Minus their two aces, the Milwaukee Brewers have managed to hang tough atop the NL Central during the first half of the season, due in large part to their lights-out bullpen and the excellence of their two slugging superstars, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
But several potential roadblocks stand in the way of another trip to the postseason for the Brew Crew.
Can several position players snap out of their season-long funks and help pick up the slack for Braun and Fielder? Can the rotation hold up for an entire season?
And can the bullpen duplicate their first half success or will the heavy workload catch up?
Here are a few reasons why Brewer fans can be optimistic looking ahead to the second half, along with some issues that Milwaukee will need to address in order to return to the playoffs in Sept.
Reasons for Optimism
Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have been spectacular in 2009, significantly raising their OBP and carrying an otherwise struggling Brewer offense.
Fielder is currently second in the majors in RBI (74,) is hitting over .300 for the first time in his career (.307,) and has been far more selective at the plate this season. His nearly 1/1 K:BB ratio indicates that patience and is a main reason why his numbers are up across the board.
His 20 bombs don't hurt either.
Braun is simply raking like he has since he joined the majors, and has also significantly raised his OBP to well over .400.
The probable All-Star starter is hitting .327 with 16 home runs and 57 RBI on the season.
Overshadowed a bit by Braun and Fielder's MVP-caliber seasons have been the strong first halves of Craig Counsell and Casey McGehee.
Counsell altered his light-saber wielding batting stance to a more traditional pose in the offseason, and he has been a pleasant surprise for the Brewers thus far, batting .297 while earning his fair share of starts in the infield.
Not bad for a guy Milwaukee almost didn't bring back this year.
McGehee has been a godsend for the Brewers at second and third base, hitting .325 and showing a little pop with five homers in 114 at-bats.
If anyone is heading down to Wrigley for the upcoming four-game set, go ahead and thank some Cubs fans for their team cutting McGehee loose this offseason.
With Rickie Weeks going down and Bill Hall flailing at just about everything these days, it's safe to say that the Brewers would be looking up at St. Louis and Cincinnati in the standings without these two key contributors.
The Brewer bullpen has also been dominant, with all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman heading up a solid group.
The mix of Hoffman, Todd Coffey, Seth McClung, Mark DiFelice, and lefty specialist Mitch Stetter have turned Brewer games into five and six-inning affairs, a luxury that few teams in baseball enjoy.
With the exception of McClung, who has been thrust into a few spot starts, the other bullpen guys sport ERA's under 3.00, and have helped cover up the struggles of Carlos Villanueva, who was a main bullpen cog a year ago.
The only question will be whether this 'pen can hold up under their heavy current workload and duplicate their success in the second half.
Second-Half Issues to Address
Several Milwaukee position players have had nightmarish starts to their season, and have put immense pressure on guys like Braun and Fielder to carry the offensive load.
All-star outfielder Corey Hart has carried his season-ending slump into 2009, and is hitting only .255 on the season. For a guy that some were expecting a breakout, 30/30 type of season, Hart has taken a step back
That figure looks DiMaggio-like compared to the exploits of J.J. Hardy and Bill Hall however.
Hardy has struggled mightily after a strong 2008, hitting only .233 in the first half and sitting around the Mendoza line for much of the year.
The good news is that Hardy is a notorious streak hitter, and has went on white-hot tears in each of the past two seasons.
History says an adjustment is coming, and Hardy is still a solid bet to do his part in the second half.
The real enigma is Bill Hall, who after hitting 35 home runs in 2006, keeps getting worse every year. Hall is batting .203 on the season with a ghastly OBP of .263.
And he's not even hitting leftys anymore, sporting just a .242 average against the same southpaws he used to crush.
Manager Ken Macha can't pencil this out machine into the lineup too much longer.
With the exception of Hall, guys like Hart, Hardy, and Jason Kendall have a reliable enough history to expect marked improvement in the second half.
The real issue that will make or break Milwaukee's playoff run is whether their shaky starting pitching can keep them in the race.
The Brewers, like many teams, are going to be in the market for another starter, and are perilously thin in the rotation right now.
For all of their organizational depth with position players, the Brewers really have no one else in the pipes to call up if a second half injury occurs, meaning that GM Doug Melvin will likely have to make some kind of move to ensure an injury doesn't derail their playoff aspirations.
Right now beyond ace Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee is relying on three .500 pitchers in Looper, Bush, and Suppan, and either journeyman Mike Burns or the enigmatic Manny Parra to carry them to the playoffs.
Those names don't exactly instill the fear of God into opposing hitters.
While Burns did manage to out-duel Johan Santana recently, his track record as a fringe major leaguer indicates that relying on him as a rotation guy in a pennant race may be a mistake.
Parra obviously has the raw talent and stuff to be a solid starter, but he hasn't proven to be mentally ready as a major league pitcher.
With Dave Bush currently on the DL and Milwaukee being forced to use long reliever Seth McClung as a starter from time to time, Melvin has been rumored to be kicking the tires on guys like Doug Davis and Jon Garland.
While neither name carries the sex appeal or impact of a Cliff Lee or Jake Peavy, the Brewers will likely have to add another arm or two in the mold of an innings-eater like Davis to help save the bullpen and prevent the team from trotting out a young pitcher that isn't major-league ready.
Brewer fans remember what happened a few years back when Zach Jackson and a young Carlos Villanueva imploded at the back-end of the Brewer rotation and sabotaged a potential winning season for the Crew.
Melvin doesn't seem open to trading another top-flight prospect like Alcides Escobar or Mat Gamel, so Brewer fans need to temper their hopes for another Sabathia-like blockbuster.
Ultimately, if the Brewers can find a No. 5 starter that can chew up innings and produce some quality starts and they can stay healthy, their powerful offense and stellar bullpen should be able to carry them into the playoffs yet again in 2009.
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