Brewers in First Place (for now)
It’s the end of May, and the Milwaukee Brewers are in first place. This ain’t my first rodeo when it comes to rooting for a first-place team in May. Even those with short memories will recall that the Crew led the NL Central at the All-Star break last year by 5 ½ games, only to falter in July and fall behind the Cubs, ultimately finishing one game short of the second wild card. The standings were even crueler to Milwaukee in 2014, when the team had the best record in baseball at the end of June but finished 31-47, good for third-place, two games over .500.
At the beginning of this year I predicted a disappointing 84 victories mostly due to the starting pitching. I wrote then, “My guess is that before it’s all said and done, a deal will be made for pitching, but this can only happen if the Brewers play well enough during the first half to make a mid-season trade viable. Can they hang in there long enough?” It looks like they might, which makes a mid-season trade for a starting pitcher a very likely outcome that could push the Crew into a legitimate playoff threat. If starter Jimmy Nelson can return from a long stint on the DL and contribute, that would be an added bonus, but one I hope the team isn’t banking on.
While Brewer victories in April came at the expense of terrible teams – notably the Padres, Royals, Marlins and Reds – there's no denying that their performance in May over the likes of Arizona (albeit, a struggling Arizona), New York, St. Louis and Colorado has been impressive. They finished the month eleven games over .500 without losing back-to-back games, and while the starting pitching and hitting have had moments of effectiveness, there’s no question that the Brewers’ success to date is the result of its relief core, a complete one-eighty from last year when the starting pitching was quite good, but the bullpen consistently lost leads in late innings. This year, the relief staff has been incredible - the Brewers are 30-0 in games they've lead after seven innings. Credit Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader for sure, but also credit Counsell, who’s shed the firm roles that baseball has been married to for so many years. Gone are the days of former Brewer manager Ron Roenicke reserving specific players for specific innings. Instead, Counsell has used relief pitchers for two or even two-plus innings, and general manager David Stearns has utilized player options effectively, sending arms down and bringing up rested arms at key moments.
Another factor has been the consistent offensive performances of off-season pickups Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, along with Jesus Aguilar, who began the year as the third-string first baseman but who's been on fire since filling in for injured Eric Thames and Ryan Braun. What happens when Thames returns is open to debate, but I wouldn’t rule out a trade that includes either Thames or Aguilar, along with either outfielders Keon Broxton – currently in triple A – or Domingo Santana. Obtaining a starting pitcher for some combination of those four players would be a justifiable move come July.
One issue that I have with Counsell and that will likely need to be addressed is his aversion to allow starting pitchers to go much beyond the fifth inning even when they’ve had success and have modest pitch counts. His philosophy seems to be: “We’ve got a good relief staff, let’s use them.” This has worked so far, and Counsell has been quick to give starters Chacin and Guerra the heave-ho after five innings and only 75 pitches (yesterday, he let Guerra go six with 90 pitches thrown – an improvement). Will this lead to tired arms in the bullpen? Or could it actually help the starters down the stretch? Hard to say, but I’m more worried about the former. If Hader or Jeffress become ineffective come August, watch out.
But what makes me more optimistic this year than anything is the fact that last weekend the Brewers demoted shortstop Orlando Arcia to Triple AAA and placed backup catcher Jett Bandy on assignment. To me, these moves spoke volumes, indicating that the Brewers are no longer going to put up with batting averages of .190. Players need to be held accountable. Arcia is back due to an ankle injury to Tyler Saladino, but the message was sent: perform or get sent down.
There’s little point in discussing how the Crew would fair were they to make the playoffs and face the likes of Lester, Scherzer, and Arietta on a regular basis. The team has proven that they can’t hit high-quality pitching, having been shut out as many times in two months as in all of 2017, including five against the Cubs, who are now 7-1 against the Brewers. But the goal for now is to make the playoffs and then see what kind of strategy can be formulated to beat high-caliber teams. Counsell has proven to do what it takes to win games, and if a few hitters get hot at the right time, you never know what might transpire in October. I only hope they get the chance.
Will I eat my words if they win the division? Gladly, dipped in chocolate with a bourbon chaser. I don't want to share with you what lengths of unethical behavior I would happily conduct to see the Milwaukee Brewers win a World Series. Saying, “I was wrong,” is the least of my concerns.