Looking Back (And Forward) On The Atlanta Braves' 2012 Season Thus Far

July 3, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones (10) celebrates with teammates and fans after coming out of the game in the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Examining which players have been the team MVPs at the midway point. And what's all this talk of a potential trade before the deadline?

The Braves wrapped up the first half -- well, it's slightly more than half of the season with 85 games played thus far -- with a sweep of the Phillies, all-but-eliminating the five-time division champions from the NL East.

Atlanta has struggled to find consistency on both the mound and at the plate for most of the year, but when they're clicking there is no doubt it's a team built for a potential playoff run.

Let's take a look back at the first three and a half months of the season. Who were the biggest surprises? Who's the team MVP? What are the story lines to watch for in the second half?

Team MVP: Michael Bourn

Honorable Mentions: Jason Heyward, Martin Prado

Any one of these three outfielders are qualified to take home most valuable player honors, but there is simply no denying just how good Bourn has been this season. He ranks fourth in all of baseball in WAR, and there's no denying he's been the best leadoff man in the game.

His 25 stolen bases places him near the top of the league, as does his OPS of .817 among center fielders. And just when you didn't think he could be even more impressive, he's already hit two more homers this season than he has in any previous year.

Bourn has been the complete package for the Braves in 2012, and he deserves not just team MVP honors, but consideration for the National League MVP.

Pitching MVP: Craig Kimbrel

Honorable Mentions: Brandon Beachy, Tim Hudson

Beachy looked like the runaway favorite to win this a month ago, but arm issues and eventually Tommy John Surgery has sidelined him for the next calendar year. That opened the way for Kimbrel, who is unquestionably the best closer in baseball at the young age of 24.

His stats are basically video game numbers: in 33 innings pitched, Kimbrel has 56 strikeouts and only 10 walks. His 25 saves is the most in either league, and his ERA is now a minuscule 1.36. His FIP, which negates any poor defense played behind him, is 0.97. That would qualify Kimbrel for one of the best seasons in relief history, if not the best.

Rookie of the Year: Andrelton Simmons

Honorable Mentions: Randall Delgado

With all respect to Tyler Pastornicky -- he played his heart out and gave everything he had despite his struggles -- it's hard to imagine a contrast in players as big as the one between him and Simmons.

Simmons' defense alone has already made him one of the most coveted young players in the game, and the chance to see him play the field is worth the price of admission alone. And while most figured his bat wouldn't come along for a few seasons, Simmons has done more than hold his own with a batting average of .296 and OPS of .788.

He's truly a special player, and it appears the Braves have found their shortstop of the future. Now it's just a matter of getting him healthy and back on the field

Burning Questions:

Just how long will Andrelton Simmons be out?

While the club celebrated a series sweep in Philadelphia on Sunday, one very dark cloud remained overhead: Simmons broke a bone in his pinky finger, and he'll be expected to miss at least three weeks. If surgery is needed or the break is worse than originally believed, it could be 6-8 weeks.

For a club that doesn't really have any viable options at shortstop for that period of time, all eyes will be on Simmons' hand and if the club decide to make a move to fill the void. Neither Pastornicky nor Jack Wilson are viable options for more than a handful of starts at shortstop, and the Braves know that.

What becomes of the starting rotation?

As of right now, Tommy Hanson and Hudson are the only two pitchers who should rest easily about having a spot in the rotation.

Ben Sheets is waiting in the wings and looked strong in his first rehab start, and there's already talk of him joining the rotation as soon as next weekend. This being said, he didn't pitch well his last time in MLB (2010), and there's no telling if his surgically repaired arm can stay healthy.

Jair Jurrjens has claimed a spot for now, but you just never know if his knees will start acting up again. If he starts to have health issues on the mound, he simply won't make it and will likely have a repeat of his numbers from April.

Mike Minor and Delgado have shown flashes of brilliance this year, but they've also made starts when they've exited after just a few innings because they can't throw strikes. Ideally you'd like to keep both pitchers in the rotation due to their upside and age, but if they aren't giving the club a chance to win then Fredi Gonzalez cannot justify sending them to the mound every five days.

And then there's the never-ending talk of acquiring a pitcher before the trade deadline, whether it be a Zack Greinke, a Ryan Dempster or someone yet to be named. The Braves have the money and prospects to swing a deal, but just how much are they willing to give?

Can Chipper Jones stay healthy for the playoff run?

There's no denying that Chipper can help carry this ball club when he's healthy. And -- knock on wood -- he has been healthy for most of 2012 with the exception of the freak play in Tampa Bay. Not only does his production in the lineup help the club, but the Braves simply play better with old No. 10 in the batting order.

If Chipper can stay healthy for most of July, August and September, I like the Braves' chances to make the playoffs.

if he doesn't, Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann will need to carry the torch in Atlanta a few months earlier than expected if they hope to win one in October for their future Hall of Famer.

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For more on the Braves, check out Talking Chop.

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