First place once seemed like a distant fantasy for the Milwaukee Brewers. This is an organization that lost 94 games just two years ago. And I must emphasize the term “organization,” and I make a point not to use the word “team.” The 2017 Brewers are a far cry from the dismal 2015 squad. Most of this year’s biggest contributors were not even on the 25-man roster two years ago. Travis Shaw has arguably been Milwaukee’s MVP. Orlando Arcia has quickly developed into the shortstop the team hoped he would be. Eric Thames’ power bat has electrified the top of the order, and guys like Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, and Hernan Perez have gone from fringe players to significant every-day guys. Then you have guys that seemingly have come out of nowhere. Eric Sogard seems to get on base every chance he gets. Corey Knebel turned an impromptu closing opportunity into a record-breaking, All-Star season. Josh Hader, the team’s number one pitching prospect, has solidified an inconsistent bullpen. All of these pieces are falling into place much sooner than anyone could have expected. That combined with the futile Chicago Cubs has situated the Brewers atop the National League Central, and they are not looking back.
First Half MVP
As alluded to, Shaw is the MVP of this Brewers team. His first half saw a team-leading 19 home runs, .299 average, 65 runs batted in, and even 7 stolen bases. Considering that all that was given up for Shaw was Tyler Thornburg (who has yet to pitch for the Red Sox), his acquisition has to be considered among the best by General Manager David Stearns. While Thames’ bat has experienced a few extended cold streaks, Shaw has been hitting for power and average consistently. Oh, and he’s been almost perfect on defense too.
There are many ways you could go here; the fact that this team had fifty wins at the break is a huge shock. Thames and Shaw have raked, Arcia’s bat has been white hot, and Knebel has established himself as a top closer. But what’s most surprising is the starting rotation. Before this year, you might have been hard pressed to find casual baseball fans who knew much about Chase Anderson or Jimmy Nelson. Prior to being placed on the Disabled List, Anderson was one of the top pitchers in baseball. He racked up a 6-2 record, an ERA of 2.89, and a scalding WHIP of just 1.11. We have seen Cy Young Award winners with similar averages. If Anderson had stayed healthy and on the same course, he would have certainly been in the Cy Young conversation come October. Nelson, meanwhile, has quietly put together his best season in the bigs. Once touted as the organization’s future ace, Nelson is finally living up to that hype. He has won 8 games, lost just 4, has an ERA of 3.30, a WHIP of 1.25, all while striking out 118 batters in 109 innings. The Brewers have a number of All-Star snubs, but perhaps none are more glaring than Nelson. Then you have Zach Davies, Matt Garza, Junior Guerra, Paolo Espino, and Brent Suter, the latter two starting just sparingly. Davies has been effective, but helped mostly by some of the best run support in the National League. Garza has put together a solid sub-4.00 ERA year (barely), and Junior Guerra has been the only black mark on the rotation, as he has faced injury and inconsistency (never mind about Wily Peralta, who has been getting hammered in Triple-A Colorado Springs). This rotation should only expect to improve in the future when guys like Hader, Suter, and Brandon Woodruff become a bigger part of the picture.
Last offseason, Jonathan Villar turned down a contract extension from the Brewers that was reportedly worth upwards of $20M per year. After what he showed in the first half, that might look more like a blessing. Villar still has blazing speed, which is his best attribute. However, his bat and glove have struggled much of the year, although he has played better as of late. Early in the year, it appeared that Villar may have had a flash-in-the-pan season in 2016 when he hit .285 with 19 homers, 63 runs driven in, and an OPS of .826. At the time, it seemed as if Villar had the tools to become a perennial All-Star, hence why Milwaukee offered him such a lucrative contract extension. This year has been a much different story. Villar moved to the other side of the diamond to play second base after the team waived Scooter Gennett during Spring Training. He struggled with errors early on, and continues to struggle with striking out. He has raised his batting average, recently, far up over the Mendoza line, now at .221. Villar is a young player, and while this year has been frustrating for him, it is still too early to completely panic.
Second Half Outlook
The biggest question facing Stearns and company is whether to be buyers, sellers, or neutral at the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31. The team has played well in Ryan Braun’s extended absences, so will he be on the move? Will any teams be willing to take an injury prone, aging outfielder with a controversial past? Would Braun even approve of any trade? These are questions that will be answered in the coming weeks, and those answers could help determine this team’s immediate outlook. The Brewers lead the Central by 5.5 games. Some say that they would be foolish to miss out on making a splash by getting Sonny Gray or even a one-year rental in Justin Verlander. Others subscribe to the belief that it is too early in the rebuilding process to give away highly touted prospects. As aforementioned, the starting pitching has been one of the Brewers’ strengths all year. Swapping Corey Ray or Lewis Brinson for an above-average starter just does not seem logical at this point. If Milwaukee is able to find a suitor for Ryan Braun, that is a deal they should be all over, although that seems less likely each day. Realistically, Brewers would be wisest if they stood pat at the end of July, with the exception of a minor deal for bullpen help. The Cubs have been in a tailspin all year, while the Cardinals haven’t really been relevant at all. The Brewers have dominated offensively and have fared very well pitching, for the most part. No major changes need to happen for this club to win its first division pennant in six years. They’re on the right track, there is no need to get on a different one.