Can The Milwaukee Brewers Remain In Playoff Contention?

Leading the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central at the All-Star Break, the Milwaukee Brewers were arguably the biggest surprise of the first half. They were near the top of Major League Baseball in offense and had an overachieving pitching staff.

In the spring, few would have thought the Brew Crew would buy at the deadline. Despite that, we saw Milwaukee plunge into the market this past week, trading for Anthony Swarzak from the Chicago White Sox in an effort to bolster the bullpen.

The trade was one that general manager David Stearns needed to make if the Brewers wanted any chance of hanging in the race. Since the All-Star break, the Milwaukee bullpen had struggled with only closer Corey Knebel and rookie Josh Hader providing any relief. Swarzak now adds some depth for a team that had a 4.46 ERA out of the ‘pen heading into this weekend’s action.

While the relievers are just a part of what’s gone wrong since the break, the hope is Swarzak—and any other player brought in between now and the deadline—can help stop the bleeding.

Milwaukee entered play on Friday with a 54-50 record and 1.5 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central. They haven’t out-performed their Pythagorean record, which is often a sign of impending regression. Despite that, regression is still likely as a number of players have out-performed expectations.

After going 50-41 in the first half, the team was just 4-9 since the break, being outscored by 30 runs in those 13 games. After back-to-back wins over the Philadelphia Phillies to start the second half, they had lost nine of 11 heading into the weekend’s action, including series losses to the Pirates, Phillies and Washington Nationals, all on the road.

Will a return home help the Brew Crew? Maybe. They’ll sure hope so, but their homestand features the Cubs and Cardinals. They need to make a statement.

Prior to the team’s dismal road trip, Milwaukee was a better road team than home squad. That made the losing streak even more alarming. They’re now 26-26 on the road, but at one point were 24-18. By comparison, they were just 28-24 at home.

Ultimately, one of the big reasons the Brewers have been such a surprise and performed well in in our MLB Pick ‘Em Contests is their offense, particularly their power. They’ve scored the fifth-most runs in the NL and seventh-most overall. They’ve hit more homers than any other NL team and are just 10 bombs behind the AL’s Houston Astros.

Eric Thames received the early season press, but Travis Shaw has been the team’s offensive MVP. Heading into the weekend, the third baseman was hitting .299 with 24 home runs and 74 RBIs. That’s as many jacks as Thames and 29 more runs driven in.

Shaw is also hitting well since the break, batting .298 with five homers and a .389 OBP. Thames, on the other hand, has just one home run. He is batting .273, but he has 21 strikeouts in 44 at-bats. That ratio cannot continue.

In the second half, the Brewers will need both Thames and Shaw to continue what they did in the first half while getting more from Ryan Braun and Jonathan Villar. Braun missed half of the team’s games on the DL. When he has been healthy, he’s been a good bat in the heart of the order alongside Thames, Shaw and Domingo Santana. Milwaukee needs Braun in the lineup.

As for Villar, his issue has been more production than health. He broke out in a big way last year, but he’s batting .220 with a .281 OBP. The speed is still there with 20 steals in 27 chances, but he needs to get on base to be effective. If Villar can turn back into his 2016 self that stole 62 bases and posted a .369 OBP, he could be a real spark plug to a Brewers’ resurgence.

While the addition of Swarzak helps solidify a shallow bullpen and there are definite areas for improvement on offense, the biggest factor in whether Milwaukee can remain in the race is the starting rotation. The starters have a 4.12 ERA in 104 games.

Chase Anderson was the team’s ace before he went on the DL. He’ll be out a bit longer. Matt Garza is out now, too. That leaves Jimmy Nelson—who is looking like the pitcher the Brewers expected him to be a couple years ago—Zach Davies and Junior Guerra. Wily Peralta has been bad. Brent Suter is okay. Michael Blazek didn’t look good in his start. And, while Hader has been great in the majors, a transition to the rotation at best means a weakened bullpen and at worst means a regression for the 23-year-old.

When all is said and done, the Brewers are in a tough spot. They’re overachieving and have moved into contention a year or two early. The Cubs are playing better ball in the second half and could run away with this division. To stay competitive, the Brewers probably need a few more reinforcements, but is Stearns willing to part with significant prospects? Not likely.

For now, look for the Brewers to hope for improvements from key players, a return of arms like Anderson, and some smaller moves along with internal promotions—such as the calling up of Lewis Brinson a couple weeks ago—to provide possible incremental improvements and keep them relevant in the playoff race.

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