At the halfway point, what do you see as the biggest strength of the team?
The 2014 Brewers are an odd animal. At the beginning of the year, the consensus was the Brewers could be very good ... if everything went right. It's now July, the Brewers have the best record in the National League, and there have been a truck load of problems: injuries, replay hiccups, managerial fumbling, botched plays, slumps, and baserunning gaffes along the way. The Brewers' cleanup hitter missed a month, and one of the team's most reliable relievers last year didn't see game action until mid-June. Their shortstop hasn't come within a whiff of his 2013 success, and their superstar right fielder has been hampered by nagging thumb and oblique injuries. The team's presumptive closer in spring hasn't closed a game. The team is effectively playing a man short all the time, with one roster spot taken up by a dead-weight Rule 5 pick. Matt Garza and Marco Estrada have been kind of a mess. Yet here we are.
Which brings me to the team's greatest strength: short of maybe Jonathan Lucroy, there is no one player that is absolutely essential to the team's success. That they've won despite all these problems is a testament to Doug Melvin, who constructed a roster that isn't necessarily steeped in high-level talent, but has plenty of above-average options that coalesce into something greater. The team is well-built to survive the rigors of the season, but as we'll get to next ... that may also wind up being its greatest weakness.
At the halfway point, what is the biggest weakness for the team?
While the Brewers seem to be a well-constructed regular-season team, I'm not sure the roster will look that appetizing when the playoffs roll around (see next question). The rotation has been regularly lauded as a solid, top-to-bottom staff without a true ace like Stephen Strasburg, but also without a replacement-level player just soaking up innings as a number five. And while a rotation composed of solid number three's works for the grueling slog through 162 games, I don't think it matches up well against some of the powerhouse staffs in the National League.
Here's an example. Let's say the Brewers play the NL West front-running Dodgers. Here's how those matchups might look during a playoff series with a four-man staff:
Game 4: Matt Garza vs. Josh Beckett
While there's obviously a lot more that goes into a playoff win than the name in the "P" spot on the lineup card, that doesn't seem like such great odds to win, does it?
How are you feeling about the Brewers' chances to make the playoffs?
How can you not feel great about their chances? They have the best record in the National League. They're up five games on the Cardinals, six and one-half on the Pirates, and seven on the Reds. There's a lot of room for error built into the current standings. At a minimum, they'll take a wild card, but a division win looks well within reach.
Do you believe the Brewers should buy, sell or stand pat at the trade deadline?
They're obviously not selling, and so it's really a choice between doing nothing or doing something. I don't think you'd find a Brewers fan out there who would advocate doing nothing. Something is almost always better than nothing, and as I've said, the team is not flawless.
That being said ... what is "something?" I'll answer that in a subsequent question.
If you could make one roster move on the Brewers, what would it be?
I've long been a defender of Marco Estrada in the rotation, but it's time to send him to the bullpen and bring up Jimmy Nelson. The home run ball can kill you at Miller Park, and Estrada has been very, very lucky (also some skill) that many of his league-leading 26 home runs have been solo shots. My one reservation about Estrada in the bullpen is that he's actually getting hammered facing hitters for the first time in games, but has then had reasonably good results when facing them in subsequent at-bats. But with Tyler Thornburg and Jim Henderson on the DL, the bullpen needs another good righty. Rob Wooten is the obvious guy to send down, though Brandon Kintzler has also been struggling.
Best starting pitcher going forward?
Toss-up between Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse. Gallardo seems to have reinvented himself somewhat as a contact groundball guy, cutting down significantly on strikeouts but also walks. Lohse is, of course, Mr. Reliable.
Best hitter going forward?
Jonathan Lucroy. You know how Tom Haudricourt used to call Ryan Braun a hitting savant? That perfectly describes Lucroy right now. There's no part of his offensive game that warrants criticism.
Ryan Braun's batting line in the second half?
.300/.355/.500. Much has been made about Braun's power struggles due to his thumb, and I'm worried as well. He has eleven home runs, but half of them came in bunches at the beginning of the season. Braun homered twice in May, three times in June. I do think he'll adjust, though, being a bit more patient and selective, walking more, and maybe even making better contact when he does decide to go for a pitch. Pitchers are making him fish right now.
Do the Brewers make a high profile trade?
I don't think so, but you can never, ever count out Doug Melvin. The Sabathia deal in 2008 and the K-Rod deal in 2011 stunned baseball, and I think a large part of that is because Melvin is just so damn unassuming. They went totally under the radar until they were completed. No one wants to believe they just got bested by Doug Melvin.
That being said, the team's greatest needs are a bench bat and another reliable late-inning reliever. The bench is atrocious right now; basically, the only usable part you have any confidence in whoever is not starting between Rickie Weeks and Scooter Gennett (which, incidentally, is why Weeks should not be moved). Jeff Bianchi? Elian Herrera? Lyle Overbay? Heck, even Logan Schafer? No thanks. When a team trots out Irving Falu in crucial run scoring situations as often as the Brewers did (and by that I mean even one), you know there's a problem.
How many wins do the Brewers get in their final 81 games?
43 wins to 38 losses. Very difficult second-half schedule, with lots of series against the Cardinals and Reds, and a healthy dose of the Giants and Dodgers. The Brewers will really need to beat up on teams like the Cubs and Padres.
Do the Brewers win the division?
Yes, but just barely. It will probably come down to the wire with the Cardinals, and I'm sure we'll all be grateful for the five-game cushion they currently have.
Doug Melvin grade through 1st half?
B. He's put together a really stable roster that seems to find lots of different ways to win. It was wise to give Khris Davis a shot in left, and the Matt Garza deal still looks pretty good. We haven't mentioned the stellar bullpen, but we should have. Getting Will Smith for Norichika Aoki was an absolute coup. But Melvin's biggest test is yet to come; at a minimum, they'll need a reliever and a decent bench bat at the deadline. He can't simply sit around waiting for the phone to ring, which is what his comments suggest he's doing.
Ron Roenicke grade through 1st half?
I honestly tried, but I can't give him higher than a C. He's a fine player manager, I'm sure, but that fiasco in Atlanta of calling for a reliever with no one warming up cost Roenicke big time. Which, by the way, an umpire felt compelled to intervene in, cautioning Will Smith not to hurt himself. Absolutely atrocious management. And he still hasn't figured out replay or appropriate bunting.