This MLB season is only just starting to take shape with teams about to begin the second-quarter stretch. Twists and turns await over the next 40-plus games before the All-Star break. Here are nine storylines I’ll be watching, from the performance of underachieving teams like the Braves to early season trades to the National League MVP race, plus potential call-ups, firings and more.

 

1. Hotlanta time

The Braves appear to be suffering from a World Series hangover as they’ve underwhelmed over the first quarter of the season. I don’t expect that to continue in the second quarter. Ronald Acuña Jr. returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing five games with groin soreness, but he avoided the injured list, which is a big positive. Marcell Ozuna is getting acclimated at the plate after missing most of last season when he was suspended for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy. Matt Olson is settling in as he adjusts to a new league and a return to his home state. Ozzie Albies is still laughing and barking with third-base coach Ron Washington and should get back to his usual offensive production soon. Adam Duvall has struggled but should start hitting home runs, like he did last year (38) while playing Gold Glove defense. None of them have lived up to last season’s production. On the pitching side, Charlie Morton has been off (4.93 ERA, 1.442 WHIP), but he appears to have turned the corner with improved mechanics and command in his last start, when he allowed one run and two hits in six innings with nine strikeouts. Bottom line: I think the Braves will jump into the NL East race with the Mets, or at the very least push for one of the wild-card spots. Their slow start will prove to be just that.

 

2. Third basemen won’t be the only NL MVP candidates

The early NL MVP race has basically been between Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado, both of whom are third basemen. They’ve been among the league leaders in most offensive categories, played Gold Glove-caliber defense and helped their clubs to strong starts. However, outfielders Juan Soto and Mookie Betts, designated hitter Bryce Harper (he’s only DH-ing for now because of a small UCL tear in his right elbow) and first basemen Matt Olson and Freddie Freeman will join the race and by the All-Star break, there should be a crowded field of stars vying for the award.

3. Impact players return from injuries

The returns of key players could be game-changers in division races. By the end of the second quarter, several superstars should be back on active rosters, including Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, White Sox left fielder Eloy Jiménez and White Sox starter Lance Lynn, along with Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty. Tatis will make the Padres a real threat to the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West, and San Diego (23-13) has stayed right with them in his absence. The return of Jiménez, a future MVP candidate, and Lynn, a two-time All-Star, should give the White Sox a much-needed push to pass the Twins in the AL Central standings. And if Flaherty can stay healthy once he returns, it’ll be a big boost for the Cardinals and put pressure on the Brewers in the NL Central.