ATLANTA -- The break will be almost anything but for a quarter of Braves All-Stars, including Freddie Freeman, as he takes part in the Home Run Derby on Monday night.
But so is the price of being in the spotlight once again, and after denying the Diamondbacks the sweep with a 5-1 victory in Sunday's series finale at SunTrust Park, Atlanta is facing its smallest deficit heading into the Midsummer Classic since it was tied with the Nationals in 2014.
Contention brings with it speculation as general manager Alex Anthopoulos enters his first trade deadline at the helm, giving us plenty to dive into with the last Three Cuts of the first half of the season.
1. Braves enter All-Star break with plenty of positives
Capping the first half with a 5-1 win over the National League West-leading Diamondbacks provided some momentum and a feel-good moment heading into the break, especially after the Braves had dropped the first two games in the series and eight of the last 10 overall.
But if we're being honest, isn't the entire first half of this season a feel-good moment?
Largely expected to finish no higher than third in the National League East, Atlanta is 52-42, a 1/2 game back of the Phillies, and has held the division lead for 47 days, going up by as many as 3 1/2 games. If the season were to end today, the Braves would hold the second Wild Card, taking on the Central's Brewers in their first postseason appearance since 2013.
Currently, Atlanta's offense's 451.9 runs created is the eighth most in franchise history at the break and the most since 2008 and the pitching staff has racked up more strikeouts (830) than any Braves arms in history at this point in the season.
Add in the four All-Stars -- the most since 2012 -- including the NL's top two vote-getters in first baseman Freddie Freeman and right fielder Nick Markakis, and Ozzie Albies leading all second basemen with a day left in voting, and it's clear the Braves' rise after three straight 90-loss seasons has permeated more than just the Southeast.
It's not all spectacular as Atlanta has two of the NL's least bottom 30 everyday players in terms of WAR in Ender Inciarte (1.1) and Dansby Swanson (1.2) and only two starters have a lower current value than Julio Teheran's 0.0.
Meanwhile, despite some strong outings from Anibal Sanchez and the aforementioned Teheran, the starters and bullpen have collectively struggled of late (more on what that could mean as the trade deadline approaches later on).
Do the Braves head into the All-Star break largely scuffling? No question, but as manager Brian Snitker put it multiple times during the final series against Arizona:
"If somebody had told me at the end of March that we’d be sitting here at the All-Star break and we're one of the better teams in the National League and we’re right there in the hunt, I’d have been all in."
The expectation, though, is that this team was going to be be staring up at a Nationals squad that has struggled to stay above .500. Unexpected results have laid forth that the window of contention is open earlier than anyone had expected.
The message of the first half should be simple. There's something going on with these Braves that wasn't there amid the rebuild, something tangible: opportunity.
Whether this team can keep this pace over the second half or not, what's undeniable is that it's already provided far more than was forecasted heading into the 2018 season.
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2. Ozzie Albies back at leadoff clearest path to igniting Braves offense
The Braves' offense is slumping. There's no way around it in describing an attack that since June 23 has hit the second fewest home runs in the majors (13), while ranking 20th in wRC+ (92) and 19th in wOBA (.310).
Though those struggles, the team had dropped 12 of the last 20. Be it a byproduct of Ender Inciarte's first off day since June 6, Brian Snitker took a step toward sparking that stagnant attack Sunday, pushing Ozzie Albies back to leadoff for the first time in 21 games.
While Snitker has stated on multiple occasions that his ideal lineup includes Inciarte hitting leadoff, the center fielder has provided a .203/.323/.266 slash line since moving back to the top spot over those last 20 games and has one hit in his last 21 at-bats.
The first-time All-Star went 1 for 4 on Sunday with a run scored and had an infield hit that he turned into an RBI and a two more bases on a throwing error in the third inning.
The reality is, Albies had simply been too hot to not have as the table-setter once again. Since Inciarte moved back to first in the lineup, Albies went 33 for 84, producing a .407 average that's only bested by Mookie Betts (.425) in that span with a minimum of 80 plate appearances. Only seven players have a better wRC+ than Albies' 188 in those ABs and he's posted the fifth-best on-base percentage in the NL at .417.
How this shakes out after the break could be interesting, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Inciarte back at leadoff post-All-Star break given Snitker likes that look best. But we've now seen Inciarte at leadoff for 53 games and Albies for 39, and the results are drastic. Inciarte is hitting 43 percent below league average, while Albies is at 99 wRC+.
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3. With key piece on DL once again, upgrading bullpen becomes paramount
For the second time this month, Arodys Vizcaino is back on the disabled list, with the Braves closer suffering another issue with shoulder inflammation. While there's the argument that rest, plus the All-Star break, could be exactly what he needs, it's hard not to be overly concerned with Vizcaino making just three appearances between DL stints, throwing three scoreless innings.
The bullpen was an obvious need for the Braves heading into the July 31 trade deadline, with the relief corps posting the seventh-highest FIP over the past two weeks (4.40). While Anthopoulos could look to add a starter given Brandon McCarthy (right knee tendinitis) and Mike Soroka (right shoulder inflammation) on the DL and add to a rotation that has a 5.43 ERA the past two weeks, concerns over your established closer would seem to put that target squarely on the bullpen.
A.J. Minter has proven more than capable of commanding the ninth-inning role, with four saves to his credit and a .200 batting average against in high-leverage situations that's among the top 29 in the majors among qualified relievers.
But over the past two weeks, Minter has a 6.23 ERA and he's not alone in struggling as the the Braves have seen Shane Carle (4.91 ERA), Dan Winkler (5.06), Sam Freeman (5.40) and Evan Phillips (14.73) all have their issues. The reality is that at this moment, Atlanta is leaning on four players who still have their rookie status (Jesse Biddle, Carle, Phillips and Winkler) and another in Luke Jackson, who just lost his rookie eligibility last season.
The expectation here with Anibal Sanchez and his 2.60 ERA -- the seventh-best in the NL with a minimum of 60 innings pitched -- proving one of Anthopoulos' deftest moves, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb having overall strong first halves and Julio Teheran looking strong of late, the Brave may have enough starting pitching.
Of course that changes should they be able to acquire a controllable rotation piece instead of a rental. But with the likes of the Padres' Brad Hand, Craig Stammen, Kirby Yates, all of whom are under contract, Atlanta may be able to acquire a strong additional relief arm without burning too much prospect capital.