There are many things the Atlanta Braves must do better in the second half to contend for the NL wild card.
Yes, Im giving the NL East to the Washington Nationals. Its going to be tough to knock them out of first place.
But Atlanta still has a shot at being one of two teams to play in the do-or-die game that will determine the wild-card winner. One of the most important things will be the starting rotation, which must be better for the Braves to win around 90 games.
Atlanta entered the weekend with the fifth-worst earned run average for starting pitchers in the NL. Last year, the Braves had the fifth-best ERA in the league.
Help is on the way. Ben Sheets, a former star in Milwaukee, signed last week and pitched well Wednesday in his first Double-A tune-up. Sheets will start again Monday for Mississippi, and then the Braves will determine if hell be ready to go after the All-Star break.
Even if Sheets is 85 percent of what he used to be, the Braves will have a good pitcher. Sheets was one of the best pitchers in the game before he got hurt after the 2008 season. He says hes healthy now, so acquiring Sheets was a good gamble.
Jair Jurrjens, who pitches Sunday against Philadelphia, has been better than expected in his three starts back from the minor leagues. There is a worry that the other shoe is going to drop and hell return back to his mediocre ways. But expect the Braves to go with Jurrjens as long as he gives them reason to go with him.
Randall Delgado and Mike Minor have been very frustrating this season. There is zero doubt these two kids can pitch. Theyve both had great games, and then theyve turned around and been horrible.
Delgado has gotten the worst run support of all the starters, getting only 2.9 runs per start from his offense. Thats the main reason he has lost a league-leading nine games.
We watched him pitch well this week against the Chicago Cubs, and Delgado had great starts against Baltimore, Miami, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. But then we remember the awful start he had two weeks ago in Boston when he looked overwhelmed.
Minor had been even more of an enigma. The lefty had one of the best starts for the team for the entire team this season against the New York Yankees last month. Then he turned around and had three straight starts where he gave up four runs in each game. But on Thursday, he pitched well again versus the Cubs.
Its what you have to deal with when it comes to young pitchers, but it wont help a team compete in a pennant race.
Sheets will undoubtedly replace either Delgado or Minor in the rotation, and if something happened where Jurrjens struggles in his next two starts, he could be vulnerable, too. But will Sheets be enough to join Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson and give the Braves a dangerous rotation?
Even Chipper Jones said this week he thinks the Braves are going to need more than Sheets, and hes right. Now, if Sheets comes back and becomes the same pitcher who went to four All-Star games with the Brewers, maybe theyll be fine. But thats a big if.
Atlanta is looking at veteran pitchers who could be traded before the July 31 deadline. At the top of the list is Milwaukees Zack Greinke. The right-hander has long been a target of the Braves, mainly because they know he has always said he wants to pitch with the Braves one day.
Greinkes situation is much like Hudsons was in 2004. While Greinke is set for free agency after this season, Hudson had one more year left with Oakland when the As traded him to Atlanta. Hudson was in his late 20s when he was dealt, and Greinke is in his late 20s, as well.
Atlanta made a decision to invest in a starting pitcher in his prime with Hudson. They can do the same thing now with Greinke, especially with a lot of money coming off the books this winter.
If the rotation is better in the second half, the Braves are going to have a chance. If not, theyll likely watch other teams pass them down the stretch.
Listen to The Bill Shanks Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Shanks on firstname.lastname@example.org.