After winning 95 games last year and bringing back a team with three legitimate aces in its rotation and a lineup loaded with power, all under the guidance of Craig Counsell, who some see as the best manager in baseball, the The Milwaukee Brewers were a popular pick to repeat as champions of the National League Central.
With a week to go until the annual trade deadline, the Brewers actually led the Central through Monday with a 53-44 record. And with an expanded playoff field that creates a third wild-card spot in each league, Milwaukee could seemingly rest on its laurels and move on to the postseason.
They may not want to start hanging banners just yet, and could use some reinforcements if they want to make it to October.
While there is no way to perfectly predict future results, run differential, a simple calculation of a team’s runs scored versus runs it has allowed, has proven to be one of the most accurate measures of the quality of a team. And based on a formula originally developed by Bill James, in which run differential is used to create a team’s “expected” record, the Brewers actually should have trailed the St. Louis Cardinals in the Central by four games, instead of leading them by two.
The competition is also pretty open for the three NL wild cards, once you adjust for run differential. The Atlanta Braves, 58-40 through Monday, held the top spot, and their expected record of 57-41 would, too. But instead of the San Diego Padres taking second place and the Philadelphia Phillies third, the run differential indicates the order should have been Braves-Phillies-Brewers, with the Padres and San Francisco Giants following the order. Milwaukee trail, only half -Game off third place.
That the Brewers are vulnerable isn’t all that surprising.
Freddy Peralta, one of the team’s aces, has been on the disabled list since May with a shoulder injury. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain was released after hitting rock bottom following years of solid service. Shortstop Willy Adames, who dramatically boosted the team after a May trade last season, has regressed considerably. Third baseman Jace Peterson, who leads the team at 2.4 wins above replacement this season, recently went on the disabled list.
Even Josh Hader, the All-Star closer for the team that was tied for the major league lead in saves through Monday, has struggled enough in July, seeing his ERA rise from 1.05 on July 3 to 4.50. Opponents have been crushing the ball against him, resulting in a .722 on-base plus slugging percentage that was 301 points worse than what he allowed last season.
Considering that list of obstacles, the Brewers have done surprisingly well. Now the question is who they might add at the deadline to keep St. Louis at bay, as well as the pack of wild-card contenders.
The jewel of this year’s trade options is outfielder Juan Soto. The Washington Nationals could look to trade Soto, a 23-year-old superstar who has two more years of team control after this one, after he recently turned down a $440 million contract extension. However, the price tag would be extraordinary and would likely rule out any team that doesn’t have a stacked minor league system.
However, there are plenty of vendors out there who won’t demand loot like Soto’s. The Chicago Cubs will be looking to get some return for receiver Willson Contreras, a three-time All-Star who is eligible for free agency this offseason. Teams looking for a starting pitcher could look to the last-place Cincinnati Reds for Luis Castillo or the hapless Oakland Athletics for Frankie Montas. And the surprising Baltimore Orioles, who have embraced their youth movement and discovered something akin to legitimacy, may look to fill their closets further by offering Trey Mancini, a veteran slugger with some positional versatility.
The Brewers might as well sit tight, wait for Peralta and Peterson to return from the disabled list, hope Hader recovers and hope Adames rediscovers his magic in the second half from a year ago.
But baseball is often a game of follow-the-leader, and 29 teams saw the Braves, who were trailing in their division at last year’s deadline, make some smart trades and then overtake the Mets on their way to a World Series. title. So teams in the bubble this year are likely to hope to find their own Eddie Rosario or Jorge Soler.
If the Brewers want to keep the Cardinals at bay, they might want to talk on the phone.