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The Atlanta Braves Playoff Push And Five Burning Questions

The Atlanta Braves are in the thick of a playoff race for the second consecutive year. What key factors will determine if they play October baseball for the second season in a row? We'll tell you inside.

ATLANTA - JULY 25: Chipper Jones #10 of the Atlanta Braves throws out a runner against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Turner Field on July 25, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
ATLANTA - JULY 25: Chipper Jones #10 of the Atlanta Braves throws out a runner against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Turner Field on July 25, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
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The playoffs are about two months away. Can you believe it? After a five-year hiatus from October baseball the Braves returned last season despite a roster decimated with injuries. I'm not sure how we all survived those years without the postseason, but we somehow did it. And now that we have that wonderful taste back in our mouths, it's tough to imagine the Braves not making it once again in 2011. 

Here are five burning questions for the final two months of the season:

1. Chipper Jones and his bad knees/groin/calf/foot ever see the field again?

Will Chipper be able to 1) return to the field, 2) stay on the field and 3) be productive? Each of those questions are all pretty much up in the air at this point. Seemingly every at-bat comes with a significant injury risk to our Hall of Fame third baseman, and his range is practically nonexistant at the hot corner these days. Even if he does return on Friday night against the Mets -- and reports indicate Chipper is going to give it a try -- Braves Country can only remain skeptical of his health. 

Honestly, any production at this point of the season and Jones' career is pretty much a bonus. Would it be nice to have him in the lineup for potentially the last time as we battle for the wild card? You bet. But will we? That's the million dollar question.

2. What becomes of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino?

Three-fourths of "The Braves Four Horsemen of the Pitchopalyse" are ready for the Major Leagues. As of right now, none of them have a clear spot on this year's team with their name on it. Do all three join the bullpen once the rosters expand in September? Do Minor or Teheran take Derek Lowe's place in the rotation should he continue to struggle? Our pitching staff is good, but it could always be improved with the aid of a few top prospects. 

3. What will Dan Uggla's production be?

Dan Uggla had an OPS+ of 68 the first three months of the season. He has an OPS+ of 181 since July 1. While he likely won't post either of those numbers the rest of the way, his production will be huge for the team, especially since they went in the way of the better overall player in Michael Bourn instead of a right-handed slugger in the name of Carlos Quentin or Hunter Pence.

Assuming Uggla continues to OPS+ at either 115 -- which is his career average -- or better, the Braves will be fine. If he reverts back to his bad habits in April, May and June, there could be serious problems. Let's all hope for his continued excellence in the playoff run.  

4. Does the bullpen hold up?

Jonny Venters is on pace to appear in 87 games and pitch 92.2 innings, Eric O'Flaherty is on pace for 74 games and 71.1 innings, and Craig Kimbrel is right along side with his two set-up men with 76 games and 73 innings or so. That is a huge workload for anyone, let alone a couple of younger players who have never had this kind of workload in a season. Will they hold up through the end of September?

5. Does Jason Heyward figure it out?

Heyward has not been bad this season -- 99 wRC+, 1.0 WAR -- but he certainly has not been himself since early-May. When healthy and producing as we have all seen him do, J-Hey is one of the better young players in baseball. Right now? Anything more than a few grounders to second base can probably be considered a mini-victory. 

As far as handling him goes, benching him or sitting him in place of a 27-year old capable of nothing more than a few singles is beyond stupid. (I'm talking about Jose Constanza here if you couldn't tell.) Heyward needs to play every day. Will he? And will he break out of his slump in the final two months of the season? We'll know soon.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.