A few days after trading Jason Heyward -- but before conducting an almost a complete roster overhaul -- John Hart discussed the range of possibilities with veteran baseball writer Jayson Stark.
"Believe me," Hart said, "It boggles the mind how many different directions we could go."
Seven months later, Hart's assessment would apply to the team's on-field possibilities. After sweeping the New York Mets, the Braves edged back to .500, 35-35, just 11 games short of the halfway point of the season.
Indeed, the possibilities boggle the mind. If the patched-up bullpen starts springing leaks again, they could fall apart. But if the bullpen holds up, this rebuilding year could lead to the NL East championship. A sweep of this week's series in Washington against the Nationals, combined with at least one loss by the Mets, would push the Braves into first place.
The Braves have the good fortune to be in the weakest division in baseball. Even at that, they'd still be a ways back if not for the Nationals sustaining so many key injuries. Reliever Craig Stammen, corner infielder Ryan Zimmerman and left fielder Jayson Werth are all on the disabled list. The Nats were 18-9 in May, just 9-11 in June.
Two weeks ago, it looked like the Braves could be headed for a long summer. But unlike the previous regime, Hart and his staff have proven resourceful at addressing problems. They found David Aardsma and Dana Eveland, a pair of veteran arms, in the minor leagues. They have eaten some innings, taking some of the burden off Luis Avilan, Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli. Nick Massat, picked up after being released by the Miami Marlins, has been reliable lately.
It won't be long before Arodys Vizcaino and Andrew McKirahan return from their suspensions for testing positive for banned substances. Both have the ability to give the bullpen a boost. Adding one or both could give the team the flexibility to send rookie Brandon Cunniff back to Triple-A for some fine-tuning.
Tuesday night's game marked the first of nine games in the next week and a half against the Nationals and the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of their prime competitors for a wildcard spot. How they do in those nine games could determine whether they shop for another bullpen arm or start selling off more veterans for more prospects.
They also could get a boost from starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, recently acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Only six players on the active roster were on the roster last season -- pitchers Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Avilan, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, third baseman Chris Johnson and outfielder Joey Terdoslovich, called up while Freddie Freeman is on the disabled list. With Simmons and Freeman both hurt, they recently finished a game with an entire lineup of new players.
No one really knew what to expect going into this season. But it's safe to say hardly anyone expected this team to contend.
No one still knows what to expect. Now, with a little bit of luck, they could be on the verge of accomplishing one the most astonishing seasons in recent memory.
They are contending with a lineup that includes:
a 38-year-old catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, who was signed to be a backup;
a 36-year-old third baseman, Jose Uribe, who a month ago was riding the bench with the Los Angeles Dodgers;
a rookie second baseman, Jace Peterson, who went into spring training just trying to win a roster spot;
a center fielder, Cameron Maybin, whose .288 batting average is 40 percentage points higher than his career average coming the season.
It boggles the mind.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at email@example.com