For the Nationals and the rest of the NL East, the disturbing thing about the Braves' first half was not the six-game division lead they built by stringing together consistent month-by-month win totals (17 in April; 15 in May; 16 in June). The disturbing thing was that the Braves did so without fielding a roster that resembled, in performance or composition, the one that G.M. Frank Wren designed.
Atlanta's offense ranks third in the National League in runs scored despite awful production from Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton, who hit No. 2 and No. 5 in their Opening Day lineup. Heyward, who was an All-Star as a 20-year-old rookie three years ago, is batting .227 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs. Upton, the former Ray who was signed to a five-year, $75.25 million contract last November, has been worse: .177, eight home runs, 20 RBIs. Among the 162 qualified players, Upton is last in OPS.
Heyward's production has been hampered by his health—an appendectomy put him on the disabled list from mid-April to mid-May—and he has been far from alone in his infirmity. The Braves have already endured stretches of 15 days or more without key cogs such as catcher Brian McCann, first baseman Freddie Freeman, out-of-the-blue rookie phenom Evan Gattis, starter Brandon Beachy and top setup men Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters.
O'Flaherty and Venters won't return this season—they have two structurally intact ulnar collateral ligaments between them, in neither case the one that counts—but everyone else is back or will be soon enough. That includes the 26-year-old Beachy, whose 2.00 ERA led the majors when he tore his UCL on June 16, 2012, and who should soon return as, at worst, a fortifying member of a bullpen that already leads the majors in ERA (2.62). At best he'll be an elite starting option in a rotation that ranks fifth in the majors (3.59).
Even Heyward and Upton have shown signs of life. Heyward's OPS was .533 at the end of May but is .809 since, and Upton's OPS has gone from .476 in April and May to .684 in June and July. As they mount a drive to October, the Braves are threatening to look as they were supposed to all along: like a team that strikes out an awful lot (their 826 K's trail only the Astros) but that does almost everything else well. The thought of what they might be when whole and functional must be as gratifying for Wren as it is unpleasant for opponents.
CRUNCH TIME Despite being the NL's third-highest-scoring team, the Braves and Justin Upton (16 homers) still have plenty of upside.