Thoughts at the Halfway Point, Part 2

Tom Lynn

Musing about trade possibilities, strengths, weaknesses, and playoff chances 80 games in.

With the Brewers' season now halfway over, some of the contributors here at BCB have decided to give our thoughts on the team at this point in time. We'll have one a day this week, with each of us answering the same questions. Noah went yesterday (link below), and I'm up second.

At the halfway point, what do you see as the biggest strength of the team?

It's the position players/offense.

In 2011, the Brewers were carried on offense by Braun and Fielder, who accumulated about 12 wins above replacement. That team was also well above average in center field (Morgan and Gomez), 2nd base (Weeks), and right (Hart). But they were far, far below average at short (Betancourt) and 3rd (McGehee, though they patched it up nicely with Hairston for the postseason). Lucroy was not yet Lucroy, and the catcher spot was a bit below average.

The 2014 Brewers are getting the elite production but also are relentlessly above average all around the diamond. An average player earns his team about 2 wins more than a replacement-level player over the course of a year. At the top end, the dynamic duo of Lucroy and Gomez are beyond the halfway point to the Braun/Fielder WAR total from that year. And, remarkably, there's not a glaring hole anywhere. The Gennett/Weeks platoon at 2nd has been one of the most productive 2nd base situations in the league. Davis has proven himself to be a capable slugging left fielder. Ramirez and Braun are two of the best in the NL at their positions, if they can stay healthy. The only position not on pace for roughly 3 WAR is shortstop, and there's actually some hope that Jean Segura can come around. First base has gone from "worst production in the history of the game" to "slightly above average" in a season.

It's important to get star production and career-type years at the top end of the distribution if you're going to contend. But trotting out replacement-level players every single day can hurt just as much as those huge years can help. It sank the Brewers in 2013, and it could have in 2011 if they hadn't had the pitching staff that they did.

At the halfway point, what is the biggest weakness for the team?

It's the obvious call, but it has to be the bench. The rotation has been solid top to bottom, and the bullpen has been better than expected. Do I have concerns about both? Sure. But the bench is the biggest weakness. The only two bench players that should be safe from the dreaded DFA are Maldonado and Weeks. Everyone else the Brewers have ran out there in reserve have been essentially the definition of replacement level.

Noah discussed this yesterday as well, but the biggest problem really is offensive depth. The team can handle a pitcher, or even two, going down without having things fall apart. But an injury to basically any position player that's not a second baseman or catcher and it's replacement level from here on out. A left-handed hitter with some pop that can play the corners is the top item on the wish list. Second is an up-the-middle defender who can at least get the ball out of the infield once in a while. Each would function as an insurance policy, but I put the corner-type higher because a lefty power bat that could play first and left could fill a role on the team even in the best-case scenario of everyone staying healthy by taking Overbay's at-bats at first and potentially spelling Davis against some righties.

How are you feeling about the Brewers' chances to make the playoffs?

Are we counting the 1-game Wild Card playoff as making the playoffs these days? Either way, I put the odds at something like 70%. They have put themselves in a fantastic position. With the right moves at the deadline I really like the chances. If they do win it, I don't think it's by more than 3 games. I have a feeling this isn't going to be a cruise to the finish like '11 was.

Do you believe the Brewers should buy, sell or stand pat at the trade deadline?

Buy. It's very tempting to really go for it in this situation. The team is playing better than expected, and with the addition of a real top line starter (and there are not very many of those available), this team is the favorite to reach the World Series in the NL. But it's not likely to be worth it. The rotation is more deep than it is topheavy, so an upgrade at the top isn't going to bump someone not worthy of starts like, say, getting Sabathia did in '08. And it's not like the Brewers are flush with talent to dangle.

So all this is to say that it's on DM to work his magic again at the deadline. Back in 2011, he got K-Rod and Jerry Hairston Jr. for basically nothing, and the only thing stopping me from really heaping the praise on for his work at the deadline that year was his inability to find (or inability to recognize the need for) a competent shortstop. I have little doubt that he will get a bench player or two, or possibly a reliever if the right situation comes along. Melvin may have his flaws as an executive, but I have full faith in his ability to maneuver around the deadline and solidify the squad for the stretch run.

If you could make one roster move on the Brewers, what would it be?

The bench is the more pressing concern, but there are basically zero in-organization options that I see as obvious upgrades at this point. Jason Rogers may be the exception but unfortunately he both bats righthanded and will probably not be seriously looked at until September at the earliest, having just gotten the bump to AAA. So I'll call up Jimmy Nelson and move him into Marco Estrada's spot in the rotation. Nelson has proven everything he needs to prove at AAA, and he's the Brewers best shot at a legitimate upgrade in the second half.

Okay, so that part of the transaction was easy, but I still have to send someone down to make room. Estrada would slot in nicely as the pen's long man in the absence of Wang, but the Brewers seem to have no intention of sending him back to the Pirates at this point. I don't see a good way to keep both, because I don't trust Estrada inheriting runners the way he's pitching now. But he has to stay on the team in case a starting pitcher does get hurt. So if I'm in charge, I offer Fiers to the Pirates for the rights to send Wei-Chung to the minors, and if they decline that or a similar offer I send him back, say thanks for the memories, and quit playing with a 24-man roster in a pennant race.

Best starting pitcher going forward?

I think it's Wily Peralta. If the Brewers call up Nelson tomorrow I'd be tempted to switch my answer but I'd still say Peralta. Garza, Lohse, and Gallardo are all at or about where I would expect them to be. Wily has pitched as well as any of them, but he also is 25 and has a 97 mph fastball. I'll take my chances with him improving over the other 3.

Best hitter going forward?

I wish I knew what Ryan Braun's real health situation was. I feel like we have not heard much about the thumb lately but clearly he has not been at 100% in the first half. Unless there's some sort of long-term damage we don't really know about, it's Braun.

Ryan Braun's batting line in the second half?

I'll go with .290/.350/.520. For the record that's below his ZiPS rest-of-season projection, which is my slight possible nagging injury adjustment.

Do the Brewers make a high profile trade?

I don't exactly know the scope of "high-profile", but I think they get a reasonable reliever and a fringe starter/bench player. So probably not exactly what you'd call high-profile, but they will still have big effects on the team going forward.

How many wins do the Brewers get in their final 81 games?

43, for a grand total of 94.

Do the Brewers win the division?

I say yes because I think the odds are better than 50%, so if you played this season from here on infinity times, I'd be right more often than I'd be wrong.

Doug Melvin grade through 1st half?

A minus. He filled every hole on this team with the resources he had available. He's had fairly good luck with health and performance so far, and I think he recognizes that and will attempt to fill the big remaining hole-- offensive depth-- around the deadline. The minus is for the Wang experiment, which has basically been a disaster. Working with a 6-man bullpen and 4-man bench is doing no one any good, and that includes Wang.

Ron Roenicke Grade through 1st half?

B plus. Yeah, he pulls the same crap every manager does with bullpen roles, and likes to try to small ball too much. But he has gotten the big things right, and players seem to like him. To his credit, he's stuck with the 2B platoon, and not stuck with the 1B platoon, which has been very fortunate. The lineup has been nice, and it was fun to watch the bullpen earlier in the season when he was actually playing matchups before he settled into Will Smith as the 8th inning guy (TM). He could be better, but he also could be a lot worse.

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