You can forgive people if they've been waiting for the other shoe to drop concerning the Milwaukee Brewers. They weren't expected to win the National League Central, after all, let alone threaten to own the circuit's best record at the All-Star break. And they've been in a bit of a slump in July, contributing to the sense that maybe this is one of those half-season mirages that burns off in the heat of summer. The Brewers are 1-9 in their past 10 and just suffered the indignity of a four-game series sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies. The St. Louis Cardinals are supposed to win the Central, after all, and with the Brewers taking on the Cards in the final weekend before the break, that supposedly inevitable outcome is something more than a few folks might expect to take shape, starting now.
But for all that, every team has its ups and downs over 162 games, and you shouldn't get too down on the Brewers. Instead, there are a bunch of reasons to count on them to come out on top and win the division, not because of whatever else is going on with the other teams but because of what the Brewers themselves bring to the table.
Where to start? Why not with the starters.
1. Depth in the rotation. The Brewers might not have a Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright, but what they lack in star power, they're making up for in depth and health. The Brewers' front four of Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza and Wily Peralta have cranked out quality starts in more than two-thirds of their turns. The Brewers rank fourth in the league in quality starts behind three other contenders' rotations -- the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers. And only one start has been made by a hurler outside of the Brewers' regular five-man rotation.
What is perhaps equally noteworthy is that nobody is massively over- or underperforming in terms of expectations relative to FIP. While you can always hope that Gallardo or Garza turns into the ace some expected each of them to be at some point in their careers, or that Peralta's electric stuff starts translating into even better results, the key is that the Brewers have depth, health and talent, and over the season's long weeks, that matters, producing lots of winnable ballgames well within reach of a team armed with a lineup that's scoring 4.4 runs per game (second-best in the NL).
Speaking of which, that's our second reason the Brewers will win: Legit star power in the lineup.
Carlos Gomez might have been everybody's favorite undermentioned star player after last year, but this year he's joined by Jonathan Lucroy. And both join Ryan Braun among the top 20 players in the NL ranked by OPS and OPS+ (which adjusts for park effects). Nobody else has more than two of those guys, and while Braun and Gomez are accepted as players this good, some still might question Lucroy. You shouldn't. Lucroy might have really only hit national radars this season, but his rate stats over the past three seasons are .304/.363/.487, which suggests that this year's breakout is more just part of a normal crest of a young star who, at 28 years old, is simply a guy in his prime.
Which is another thing to bring up about this Brewers team: Lucroy and Gomez are in their primes now, within that 25-to-29 range where you can expect the best. Braun at 30 isn't far outside it. And with veteran Aramis Ramirez, plus homegrown goodies Scooter Gennett slugging close to .480 (in an excellent second-base platoon with Rickie Weeks) and Khris Davis (providing a .220 Isolated Power clip from left field), this is a lineup firing on at least six cylinders. The Brewers are failing to get offense from just two slots: first base (with a .677 OPS) and shortstop. Which brings us to our next point ...
They have an impact player due for a big second half. Jean Segura had a huge year for Milwaukee in 2013, hitting .294/.329/.423 with 20 doubles, 10 triples and a dozen homers while stealing 44 bases. This year, he's posting an OPS south of .600, with significantly less thump (almost a 50-point drop in isolated power). A big part of the problem is shorter at-bats: Segura is seeing 3.4 pitches per plate appearance, the third-worst mark in the league for impatience behind Adeiny Hechavarria (3.2) and Andrelton Simmons (3.3). The other problem is that he's getting lousy results in those short at-bats, generating the second-worst batting average on balls in play in the league (.257), a huge drop from the .326 BABIP he generated last year.
Now, let's skip jabbering about regression, like it was an immutable law of physics that will drag his performance back toward league average. Different kinds of hitters create different levels of expectations; Segura puts a lot of balls in play, but he's not just some slappy speedster. That said, he clearly has work to do in terms of managing his at-bats. But with a season as big as last year's on his résumé, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that he can be that player again. Which contributes to another of their virtues ...
An offense with the virtues we still associate with a Ron Roenicke lineup. As ever, Roenicke likes to push his baserunners, and the risks the Brewers take on the bases pay off, as they rank second in base running runs according to Baseball Prospectus and fourth in FanGraphs' ultimate baserunning. And surprising nobody, they're one of the few teams to have pulled off a couple of successful squeeze plays this year. It's all part and parcel with a tactical playbook that maximizes opportunities instead of waiting on them, something that Roenicke helped deliver as a coach with the aggressive World Series-winning Angels of 2002 as well as when he skippered the division-winning Brewers of 2011.
This all accentuates the positive, but what about the negatives? They're there, but there's even a silver lining on this score. Why is that?
The Brewers have correctable flaws: What is it that the Brewers really lack, if they have stars, an offense that cranks and rotation depth?
In the bullpen, they could use a quality righty setup man to put in front of Francisco Rodriguez;
While the rotation is deep, it lacks the obvious No. 1 with whom you want to lead off a postseason series.
And those are reasonable targets to shoot for, even in a deadline market where buyers will outnumber sellers. For first base, they might try to get Justin Morneau from the Rockies, Adam Dunn from the White Sox or Kendrys Morales from the Twins, or even Padres third baseman Chase Headley (moving Ramirez to first base, and still using Mark Reynolds in the corners against lefties). There are always veteran right-handed relievers available on noncontenders every July. And getting that No. 1? Well, that isn't as easy, but when is it ever?
Which brings us to what might be the Brewers' final virtue for why I think they'll win the NL Central: their track record of paying the price when there's a chance of winning. This is the team and the GM who traded for CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke when the opportunities were there.
Unfortunately, general manager Doug Melvin doesn't have a lot to work with, considering that before the season Keith Law ranked the Brewers' farm system 30th in baseball. That isn't good news. But at the same time that it suggests that they don't have any other option than to win now, it also doesn't mean they lack a negotiating position.
That's because money -- and the willingness to spend it -- is another critical form of leverage. With a payroll that rates 16th in baseball (lower than both the Reds and Cardinals), if the Brewers have negotiating strength in any department, it might have to be owner Mark Attanasio's pocketbook. That, plus a willingness to absorb the tail end of contracts of free-agents-to-be, can buy them a pennant.
So going out and getting Morneau or Dunn or Morales, or a right-handed reliever? Doable. Getting David Price or Cliff Lee? Probably impossible, although I would never bet against Melvin trying. Getting A.J. Burnett or Jake Peavy as an upgrade from Estrada in the rotation is probably within reach.
That might not bring the Brewers a top gun, but every little bit of improvement helps, because the difference between winning the division and settling for a one-game wild-card play-in game is huge. Here's thinking that the Brewers have the right stuff to do just that.