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Can MLB-Low $63M Brewers Really Take Down the World Series Champs?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 12, 2017

Milwaukee Brewers' Domingo Santana, far right, is congratulated by teammates after hitting a three-run home run against New York Yankees starting pitcher Luis Severino during the first inning of an interleague baseball game, Saturday, July 8, 2017, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

The biggest upset of the 2017 Major League Baseball season is brewing in Milwaukee.

At the All-Star break, the division races mostly look how they were supposed to. Of course the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the NL West. Of course the Houston Astros lead the AL West. And so on with the Boston Red Sox in the AL East, Cleveland Indians in the AL Central and Washington Nationals in the NL East.

And then there's the double-take-fest that is the NL Central.

There, the Chicago Cubs are notably not in first place. They're tied for second at 43-45.

Behind the Milwaukee Brewers, of all teams. They're 50-41, putting them a comfy 5.5 games ahead of the Cubs.

The Cubs won 97 games in 2015 and then 103 games and a long-awaited World Series in 2016. Meanwhile, the Brewers went into rebuilding mode. They lost games, traded stars for prospects and spared plenty of expense. While the Cubs went into Opening Day with a $172 million payroll, the Brewers went in with an MLB-low $63 million payroll.

Now look at them.

"I think we've earned our record. It's not a fluke," manager Craig Counsell told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

He added, "I don't think we're as surprised as everybody else is."

MILWAUKEE, WI - MAY 12:  Manager Craig Counsell of the Milwaukee Brewers speaks to the media before the game against the New York Mets at Miller Park on May 12, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

To be fair, the big shock has more to do with the Brewers' being in first place and less to do with their being better than advertised.

They did finish strong last season, going 17-13 in the home stretch. Led by Eric Thames and Travis Shaw, they then gathered enough intriguing parts over the winter to present themselves as a dark horse.

However, it wasn't long ago that everyone was watching a similar movie with a downer ending.

Go back to the All-Star break of 2014, and you'll find the Brewers in first place at 53-43. They then went 29-37 the rest of the way, ceding the top of the NL Central to just-OK versions of the St. Louis Cardinals (90 wins) and Pittsburgh Pirates (88 wins).

Full disclosure: Your narrator anticipates something similar will happen this year. The Cubs will regress up. The Brewers will regress down. It's not hard to imagine how it will play out.

Give the Brewers this much credit: They're not overachieving. Their Pythagorean record is the same as their actual record, so they're hypothetically right where they should be.

According to Baseball Reference, the catch is that they've had it easy with their schedule. That will continue if everything stays the same as it was in the first half, as their remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .486. But things generally don't stay the same from one half to the next, and that's potentially bad news for the Brewers.

Per Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system, their remaining opponents are projected to have a .503 winning percentage. To survive this, the Brewers may have to get even better.

Trouble is, both their offense and run prevention are expected to decline after the All-Star break:

SplitRuns/GameRuns Allowed/Game
Before Break4.964.46
After-Break Projection4.554.69

Having Ryan Braun, who played in only 40 games in the first half, throughout the second half can only help the Brewers keep the offense coming.

For the most part, though, Milwaukee's offense has thus far thrived on performances of questionable sustainability. Their best hitters are Thames, Shaw, Jesus Aguilar and Domingo Santana. None of the four has a track record of heavy hitting in the majors.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

The Brewers' pitching to this point has been simply good enough. Their hurlers have a 4.08 ERA, good for fourth in the NL.

But there are question marks here too.

Their best starters are Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson. Neither is an established ace, and Anderson figures to be out until August with an oblique injury. Apart from them, Milwaukee's rotation is dicey.

Corey Knebel, an All-Star, has anchored the bullpen with a 1.70 ERA. But he also lacks a track record of dominance and is already eight innings shy of his high-water mark as a major leaguer.

What would ease concerns over these potential regressions is a trade or two for impact talent. But the Brewers have sent out mixed signals about their trade deadline intentions. One is that they're not ready to blow up their long-term goals for short-term gain.

"I never want to say never, but if there's going to be an acquisition cost, it needs to be an acquisition that's going to be here for more than one year," general manager David Stearns told reporters.

Add it all up—the potentially difficult schedule, assorted regressions and a hesitant trade trigger finger—and the possibility of the Brewers' opening a door for the Cubs with a 2014-like collapse is very real.

But this isn't the most likely thing to happen.

Despite the less-than-favorable projections, Baseball Prospectus gives the Brewers a 47.6 percent chance of winning the NL Central. That dwarfs the Cubs' 31 percent chance.

That goes against your narrator's prediction for how the NL Central race will play out, but it's understandable. The Cubs have more things they need to go right than the Brewers do. Despite the dire what-ifs, things aren't showing any signs of going wrong.

Break the Brewers' season into 10-game samples, and their team OPS reveals they've only had one bad offensive slump:

Their team ERA shows they've had only one bad pitching slump:

Even with that ugly spike in June, the latter also gets at how Milwaukee's pitching has been better lately.

It has a 3.90 ERA since May 29. At play there is solid starting work from Matt Garza and Zach Davies and, just as important, the stabilization of the bullpen following the release of Neftali Feliz.

Any trades the Brewers make in the coming weeks could therefore not just keep them from getting worse, but boost an overall performance that's already trending up.

They may be coy about that publicly, but Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com has reported they're keeping tabs on big names like Jose Quintana and Sonny Gray. With MLB's No. 4 farm system, according to Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter, they have the pieces to make big deals.

These are two areas where the 2017 Brewers are nothing like the 2014 Brewers. The latter's pitching only placed 10th in the NL in ERA, and the club had was sitting on a barren farm system that Baseball America ranked at No. 29 coming into the year.

The 2014 Brewers were a rickety ship. It's no wonder they sunk.

The 2017 Brewers? They're not so rickety. If the Cubs or anyone else wants them to sink, they can't sit around and wait for it.

     

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.

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