For a few hours, it's very easy to calculate the pace we're on. At 81 games in, double our current record, and you have a 162-game result: 88-74. That's on the middle to high end of preseason predictions, and I think that, despite sitting in third place, we have to be happy with 44 wins in the first 81 games.
What's impressive to me is how successfully the Brewers have overcome any number of issues, all without seeking outside help. This is a positive reflection on Melvin & Co., who may not have built a perfect team, or even the best possible team with the budget they had, but who certainly built a deep team with lots of options. Think about some of the problems so far:
- We got exactly three starts from Gallardo, and we're not getting any more. Many of us expected he would be our ace this year, when coupled with the assumption that Sheets wouldn't hold up for 30 starts. Also discouraging, Dave Bush made Barry Zito look good for much of April and May.
- The highly-paid part of the bullpen has basically been a disaster. Gagne was inconsistent and then hurt, Riske missed plenty of time, Turnbow was worse than worthless, and Mota has resorted to throwing teammates under the bus to bring his ERA down. Of the veterans, only Torres and Shouse have performed at or above expectations.
- The offense took a *long* time to get going. Prince hit like Sean Casey for a month, Rickie Weeks is currently starring in a performance art piece called "The Pop Fly," and the last bit of bloom has disappeared from Bill Hall's rose.
Yet, with all of that, 44 wins. Not the easiest schedule, either.
- Sheets has been the pitcher we expected Gallardo to be, and more. Most importantly, he's done it for 16 starts and 110+ innings. Many of us expected to get one Cy Young contender out of Sheets and Gallardo, so maybe this will be a wash.
- The rest of the rotation has stepped up. Of the current rotation, Bush is the only pitcher with an ERA+ below 100, and he's at 87, which is barely below average for a starter. The rotation as a whole has an ERA of 4.11, which includes a bunch of forgettable Villa and Bush starts. All five guys have been stellar for the last month, with only the occasional blip.
- We've gotten solid performances, for the most part, from the bullpen replacements. Guys like Stetter, DiFelice, and Dillard weren't really in the plans for the first half, but each handled themselves just fine. Best of all, Salomon Torres has handled the workload of two regular relievers (he's at 44.2 IP right now), and would probably be All Star Game-bound if he had begun the year as the closer.
- The offense has almost completely come around. Consider this: The Brewers are below average at only two defensive positions, second base (84 OPS+) and catcher (96). 96 barely counts as below average, and who knows, if Rickie didn't get hurt, maybe he would've turned it around by now. We could still stand for more from Prince, but the lineup is solid from 1 to 9, at least when Parra's pitching.
- And that, of course, leads us to Russell Branyan. If you ever doubt the role of luck in baseball, remember that the only reason we have Branyan is that our Triple-A club is close to his house. And now he's slugging .721. I don't see any need to elaborate on that.
- The defense isn't the best in the league, but its hugely improved from last year. Prince looks as bad as ever, and Branyan might actually be an upgrade on Hall, but when you see the ball headed anywhere else, you can actually assume it'll be caught. Even Ryan Braun looks like a pretty good left fielder most of the time.
Back to the big picture. 44 wins sounds pretty good, but even taking the schedule into account, it is a bit of a mirage. Our run differential is back in the negative after last night's game, meaning we should be right about at .500. We're 17-7 in one-run games, and our bullpen isn't good enough to explain that one.
In other words, we're lucky to be as close as we are right now. There are reasons for optimism, since I still think the Cardinals are due to hit a rough patch, and we shouldn't suffer through a lot of the problems that made April so difficult to be a Brewers fan. Beyond that, we are clearly the Central division team with the best opportunity to improve the team; we'll see who is available and how much they'll cost, but we certainly have the prospects and payroll space to acquire just about anybody a team puts on the block.
What's a little harrowing is that 88 wins--pleasant as that might be for the Brewers in a vacuum--may not be good enough to get into the playoffs in this division. It'll take a continuation of some of the better performances (Russell, I expect you to keep slugging .700!), a fair bit of luck, and probably a big July acquisition. (Yes, "big" is a pun.)
Despite all those caveats, it's great that we can be having this discussion at the half-way point. Two months ago, it looked like we were headed in a very different direction.