Second Half Preview

The Braves need Chipper Jones back

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks takes a look at the second half of the season for the Braves. Will they overtake the Nationals for first place in the National League East? Will they make the postseason for the 14th straight season? How about any trades? This article is for our premium subscribers.

It must be difficult to be a Washington Nationals' player right now. Here they are, as confident as can be, but yet knowing that the biggest shark in the National League East is swimming the waters searching for their blood.

How else can they feel? You know the Nationals and the other three teams in the division thought sure this was the season the Braves would die. They've got to be saying, "Die already, please!" They've seen the Braves lose 60% of their starting rotation and their best player and have ten rookies on the team, yet they're still in the race.

Do you remember the old movie "Invasion of the Body Snatchers?" The one I first saw, in the late 70s, was actually a remake of a great movie from the 50s. It's almost like the Body Snatchers sneak into whomever wears that Braves uniform and plays outstanding baseball. Yeah, you almost wonder if it's the uniform.

Once again the uniform, and the players inside, have the Braves right where they need to be as they enter the second half tonight against the Mets. Considering all the injuries and the changes, it's a miracle they are where they are. But now, as we look ahead, no team should be more confident than the Braves.

Here are all these teams clamoring for a trade to improve their ball club, and all the Atlanta Braves have to do is to look toward their trainer's room. There is no other team that can say they are about to add a former MVP and perennial All-Star third baseman to their lineup, along with two top-of-the-rotation starters, and perhaps the best number four starter in the game.

But the Braves can.

Who cares when Chipper Jones, Mike Hampton, Tim Hudson, and John Thomson get back, just so they get back healthy? The tremendous play of the rookies and young players has allowed these four banged-up Braves to rehab and recover on their own pace – and not be rushed because their team needs them. But as we get closer to the pennant run, this team is going to need them.

Jones and Hampton and Hudson will hopefully be back in the next week to ten days, while Thomson hopes to return sometime in early August. There is little doubt that this team will be better with all four back, regardless of how well their replacements did in their absence.

The primary question, of course, which you have probably already thought about and debated and discussed with your friends, is what in the world will happen when all four of these guys, not to mention Brian Jordan and Eddie Perez, come back? Well, I wish I knew the answers. It's probably the most complicated situation the Braves have had to face in many years.

Atlanta's roster, in its current form, has played extremely well. But there's little doubt that it's getting ready to change drastically. How can John Schuerholz adjust the roster and still have the core that has this team in the race together? Well, let's just be glad he's the one that will make the decisions. Usually, he's right.

Ok, let's tackle a few questions and seek the answers. When Hudson and Hampton come back, it's likely that Jorge Sosa and Roman Colon, both of whom did well, will move out of the rotation. Now we can assume that Sosa will go back to the bullpen, but will Colon go back to the bullpen or would the Braves prefer him to go to AAA to start? Colon's value is much higher now that he has shown he can start, so perhaps it would be better for him to go to Richmond to continue to prove that he can either be an effective starter or reliever.

If the Braves shop for a legit closer this month, teams would be foolish not to ask about Sosa and/or Colon. Both have good arms and proved a lot in their audition as starters.

When Thomson returns, Kyle Davies will have to either go to the bullpen or back to AAA to start and continue his development. The problem, and the same can be said with Colon, is that there's really not anyone that can be easily kicked out of the bullpen to make room for Davies.

Ok, so there's one person that we know is toast. Adam Bernero will no doubt leave once the starters return. That's the easy choice. But after that, it's very tough. It's natural to say that the Braves should just let Dan Kolb go, but he's done very well the last month. Plus, the team is not going to eat the remainder of his $3.4 million salary. Chris Reitsma, John Foster, and Kevin Gryboski have all been effective and are safe. So that leaves Jim Brower and Blaine Boyer, who have both been very solid in the last month.

So if Hudson, Hampton, and Thomson come back, and then if Davies and Sosa go to the bullpen and Colon goes to AAA, that would leave only one slot open with Brower and Boyer the probable options. Brower is the veteran and Boyer is the rookie, so you have to assume Bobby Cox will follow his trend and keep the veteran. Perhaps they will prefer to keep Davies as a starter instead of putting him in the bullpen and send him to Richmond to start, keeping the very effective Boyer where he's at now.

I'd hate to send Davies and Colon for that matter to the minor leagues. Neither of them deserves to be demoted. But unless the Braves believe they can go to the bullpen and be effective, it might be better to leave Boyer in the Atlanta pen and keep the roles separated. We know Sosa can be an effective reliever, but Colon obviously struggled earlier this season. Plus, since Roman had success as a starter, he's probably thinking that's where he needs to be, even if it means doing it for someone else.

A trade is almost inevitable. Now if Kolb and Reitsma continue to do well, maybe Schuerholz will believe a move is not needed. However, with the tremendous depth available for trade, it's almost as if the team needs to make a move.

I've said for two months now that if made available, the perfect target is Phillies' closer Billy Wagner. He wants to come to Atlanta, and it's obvious that he's worn out his welcome in Philadelphia. The Phillies will probably come calling for Andy Marte, who would immediately improve their situation at third base. So then that would give John Schuerholz another dilemma: do you trade a potential Gold Glove third baseman (who is blocked by your star player) for a rental player?

Wagner is a free agent at the end of this season. And while the Braves should have enough funds available to re-sign him (as long as Rafael Furcal is not re-signed), there's no guarantee he'd be back in 2006 and beyond. So do you risk trading a potential All-Star for a guy that might make you the favorite in the National League?

Whoa, I'm glad I'm not making that decision.

Let's hope that instead of dealing Marte, Schuerholz is able to somehow acquire a proven closer with another package. The Braves have a lot of talent, both in the majors and in the minors. So teams in need of talent would perhaps be best suited to load up a truckload of talent if they were to make a deal with the Braves.

Of course, the payroll is a major issue. Schuerholz has repeatedly said there is no room to add to the $80 million payroll. So if Wagner were acquired, the Phillies would have to take back a salary (maybe Kolb?), as would any team that would trade the Braves a veteran player with a significant salary.

While still a long shot, we cannot count out first round pick Joey Devine, who continues to be tremendous in the minor leagues. If Devine remains this effective for the next month, it might be hard to ignore him, particularly if Schuerholz does not acquire a closer. But at least Devine is showing he is a serious contender for next year's bullpen.

I'm going to guess that somehow, someway John Schuerholz does pull off a deal for Wagner. I'm going to trust him to do the best thing for the organization. I know Wagner wants to be here, and hopefully we could re-sign him. If I were the Phillies' GM, there's no way I'd do a deal without Andy Marte. But here's hoping somehow the deal will get done instead for a package of players instead of someone who might be the best player wearing a Braves uniform in a few years. But there's no doubt in my mind that acquiring Billy Wagner would make the Braves the favorite, even over the Cardinals, in the National League.

So wow, what is that, two and a half pages on the pitching staff? Well, it will be the most interesting thing to watch in the second half, but don't you dare think it will be the only thing.

Most of the intrigue on offense will be answered when Chipper Jones returns. The fans are anxious to find out what Bobby Cox will do to the lineup when Chipper's back. Will he keep Kelly Johnson in his perfect number two hole or return Marcus Giles there? Will he put Chipper back in the third spot, where he could be lethal with Andruw Jones batting behind him?

No matter how the lineup is constructed, there's no doubt it will be stronger with Jones back. To think that Andruw Jones did all his damage the last month without Chipper is amazing. Andruw had to step up this season and become a player that could put the team on his shoulders, and he's done just that. But just because Chipper's coming back, Andruw doesn't need to stop what he's been doing. If Chipper returns and hits like he did in April and Andruw continues his current roll, this lineup is going to be tough.

For me, the biggest problem offensively early on this season was the struggles of shortstop Rafael Furcal. Obviously, he has overcome those troubles and is back on track. So many people believe he is the key to the Atlanta offense, and there's little doubt that if he continues his hot hitting and gets that average back up to his normal area, the lineup will be better.

Without a doubt, the kids have been the story in the first half. Ryan Langerhans, Wilson Betemit, Pete Orr, Kelly Johnson, Brian McCann, and Jeff Francoeur need to keep up their solid work. And there is zero doubt in my mind these kids will do just that. They are tremendous talents, and they embrace the challenge of participating in a pennant race. Don't expect these guys to be overwhelmed at what they are getting ready to go through. These kids are perfectly prepared to get this team into first place.

If the injured players return and stay healthy, and if a clear closer can be established, and if the kids continue to be productive, there is no reason the Braves can't win the division. If you put their best 25 players together, they are the best team in the East, and as we saw in April when the starting five were together and healthy, that's a very dangerous group of starting pitchers, one that opposing teams will fear mightily.

So while it's been a topsy-turvy first half, the second half sure does look promising. Even John Smoltz says it's a special group, one that might have the right combination to get in the playoffs and do what no Braves team has done in a decade: win it all.

And you can bet those other teams in the National League are fearing the same thing.

Bill Shanks has a new book out called "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team." You can reach Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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