Are the Milwaukee Brewers flying under the radar?
Earlier this week, USA Today's Jesse Yomtov asked, "Is everyone sleeping on the Brewers?"
"For a team that came within one game of the World Series last season, the Milwaukee Brewers aren't getting much attention." Yomtov wrote.
"Locked in a virtual tie with the Chicago Cubs atop the NL Central, the Brewers haven't even been at their best. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain – worth 6.9 WAR in 2018 – has a .686 OPS with only three stolen bases. Jesus Aguilar surprised everyone last year with 35 homers and 108 RBI, but he's contributed almost nothing in 2019, falling into the weak side of a platoon at first base.
"Still, with MVP Christian Yelich, infielder Mike Moustakas (20 HR) and catcher Yasmani Grandal (.899 OPS), this is a team capable of catching fire."
Yomtov is correct – the Brewers are going a bit unnoticed for a division-leading team with perhaps the second-best player in the sport.
But as Yomtov points out, the team is yet to hit its stride, which makes it tough to truly embrace its status as a legitimate contender. Yes, Yelich, Moose and Grandal have been three of the 12 best hitters in the National League, but the rest of the lineup has been completely inept.
The previously steady Cain simply is not making solid contact this season at the plate. (He ranks 73rd out of 81 qualified NL'ers in hard-hit rate.) Aguilar has been lost since the 2018 All-Star break and has been 41 percent worse than the league average hitter this season. Travis Shaw still can't find his groove since returning from his rehab stint. That puts a lot of pressure on Milwaukee's top-three hitters, as well as Eric Thames, who has begun to heat back up but still owns the second-worst strikeout rate in the NL, and Ryan Braun, who hasn't topped 140 games in a season since 2012.
On the mound, the starting pitching comes and goes each night, and the bullpen has not displayed its same dominance of 2018. As a team, the Brewers only sport a plus-13 run differential, which ranks just 14th in baseball. That number is slightly skewed by two horrendous games against Miami when they were outscored 24-3, but it's certainly a red flag when the lowly Marlins outscore you by three touchdowns at home.
So while it seems like the Brewers aren't getting any respect as a World Series contender, they probably don't deserve such respect right now.
But there is good news! Even if Milwaukee has been a tad lucky so far this season, those wins are already banked. Plus, the Brewers have shown the ability to consistently outperform their expected win totals over the past three seasons behind Craig Counsell's superb in-game management.
And because the Brewers have already put together enough wins to climb into first place, but still have enough holes that put their playoff position in peril, it should mean another active transaction period next month.
Yomtov hits this point right on the head: "The organization showed last year that it's not afraid to make bold moves at the deadline. After last year's near-miss, they'll be even more determined in the coming weeks."
Starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner is one such name who could be connected to the Brewers, as he is an expiring free agent with cellar-dwelling San Francisco, has pitched reasonably well this season (3.83 ERA), and is notorious for his big-game success (2.11 ERA across 102.1 playoff innings). The Brewers may also get a jolt from second base prospect Keston Hiura, whose powerful bat could be back in the majors soon enough should Shaw or Aguilar continue to struggle.
Milwaukee has done well to scrounge together 39 wins in the highly competitive NL Central without its best stuff thus far. So even though the Brewers have been cruising on the back burner this season, these next six weeks could be all about the Crew, as baseball returns to the center stage with the looming trade deadline. Down the stretch, Miller Park could be the spot of the summer, as it hosts 16 inter-divisional games with home runs flying in the warm weather and an MVP candidate showing out on a nightly basis.
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