About five weeks ago, I wrote a story about how both the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays are very similar in a number of ways. At the time, both teams were also off to surprisingly good starts in the 2017 MLB season.
That has continued for both clubs as we head towards the All-Star break. But especially the Brewers, under the leadership of manager Craig Counsell.
The Brew Crew has basically been in first place in the National League Central division since May 18. That divisional prominence has been going on for almost two months now. That is somewhat difficult to comprehend, especially since the team that won the 2016 World Series, the Chicago Cubs, reside in the same division.
Plus there are other teams in the division who know how to win. As a matter of fact, both the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates were participants in the MLB 2015 postseason, along with the Cubs.
Going into this season, most baseball experts figured that the Brewers would continue to stay with the rebuilding process that they have been undergoing since general manger David Stearns took over for Doug Melvin.
Stears has completely overhauled the farm system of the Brewers and it is now one of the best in baseball. He has also made a number of shrewd trades and waiver pickups, plus found a real gem in free agency.
Going into Saturday’s game against the New York Yankees, the Brewers have won five games in a row and have a 49-40 record, which has them leading the second-place Cubs by 4 1/2 games.
The success of the Brewers so far in 2017 has been led by a number of players who Stearns acquired prior to the current season.
One of these moves was the signing of free agent first baseman Eric Thames, who had been playing baseball in South Korea the past three seasons. Although his batting average (.245) has tailed off after a hot start, Thames has put together solid numbers as he has hit 23 homers and has 43 RBIs.
Another acquisition was trading for third baseman Travis Shaw, formerly of the Boston Red Sox. Shaw has put together as a season worthy enough for a spot in the All-Star game, as he is hitting .296, with 18 homers and 61 RBIs. Shaw has also been very solid with his glove.
Stearns has also made some excellent waiver wire acquisitions to help the team so far in 2017. One of whom is rookie first baseman Jesús Aguilar. The former Cleveland Indian has split some time with Thames at first base, especially when the team is facing a left-handed pitcher.
Aguilar had a monster game on Friday night versus the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium, as hit hit two homers and had seven RBIs, as the Brewers won 9-4. For the season, Aguilar is hitting .299, with nine homers and 34 RBIs.
A couple weeks back, Stearns added another player to the Brewers via waivers, as he brought in two-time All-Star catcher Stephen Vogt. The former Oakland Athletic has already paid dividends, as he is hitting .313, with three homers and seven RBIs.
The Brewers appear set at catching for the season now with both Vogt and Manny Piña (.289/6/28) behind the plate.
Milwaukee is also set in both the infield and outfield.
Thames and Aguilar together have 32 homers and 77 RBIs at first base. Although Jonathan Villar has struggled at second base this season (.209/8/30), based on his excellent season in 2016, the Brewers have seen another player shine when given the opportunity to play at 2B. That would be Eric Sogard, who Stearns signed to a minor contract last fall. Although Sogard is currently on the DL with an ankle injury, he was hitting .313, with three homers and 14 RBIs.
The left side of the infield is very solid, both offensively and defensively. Shortstop Orlando Arcia has already made several sparkling plays in the field and is destined to bring home a number of Gold Gloves before his MLB career is over. But it is at the plate where Arcia has really improved over the past couple of months and is now hitting .290, with eight homers and 30 RBIs.
As I noted earlier, Shaw has been very productive at the 3B position. The jack of all trades in both the infield and outfield in terms of being an utility player has been Hernán Pérez. The former Detroit Tiger, who was also acquired via waivers, has played 3B, SS and 2B, plus has played every OF position. So far in 2017, Pérez is hitting .270, with 10 homers and 35 RBIs.
Under normal conditions, the Brewers will have veteran Ryan Braun (.266/10/23) in LF, Keon Broxton (.233/14/35) in CF and Domingo Santana (.291/14/47) in RF. Stearns acquired both Broxton and Santana via trades.
It is in the area of pitching where the Brewers might look to acquire some assistance before the trade deadline. In terms of how the starting pitchers of the Brewers have done for far in 2017, the production has been pretty good, but still could be better.
The top two starting pitchers have been Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson. Nelson is 7-4 with a 3.20 ERA. Nelson has also struck out 112 batters in 104 innings. Anderson was off to a 6-2 start with a 2.89 ERA, before he was sidelined with an oblique injury in late June which will keep him out for several weeks. That is another reason why the Brewers may look to add another starting pitcher to their staff.
Veteran Matt Garza has been solid as of late and is now 4-4 with a 3.98 ERA. The starter with the most wins is Zach Davies, who is 10-4, but he also has been quite fortunate getting offensive support, as he has a 4.90 ERA.
Junior Guerra, who had a great 2016 season (9-3, 2.81 in 20 starts), but has had injury woes in 2017, is currently 1-3 with a 4.98 ERA as a starter. Filling in for Anderson while he is out has been Brent Suter, who had a great initial start and is currently 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA.
Stearns acquired both Anderson and Davies via trades, while Guerra was yet another waiver pickup.
The Milwaukee bullpen has been both great and exasperating. The pen has been much better over the past month, but as of early June the bullpen had absorbed 18 losses. But the Brewers have been more effective protecting leads recently, especially because of their All-Star closer, Corey Knebel, who is 0-1 with a sparkling 1.11 ERA, and who has a whopping 71 strikeouts in 40 innings.
As a matter of fact, Knebel now has the MLB record of getting at least one strikeout per inning in 41 straight games.
Knebel took over as the closer of the Brewers after Neftalí Feliz just couldn’t stop giving up gopher balls. Feliz was 1-5 with a 6.00 ERA and had given up eight homers. Stearns had signed Feliz via free agency this offseason before Feliz was released back in June.
The set up guys for Knebel include left-hander Josh Hader, who notched his first MLB victory on Friday night against the Yankees. For the season, Hader is 1-0 with .073 ERA with 13 Ks in 12 innings. Hader was acquired in the same trade in which the Brewers also added Santana from Houston, when Milwaukee dealt CF Carlos Gomez and P Mike Fiers to the Astros.
Joining Hader in set up roles are Jacob Barnes (1-1, 3.72), Jared Hughes (3-1, 3.09), Oliver Drake (3-2, 4.22), Carlos Torres (4-4, 4.43) and Rob Scahill (1-2, 3.54).
Recently there has been speculation that the Brewers are looking to add another starting pitcher, but only if he is controllable over the next couple of season in terms of his contract status.
The two names that have been mentioned are Sonny Gray of the Oakland As and José Quintana of the Chicago White Sox.
According to Jon Morosi of MLB.com, the Brewers are doing background work on Gray, Quintana and other impact starters.
Gray is currently 4-4 with a 4.00 ERA, but has been much better as of late. Gray has averaged almost nine strikeouts per nine innings and has a 3.45 ERA over his last seven starts.
Gray is earning $3.575 million in 2017 and will be eligible for arbitration in each of the next two winters before reaching free agency upon completion of the 2019 campaign.
Quintana is currently 4-8 with a 4.45 ERA, but he too has been better as of late. In his past six outings, Quintana has averaged 9.1 Ks per nine innings and has a 2.34 ERA.
Like Gray, Quintana is controllable.He will make $8.85 million salary next season and has a pair of club options for the 2019 and 2020 seasons, which are respectively valued at $10.5 million and $11 million.
Time will tell what Stearns will do in terms of additions to the Brewers for the second half of the season, but he will definitely be looking to buy, instead of looking to sell.
The Brewers have a chance to be just the fifth team in franchise history to make the MLB postseason. It has also happened for Milwaukee in 1981, 1982, 2008 and 2011.
Like the Bambi’s Bombers/Harvey’s Wallbangers group which made the postseason a couple of times 30-plus years ago, Craig’s Crushers are also hitting the long ball. The Brewers lead the NL in homers (135) and only trail the Astros (142) of the AL in that category.
The Brewers also know how to steal bases. Milwaukee leads the NL with 74 stolen bases and only trail the Los Angeles Angels (78) and Texas Rangers (75) in that statistical department.
One area where the Brewers definitely need to get better is on defense, as Milwaukee has the third-worst fielding percentage in MLB with a mark of .980. The Brewers have also committed 67 errors, which is also the third-worst mark in baseball.
But all in all, the Brewers are playing inspired baseball and with some additional help down the stretch in terms of adding another starting pitcher, Milwaukee could be toasting the Brew Crew come October.