard way with young, controllable stars over the years — but if the Braves are aiming for the talented pair to earn big-league experience before the 2017 season, September (or sooner) might not be out of the question.
Will the Braves crack the 100-homer mark?
With 55 home runs through 89 games, the Braves are marching at a near-exact pace toward 100 home runs for the second straight season. However, even that number was elevated by the likes of Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers right before the break — an outfielder who posted historically low power numbers in 2015 and a catcher that will miss at least the next month. If Atlanta does not hit at least 45 homers before the end of the season, it will be just the fifth team in the past six years to fall short of the century mark.
Peter Casey-USA TODAY SportsPeter Casey
Will the young starters continue to progress in the consistency department?
Atlanta’s rotation features three arms that figure to factor into the team’s long-term plans: Teheran, Matt Wisler and Mike Foltynewicz. And while Teheran turned in his second All-Star nod, Wisler and Foltynewicz continued to do what young pitchers often do, undercutting moments of brilliance with week-long hiccups. After a strong early showing, Wisler, 23, owns a 6.81 ERA since the start of June. Foltynewicz continues to offset gems with early exits, but his final first-half start (10 Ks and zero runs against the White Sox) flashed his ceiling yet again. Consistency will be a major theme in the second half for both right-handers.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY SportsEric Hartline
What will Mauricio Cabrera’s role be in the bullpen?
Arodys Vizcaino’s name will and should be mentioned up until Aug. 1 since franchises are prone to overpaying for quality relievers. The young closer owns a 182 ERA+ and double-digit strikeout rate since re-joining the Braves, making him one of the better relievers on the market. Meanwhile, Cabrera, his potential replacement, gets his first taste of MLB hitting. The early results are underwhelming. The flamethrower has cut down his walks at the expense of his strikeouts, fanning just one batter through six innings. Expectations are higher for the righty with the 100-mph fastball. If his K-rate does not climb dramatically, the Braves will need to look elsewhere if they move Vizcaino.
Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY SportsCaylor Arnold
Is this the worst fielding Braves team this century?
The Braves’ defense has not often helped its pitching staff in 2016. Atlanta is on pace for its worst defensive year since the turn of the millennium, ranking dead last among the franchise’s 17 teams since 2000 in defensive WAR per game, ultimate zone rating and defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs. Injuries to outfielders Ender Inciarte and Mallex Smith have hindered the team’s defensive strength at times, but forgettable infield work and too-frequent gaffes behind the plate have hurt a team with little margin for error. The team played markedly better defense in the final month leading into the All-star break, but it has a long way to go.
David Banks-USA TODAY SportsDavid Banks
Will Atlanta go 162 games without a single left-handed starter?
Twelve starters took the mound for pitching coach Roger McDowell during the first half — all righties. After opening the season with an exclusively right-handed staff, not even injuries brought a southpaw to Atlanta as the likes of Casey Kelly, Joel De La Cruz, Tyrell Jenkins and Lucas Harrell made spot starts. With the recent demotion of Manny Banuelos, the only lefty starter on the 40-man roster, to Double-A Mississippi, this unlikely run does not appear to be ending anytime soon.