Can surprising Braves, Reds, Padres hang on?

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With the All-Star game coming to a close, the warm California sun sets on the first half of the season.

With that, it’s time to look ahead to the second half, and three surprising teams that find themselves in first place – the Atlanta Braves, the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres.

All of these teams are playing beyond expectations, at the expense of preseason favorites in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado and Los Angeles.

But do they have staying power? Let’s take a look at what each team needs.

ATLANTA
The Braves are in the best shape of these three teams, holding a four-game lead over the New York Mets, and a 4 1/2-game edge over the two-time NL champion Phillies. They have good pitching, ranking fourth in the NL in runs allowed (3.83), and a solid offense, ranking sixth in runs scored (4.61). Tim Hudson has been lights-out, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson solid, and the bullpen dependable.

What do the Braves need? As it seems unlikely an aging Chipper Jones will rediscover his power, the Braves could use an outfield bat, as Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera have performed below expectations.

Also, it would be nice to gain some improved health for rookie phenom Jason Heyward, who looked just fine taking batting practice on Tuesday, by the way.

But overall, the Braves are looking good, as they have built a cushion despite all the problems they’ve had.

CINCINNATI
The Reds have moved to the top of the NL Central thanks to a powerful offense (second in NL in runs per game, second in home runs, first in slugging), and a better-than-average pitching staff led by Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and rookie Mike Leake, who debuted for the Reds without playing a single day in the minors.

But they hold only a one-game lead over favored St. Louis, a team that expects to come on strong.

“(The Reds) have a good team,” said St. Louis slugger Matt Holliday. “They’ve got really good pitching and a good lineup. Joey Votto is having an MVP-type season. … It doesn’t surprise me.”

But Holliday issues a warning: “We’re only one game back and we’ve had some injuries. Two fifths of our starting rotation has been out most of the first half. (Ryan) Ludwick’s been out for three weeks now. Hopefully we can get healthy. I like our chances.”

What do the Reds need? An arm in the bullpen would be nice, as would a successful return of Edinson Volquez.

SAN DIEGO
How are the Padres, with no established stars outside of Adrian Gonzalez, doing it? How have they built the second-best record in the NL and established a two-game lead over the Dodgers and Rockies?

Some would say it’s smoke and mirrors, others say it’s a team built on speed, defense and pitching, tailored perfectly to their home ballpark.

The Padres rank 12th in the NL in runs per game, but first in runs allowed. Furthermore, as far as the defense is concerned, five Padres are ranked in the top three at their position in UZR – first baseman Gonzalez, second baseman David Eckstein, third baseman Chase Headley, center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr., and right fielder Will Venable.
But can they hold on?

“San Diego’s been playing some pretty good ball,” said Dodgers All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier, “but we’re right there in striking distance, two games away. It’s going to come down to the end of the season. I think the last week or two is going to decide the season for us. We’ll take our chances and hopefully take the West again.”

Also, don’t forget the Rockies, who are right in the mix and were favored by some to take the West entering the season.

What do the Padres need? A big bat to pair alongside Gonzalez would be nice (Cory Hart?). Also, they can’t trade Gonzalez, of course.

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Video: Yoenis Cespedes’ bat flip was well-earned, well-executed

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 29: Yoenis Cespedes #52 of the New York Mets flips his bat after hitting a walk off home run in the tenth inning to defeat the Miami Marlins 2-1 in a game at Citi Field on August 29, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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We mentioned this in the recaps this morning but Yoenis Cespedes deserves a post of his own.

He deserves it for his walkoff homer in the tenth inning of last night’s game against the Marlins. He deserves it for the fact that he’s hit five homers and has driven in nine runs in his last ten games while raising his batting average ten points. And, most of all, he deserves it for the magnificent bat flip after watching the ball fly:

Here’s the whole play from MLB.com:

Tim Tebow already offered a winter league contract

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 31:  Broadcaster Tim Tebow of the SEC Network speaks on air before the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Today Tim Tebow will work out for 15-20 major league scouts. But even if they all pass on him, he has a job lined up. Jeff Passan reports that Tebow has already been offered a contract for the Venezuelan winter league.

The club offering is Aguilas del Zulia, a five-time champion of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League and two-time Caribbean Series winner. Passan says that they sent a contract to Tebow’s agents. He says that Tebow is interested in playing winter ball.

Winter ball is an interesting beast in that, unlike indy ball it’s not about the gimmicks and unlike the minor leagues it’s not about player development. While big league clubs often send prospects there to get seasoning, the Venezuelan and Dominican clubs want to win and routinely cut even established professional players in mid-season if they’re not pulling their weight.

Which could be interesting for Tebow, given his lack of experience and the fact that he would, by necessity, have to learn on the job.