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Milwaukee Brewers are well-positioned in playoff race as second half begins

Pitching and defense has been the name of the game in the Cream City.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a mini-swoon to close out the first half of the 2018 Championship Season, the Milwaukee Brewers are well positioned to make a run to the postseason. The club set a franchise record with 55 wins before the All-Star break, and their 55-43 record to begin the second half has them holding the #1 Wild Card spot by one game over the Braves and 1.5 games over the Diamondbacks.

Milwaukee has held the lead in the NL Central for 75 days this year, but thanks to their six-game losing streak leading up to the break, they started the day three games behind the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers looked like a tired team during the final week of the first half as they completed a stretch of 21 games in 20 days, so hopefully the four days of rest will help to re-energize the team for the stretch run. It won’t hurt them in their quest to get healthy, either - Milwaukee has a whopping ten players on the disabled list currently, including several important contributors: outfielders/first basemen Ryan Braun and Eric Thames, infielder Jonathan Villar, catcher Manny Pina, reliever Matt Albers, and ace starter Junior Guerra. Additionally, struggling starter Zach Davies is still on the shelf with back and shoulder issues and is without an official timeline for return, as is Jimmy Nelson, who has not pitched at all this season after undergoing shoulder surgery last year.

To this point, it has surprisingly been the pitching staff and defense that has buoyed Milwaukee’s success this season. The Brewers rank seventh in baseball with a cumulative 3.65 ERA and are number one in the league in both Defensive Runs Saved (+78) and Ultimate Zone Rating (+25.3). The dynamic bullpen has grabbed most of the headlines; led by All-Stars Josh Hader (1.50 ERA) and Jeremy Jeffress (1.34 ERA), Milwaukee’s relief corps is sixth-best in baseball with a 3.33 ERA. Rookie Taylor Williams (2.65 ERA) has also been stellar throughout the season, while the likes of Dan Jennings (3.42 ERA), Albers (3.45 ERA), and Jacob Barnes (3.65 ERA) have been more or less sturdy contributors throughout the year. Recent call-up Corbin Burnes has looked terrific through his first four scoreless MLB innings and could be a major factor in the second half, though the team will be looking for some improvement from closer Corey Knebel (3.91 ERA).

There was rampant concern regarding the rotation when the season began, but to this point Milwaukee’s group of “initial out-getters” rank 10th in baseball with a 3.87 ERA and are tied for the National League lead with 56 quality starts. Junior Guerra didn’t make the Opening Day roster but has been the best starter for the Cream City Nine, compiling a 3.23 ERA across 97.2 innings before hitting the DL with soreness in his forearm after his final start before the break. Jhoulys Chacin has also been a revelation, logging an even 115.0 innings with a 3.68 earned run average. 21 year old rookie sensation Freddy Peralta has earned a spot in the rotation going forward by posting a 2.65 ERA through the first seven starts of his career. Chase Anderson hasn’t been quite as good as he was last year but still has a solid 3.78 ERA, and Brent Suter has shown to be a capable back-end starter while posting a 4.52 mark.

Milwaukee’s offense has been a disappointment despite the offseason additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. The lineup ranks eighth in the NL with 4.35 runs per game and tied for 18th in baseball with a combined 97 wRC+ from their non-pitchers. It has largely been a case of “stars and scrubs” with the Brewers getting very little production from the bottom of the order. Cain (125 wRC+) and Yelich (121 wRC+) were both All-Stars, as was possible MVP candidate Jesus Aguilar (159 wRC+ and an NL-leading 24 homers). Travis Shaw (115 wRC+) and Eric Thames (134 wRC+) have battled some nagging injuries but have been effective when they’ve been in there, and Tyler Saladino (128 wRC+) has been terrific since seizing the everyday shortstop gig from the disappointing Orlando Arcia (27 wRC+).

Arcia and Domingo Santana (78 wRC+) were each thought to be key cogs for the Brewers going forward, but both have been demoted to the minor leagues due to their poor batting performances this season. Ryan Braun (84 wRC+) and Manny Pina (78 wRC+) have also taken steps back at the plate, and Hernan Perez (76 wRC+) has also been largely ineffective. The Brewers rank in the bottom-10 in baseball in offensive production from the catcher spot (70 wRC+, 21st), second base (69 wRC+, t-27th), and shortstop (48 wRC+, t-29th).

Slingin’ David Stearns and his brain trust will undoubtedly be looking to make some additions in the coming days before the non-waiver trade deadline, and the club was heavily involved in the Manny Machado sweepstakes. Unfortunately the rumored offer of Brett Phillips and Luis Ortiz was not enough to get a deal done, but there are still plenty of other options out there on the market. There have been rumblings of interest in infielders Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar of the Twins, utilityman Derek Dietrich of the Marlins, and second baseman Whit Merrifield of the Royals. The Brewers could desperately use another bat, and the expectation is that they’ll make a trade to add an infielder to the mix before the deadline.

Depending on the severity of Guerra’s injury (forearm strains have been a precursor to elbow issues and Tommy John surgery for many pitchers), it may also be incumbent upon Stearns and company to add another arm or two by July 31st, as well. They have been connected to two Tampa Bay starters - rental Nathan Eovaldi and a longer-term arm in Chris Archer. J.A. Happ of Toronto is also someone that the Brewers are said to have checked in on. Another bullpen arm could be of use, as well, though there haven’t been any real rumors on that front; speculatively, Joakim Soria, Kirby Yates, Kyle Barraclough, Jake Diekman, and Ryan Pressly could all be nice fits.

It hasn’t really felt like Milwaukee has been hitting on all cylinders at any point this season, and their best baseball may very well be ahead of them. Yet they still have the second-best record in the National League and their Pythagorean record (based on runs scored and allowed) supports the success the squad has had. An upgrade or two to the roster will surely be arriving sometime in the next couple of weeks, but the Brewers cannot afford for their skid to continue into the second half; over the next two and a half weeks, our local nine has series against the Dodgers, Nationals, Giants, and Rockies, all postseason contenders. It has been seven long years since the last time playoff baseball took place in Milwaukee, but with a dynamite bullpen, solid starting pitching, and perhaps another bat to add to the lineup on its way, the Brewers are well-positioned to make a run to into October.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs