With days of no baseball now behind us, the second half of the 2012 season is set to begin later today across Major League Baseball. Before the first games begin, however, let’s take a moment to take stock of the rest of the National League East and where the four teams chasing the Nationals currently stand. We’ll continue working our way up from the bottom of the NL East – last up we have the Atlanta Braves, at 46-39 they sit 4.0 games behind Washington.
Most expected the Braves to be in contention this year. The team, despite their colossal collapse that ended the 2011 campaign, just simply had too much talent to fall out of the picture altogether in the NL East. With it also being the last hurrah for Chipper Jones, it only seems appropriate that the team is in line to make the postseason one more time (as of today they’d win the second Wild Card spot and would face the Reds in the first round of the playoffs).
Jones is batting .318/.396/.480 with 6 HR and 33 RBI through 197 plate appearances. He’s been receiving the royal treatment for much of the season, as nearly every park he’s played in has gone out of their way to recognize his career knowing full well it will be the last time fans will get to see him play in person. The one stadium Jones hadn’t played in over the course of his Hall of Fame career happened to be Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, but appearing in the All Star Game earlier this week rectified that problem.
Atlanta’s outfield has been solid this year. Martin Prado is hitting .321/.382/.457 and Michael Bourn is at .311/.366/.451. Both of their futures are uncertain, as Prado has been the subject of trade rumors for months and Bourn is primed to reach free agency at the end of the season. Meanwhile, Jason Heyward has started to resemble his old self again, batting .272/.340/.497 with a team leading 14 HR.
Brian McCann has mashed 13 HR and 46 RBI but has overall struggled at the plate to a .238/.301/.430 line. Dan Uggla has also disappointed, hitting just .221/.351/.395 while striking out 99 times. Rookie shortstop Andrelton Simmons, however, impressed before breaking his pinky just last week that will keep him out for at least a month. He was batting .296/.336/.452 over 125 plate appearances prior to the injury.
Pitching has long been the strength of the Braves teams that consistently went to the playoffs throughout the 1990s and that was an expected strong point to this team in 2012.
Tommy Hanson has started to develop into the ace of the staff, posting a 10-5 record and 3.71 ERA so far through 18 starts. Tim Hudson returned from injury and has gone 7-4 with a 3.56 ERA to give the Braves a quality second starter in the rotation. However, beyond the pair the group has been largely inconsistent. Mike Minor has struggled to a 5-6 mark and 5.97 ERA. Randall Delgado, meanwhile, is just 4-9 with a 4.52 ERA. Finally, Jair Jurrjens is just 3-2 with a 4.97 ERA after spending a good portion of the season back in the minor leagues.
Atlanta was hit hard by injuries so far, losing two of their most promising young starters already this year. Brandon Beachy was leading the NL in ERA at the time he went down and after undergoing Tommy John Surgery he’s out at least until mid-2013 in all likelihood. Meanwhile Arodys Vizcaino underwent the same procedure before the end of Spring Training.
Craig Kimbrel has been a huge piece at the back end of the Braves bullpen, saving 25 games and pitching to a 1.36 ERA. Kris Medlan, despite some time in the minors and being bounced back and forth between starting and relieving, has also pitched well.
The Braves could be the biggest threat facing the Nationals as the rest of the season plays out, as the organization has talent coming through the minor leagues that could allow them to make a deal before the deadline that would allow them to address any perceived needs in order to remain in the hunt for the division crown. The two sides will play eachother 10 more times this year. It all starts with a four game set in Washington July 20-22, including a double header on the 21st, and then a three game series August 20-22. The Nationals will head down to Atlanta for three games September 14-16.