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With one third of the season complete, the Brewers are trying to stay afloat

A weakened Brewers team will have to grind its way through the next few weeks as it tries to return to full strength

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday’s loss to the Toronto Blue Jays marked the 56th game of the Brewers’ 2023 schedule, putting the club a little over one-third of the way through its regular season.

Injuries have hit Milwaukee hard. Four of its top six starting pitchers—Brandon Woodruff, Aaron Ashby, Eric Lauer and Wade Miley—are on the injured list. Projected setup man Matt Bush allowed four home runs in 7 23 innings while displaying reduced velocity before hitting the shelf with a shoulder injury.

On the position player side, Luis Urias suffered a major hamstring injury on Opening Day and has not appeared in a big-league game since. Garrett Mitchell injured his labrum on an awkward slide during the third week of April and required likely season-ending surgery. Sal Frelick, a potential choice to take Mitchell’s place on the roster, suffered a thumb injury the same night and also underwent surgery. Within the past week, a concussion and neck strain have sent Willy Adames and Jesse Winker to the injured list.

The Brewers have been forced to play short-handed for much of the season. Memorial Day represents a juncture by which a team’s identity starts to come into focus, and the returns to date indicate that this version of the roster is a below-average team, if not an outright bad one.

Milwaukee is two games above .500 at 29-27. That is already underperformance from initial expectations, and the team has been fortunate to post more wins than losses with this group.

Despite leading the National League Central in winning percentage, the Brewers’ -26 run differential is the second-worst in the division. While the Brewers often design and utilize their rosters in ways that help them overperform their run differential, a figure that far in the red will catch up to any club unless they start playing better.

Breaking down the components of this team’s performance does not paint a rosier picture. The Brewers are an elite defensive team (tied for second in Defensive Runs Saved and sixth in Outs Above Average), but their offense has been among the worst in baseball, and their pitching has been suspect.

The Brewers’ offense enters Friday with an 87 wRC+ and 93 DRC+. Those figures rank 25th and 26th out of 30 teams, respectively. The club’s struggles against left-handed pitchers have continued, resulting in a 73 wRC+ against southpaws this year. Only the Rockies have performed worse in such matchups.

The injuries to Urias and Mitchell have forced Brice Turang and Joey Wiemer into the lineup as regular starters. While the pair was always likely to struggle offensively, the near-worst-case scenario has played out at the plate for both rookies. Turang and Wiemer have combined to slash .202/.257/.325 for a 58 wRC+.

Underperformance from a pair of established veterans has also hurt the offense. Winker was slated to be one of the team’s best bats against right-handed pitching. Instead, he has recorded just three extra-base hits (all doubles) on the season and owns a 61 wRC+. Adames, who also hits near the top of the lineup, has posted a career-worst 84 wRC+.

The pitching staff has been respectable by ERA (95 ERA-), but underlying metrics indicate that the group has performed like a below-average staff. The Brewers have a 4.13 ERA as a team but a 4.73 FIP, representing the greatest overperformance of any team in baseball. Their .280 BABIP is the third-lowest, pointing to plenty of favorable luck on batted balls.

By FIP- (109) and DRA- (107), the Brewers’ pitching staff ranks in the bottom six in the league. While the team’s elite defense enables some overperformance, the group will not maintain its solid run prevention without improvement on the mound. The Brewers don’t strike out many hitters by today’s standards (26th in K%), and their quality of contact metrics are in line with the league average.

The absences of Woodruff, Ashby and Miley have weighed heavily on the staff. Colin Rea and Julio Teheran are now getting regular turns in the rotation. Corbin Burnes has looked more like an average starter than an elite one. Freddy Peralta was asked to step up amidst the injuries but has instead been inconsistent.

Despite the team’s poor performance to this point, there are reasons for optimism.

At some point, the Brewers will get closer to full health. Urias is nearing a return, and his 111 wRC+ since the start of the 2021 season represents a massive upgrade over Turang’s output. Frelick is also getting closer to game action in Triple-A. Adames is bound to heat up sooner than later. A healthy Woodruff will be a significant second-half addition to the rotation, and Miley’s eventual return will restore more depth.

In the meantime, the Brewers must remain afloat in the playoff race. That’s an achievable goal in a weak National League. The Brewers and the Pirates are the only teams above .500 in the division. Every team in the Senior Circuit outside of the Braves, Dodgers and Diamondbacks is within a few games of .500.

With one third of the season in the books, the Brewers look like a below-average team that has lucked its way into a few more wins than it has earned. Returning some key players from injury ought to reshape the group’s identity for the better as the year progresses. Until then, the Brewers must do enough to remain in contention with their available players.