The remains of the season: Brewers edition

Through the weekend’s games, the Brewers are 62-50, a .554 clip that puts them on pace for 89 or 90 wins. Most Brewers fans would’ve taken that deal in a heartbeat back in spring training, but after a roller-coaster ride of a season that has included an appearance in last place and a recent four-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs, you don’t find a lot of complacent supporters in Milwaukee.

What has changed? The biggest surprise has been the strength of the National League Central. Last year, the division was the joke of baseball; this year, the Cardinals have the third-best record in the league, behind two other Central teams. Based on last year’s results and mediocre forecasts for St. Louis, 85-87 wins seemed like enough to put the Brewers in the postseason. Now that seems hopelessly optimistic—85 wins may not be good enough for third place.

Before we look at the Crew’s chances of taking the Wild Card, let’s see how they’ve gotten this far.

Pre-season tweaks

The core of the 2008 Brewers was in place last year. The young lineup features homegrown products Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and Bill Hall. The starting rotation was overflowing with options, leaving Doug Melvin to focus on the defense and the bullpen.

To address the defense, he signed Mike Cameron to play center, moving Hall back to the infield and Braun to left field. He also picked up Jason Kendall, a signing that, at the time, looked like an expensive, lateral move at best. Melvin also opened the checkbook for relievers Eric Gagne, David Riske, Guillermo Mota, and Salomon Torres. (The latter two came via trade, but both involved taking on salary.)

Coming into the season, Milwaukee looked like they would feature a devastating offense and a deep rotation, supported by questionable defense and relief. The preseason moves simply made those last two components less questionable.

Seven rough weeks

After the Red Sox swept Milwaukee on May 18, the Crew was in last place with a record of 20-24. Every year turns up an example of a team that comes back from a start like that, but that doesn’t make it good strategy.

Part of the explanation was obvious: The offense just didn’t show up. In April, Gabe Kapler was the only regular to OPS better than .813; the team as a whole slugged below .400. For a team with developing stars that scored 800 runs in 2007, this was inexplicable.

The pitching staff took a hit, too. In his third start of the year, Yovani Gallardo tore his ACL on a play at first base, knocking him out for the year (or at least most of it). Gallardo was a revelation in 2007, and the team counted on him as their #2 starter behind Ben Sheets.

And that wasn’t all. Rough starts from Dave Bush (6.56 ERA on May 22) and Carlos Villanueva (6.43 on May 18) made some wonder whether releasing Claudio Vargas was a good idea. (When you’re pining for Claudio Vargas, something is very, very wrong.) The bullpen was respectable, but Derrick Turnbow completely lost it, earning a demotion than may well turn out to be permanent.

Regression to the happy

Since leaving Boston, the Brewers are 42-26, a .618 mark. Before getting swept by the Cubs last week, that record was an impressive 40-21.

Much of the change was simply regression to the mean. A .710 team OPS wasn’t going to last. (It’s up over .762 now.) Dave Bush isn’t an ace, but he isn’t a future Long Island Duck, either. (His ERA has gone as low as 4.39.) Prince Fielder started hitting, and we all got to stop talking about his diet.

As predicted, the defense and bullpen problems were only solved so much. Cameron is definite improvement over Hall, but he has looked human. Braun has managed left field nicely, but the right side of the infield—Fielder and Weeks—is simply not very good. The relief corps has suffered injuries to Riske and Gagne, and while Torres has had a great season, Ned Yost is left without much to have confidence in before the ninth inning.

Two roster changes have made a big difference, though. A week after leaving Boston, the Crew called up Russell Branyan to platoon with Hall at third base. Hall was hitting for power, but mostly just swinging and missing for power when a right hander was on the mound. In his first 26 games with the team, Branyan slugged a mighty .775. (Yes, slugged—that’s better than the team OPS.) Eleven dingers in his first 80 at-bats didn’t make all the difference, but they certainly helped.

The other roster change made a little more news. About a month ago, the Brewers swapped top prospect Matt LaPorta (and others) for reigning AL Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia. Since arriving in Milwaukee, CC has defied description. In six starts, he is 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA. While other teams scrambled at the deadline for bullpen help, Sabathia was Milwaukee’s bullpen help, averaging eight innings per start, including three consecutive complete games.

The final fifty

The Brewers can’t afford to let up, not with the Cardinals only a game behind. But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the remainder of the season.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

In August, Milwaukee plays only five games against teams with winning records: three in Los Angeles and two in St. Louis. Most of those are on the road, but the Brewers are one of the few teams in baseball with a winning record away from home. The situation reverses in September: Mostly tough teams (series against the Cubs, Mets, and Phillies), but 16 of 26 at home.

The Brewers have had plenty of luck to get this far–22 and 10 in one-run games, and actual results that exceed their Pythagorean record by four wins. But even if the luck doesn’t hold, there are a lot of reasons to expect the Brewers to hold on their .550+ pace through the last 50 games.

The most obvious is the presence of Sabathia. CC probably won’t go undefeated for the remainder of the season (though watching him face NL opponents, it’s tough to imagine how anyone will beat him), but he’ll do a lot better than Villanueva or Seth McClung would’ve. The bullpen still has its question marks, but everyone is healthy, giving Ned Yost the option to (please!) ignore Guillermo Mota.

The most reassuring facet of the club is its depth. In April, Mike Cameron’s suspension didn’t end up hurting at all, as Gabe Kapler turned in a stellar performance. Craig Counsell is one of the best backup infielders in baseball. Between those two players, an injury just about anywhere on the diamond isn’t going to hurt too much. Obviously, losing Braun or Fielder would be tough, but the team is set to deal with just about anything else.

That’s particularly true in the rotation. With Sabathia’s arrival, there are now six starters who have had success this year. The odd man out at the moment is McClung, who put together an ERA of 4.33 in 11 starts. If disaster strikes, the club could stretch out Villanueva. This isn’t a contender that will have to sign Sidney Ponson or deal for Jarrod Washburn.

Despite a few more ups and downs than usual, and a tougher-than-expected division, most of the preseason projections look about right. Doug Melvin put together an 85-win team to start the year. The Sabathia deal, plus some good luck, has moved the Crew up to something closer to a 90-win pace. Regardless of whether that’s good enough for a post-season berth, it represents a huge step forward for the Brewers, who have already broken their single-season attendance record.

And if they do make the playoffs, they could do the unthinkable and push the Packers below the fold in the local news. Yes, Jeff, and of course you’ll get a unicorn for your birthday.

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