5 Braves to watch in second half

How preseason questions about Braves have been answered ... so far

On the day before the Braves reported to spring training in mid-February, we presented 10 key questions about the team for the season ahead. Now, as the Braves return from the All-Star break to open a three-game series Friday night in San Diego, let’s revisit those same questions and add midseason answers.

Preseason question: Will Josh Donaldson stay healthy and return to a reasonable approximation of his peak years to power the Braves’ batting order alongside Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna? 
Midseason answer: Donaldson has stayed healthy, playing in 87 of the Braves’ 91 games, and has helped power an offense that ranks first in the NL in runs and third in homers. His stats for the season to date — .250 batting average, .854 OPS, 18 home runs, 45 RBIs — aren’t on pace with his peak seasons, but his 1.037 OPS and 10 home runs over his past 25 games suggest the pace is accelerating. The move of Acuna to leadoff and Donaldson to cleanup on May 10, followed by the promotion of Austin Riley to the big leagues five days later, turbocharged the Braves’ offense beyond even the norms of this homer-happy MLB season. 

Preseason question: Since it’s unlikely the Braves will have as good a record against an improved NL East as they did against the division last season (49-27), will they fare considerably better against out-of-division opponents (41-45 last season)? 
Midseason answer: The Braves are 22-14 against a not-as-strong-as-expected East, including 10-2 against the last-place Marlins and 12-12 against the rest of the division. But they have fared considerably better than last year against out-of-division opponents (32-23), enabling them to post the NL’s second-best record at the All-Star break and best since May 10. 

Preseason question: Will the Braves’ young starting pitchers develop, improve and hold their own in a division where the Nationals and Mets have superior rotations on paper? And if not, will the Braves find a way to acquire an established ace at some point? 
Midseason answer: Despite the standout performance of rookie Mike Soroka, whose 2.42 ERA through 15 starts made him an All-Star, the Braves rank 11th among the 15 NL teams in ERA by starting pitchers (4.56). That obviously needs improvement for the Braves to play deep into October. The acquisition last month of former AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel was a step toward restoring a rotation that was reeling from setbacks by Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman (both now trying to work out their problems in the minor leagues) and Sean Newcomb (now in the bullpen after a stint in the minors). As the Braves weigh how high a price to pay in prospects to acquire another starting pitcher before the trade deadline, the biggest threat to their six-game lead in the NL East is that the second-place Nationals’ top three starters are Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg.  

Braves pitcher Mike Sorokapitches in the second inning against the New York Mets June 28, 2019, at Citi Field in New York. The 21-year-old rookie made the NL All-Star team.
Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Preseason question: Will Ozzie Albies be closer to the hitter he was before the All-Star break last season (.281 batting average, 20 home runs, 55 RBIs, .834 OPS) or the hitter he was after the break (.226 batting average, four home runs, 17 RBIs, .624 OPS)? And will he improve as a left-handed hitter (.231 batting average and .695 OPS last season, compared to .333 and .904 as a right-handed hitter)? 
Midseason answer: Albies’ .290 batting average, 14 home runs, 49 RBIs and .836 OPS are pretty close to his numbers in the first half of last season. (That’s despite a poor May in which he hit .239 with a .615 OPS). He has a .253 batting average and .762 OPS as a left-handed hitter this season, compared with .410 and 1.081 right-handed. Now the big question is whether, unlike last year, Albies will sustain his productivity in the season’s second half. 

Preseason question: Will Acuna’s second season be everything that his rookie season portended? And more? 
Midseason answer: Yes, Acuna has been the same dynamic player as last year. Maybe the best news of the Braves’ season so far is that they now have him under contract for up to 10 years

Preseason question: After team owner Liberty Media revealed strong financial results for the Braves in 2018 … shouldn’t some of those additional funds have been used to bolster the roster by increasing the player payroll (which instead was lower at the start of this season than at the beginning or end of the 2018 season)? 
Midseason answer: After signing Keuchel to a $13 million contract for the rest of the season, the Braves’ payroll is now just a few dollars short of where it was at the end of last season (about $130 million). The Braves have said they’re willing to surpass last year’s spending as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, so stay tuned for that. 

Braves stat leaders

Preseason question: Will the bullpen be reliable? Or will it prove problematic, especially in light of bullpen investments during the offseason by three NL East teams (Mets, Phillies and Nationals)?
Midseason answer: The Braves’ bullpen has had its ups and downs, but it has been by far the best in the division as measured by ERA. In fact, the Braves have the NL’s best bullpen ERA at 3.64. On the other hand, the Braves rank 10th in the league and third in the division in save percentage (60.98%, 25 saves and 16 blown saves in 41 opportunities), meaning the bullpen remains a trade-deadline priority.

Preseaseason question: Will Nick Markakis be closer to the hitter he was in the first 120 games last season (.319 batting average, .878 OPS, 14 home runs) or the hitter he was in the final 42 games (.229 average, .586 OPS, no home runs)? 
Midseason answer: He has been somewhere in between, but closer to the former than the latter. He has a .286 batting average, .799 OPS and eight home runs through 91 games. 

Preseason question: Can Dansby Swanson, who made great strides defensively last season, progress offensively from last year’s .238 batting average? 
Midseason answer: Swanson’s progress at the plate was a highlight of the season’s first half. His .270 batting average is 37 points above his previous career average, and he already has a career high in home runs with 17. He is on pace at this point for a 30-homer, 100-RBI season. 

Preseason question: Will the catching tandem of Brian McCann-Tyler Flowers be productive enough? Or will the decisions not to re-sign Kurt Suzuki, now with the Nationals, and not to relinquish the considerable prospects required to acquire J.T. Realmuto, now with the Phillies, be rued? 
Midseason answer: If the price really would have been Soroka and Riley, as widely speculated, then no one rues the Braves’ decision to pass on a Realmuto trade. The McCann-Flowers tandem has combined to hit .254 with 15 home runs, 47 RBIs and a .784 OPS, although Flowers, who hit .340 through April, is hitting .194 since May 1.

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