The Milwaukee Brewers are 50-41 and 5.5 games up on the Cubs and the Cardinals. If someone were to tell me that was going to happen at the beginning of the season, I would have said that the only way that could happen is if the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates all suffered calamitous seasons akin to what the Nationals went through in 2015. While I would have projected the Brewers to do better than their FanGraphs-projected 71 wins, their one percent playoff chances sounded about right to me. The division appeared too tough, and the Wild Card looked like it would be quite competitive as well.
In terms of teams that are the biggest pleasant surprises, one could make an argument for the Rockies or Diamondbacks, but my vote goes to the Brewers. Though they are all doing very well, I would say that arguing before the season for the Rockies or Diamondbacks to excel would be easier than doing the same for the Brewers. The Brewers were not tanking, but they were wholeheartedly rebuilding. In short, it would have been easier to believe that the Rockies or Diamondbacks would surprise given their talent. Saying that the Brewers could land in the mid-seventies in wins is believable, but what they are doing now, not so much.
It is easy to dismiss a seemingly inferior team after a couple of months. The Brewers did not appear to have the talent to sustain what they were doing. Now that we are half way through the season, it is harder to make that claim.
In an article I wrote earlier this year that shined light on the Brewers’ future, I lauded GM David Stearns and the excellent job he has done with the farm system. As much credit as I gave him, it seems that I did not give him enough. What he has done to make this team as competitive as it is despite all expectations is a tremendous accomplishment. The value he is getting from low-cost acquisitions is phenomenal. We can’t forget about the coaching staff either. When so many players are performing beyond what their track records would dictate, that can indicate a lot of success coming from player development and training at every level of the organization.
Let’s take a look at just how much value the Brewers are getting from their best performers.
That is 20 wins for less than $11 million. That is an extreme amount of value. That is how you build a surprisingly competitive team, especially in one of the smallest markets in the game. Even the players who were not acquired using only money were acquired for next to nothing in trades. One of the best examples of this is the acquisition of Travis Shaw, who is arguably the biggest surprise on a team full of them.
During the offseason, the Red Sox decided to give up on Travis Shaw and roll the dice with Pablo Sandoval. I imagine that many fans are laughing at this now, but it was defensible given what was known at the time. Shaw was coming off a season where he hit only .242/.306/.421, which does not cut it at third base. He was better defensively than analysts believed he would be, but his true-talent defense was very unlikely to be good enough to carry a below-average bat at third base. The Red Sox probably thought they could get at least that from Sandoval, whom they already were invested in through 2019.
The Red Sox traded Shaw away for Tyler Thornburg, a reliever who was coming off an uncharacteristically and good 2016 that appeared to be completely unsustainable. We do not know for sure yet because Thornburg has yet to pitch this season due to a shoulder injury. We do know that Red Sox third basemen have combined to hit .236/.292/.331 for only a 61 wRC+ and replacement level play. Travis Shaw has hit .299/.367/.570 for a 138 wRC+ and 3.1 bWAR. At least the Red Sox are in first place, too, taking away some of the sting.
Despite the fact that he is walking everyone, Corey Knebel has been one of the best relievers in baseball this year. He has a 1.70 RA9 and his 43 percent strikeout rate is second among relievers to Craig Kimbrel. His strand rate has been pretty high, but he has been big for a Brewers bullpen that would be hurting without him.
The rotation has also been performing well, ranking sixth in baseball with a 4.40 RA9. Amazingly, their two best pitchers, Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson, combined for a 5.19 RA9 last year. This year, Nelson and Anderson have a 3.63 RA9 and 3.09 RA9, respectively, and have combined for 4.8 bWAR. Unfortunately, the rotation does not look so good after that, and worse yet, Anderson will be out until at least August with an oblique injury.
As late as a month ago I would have said that the Brewers should not be buyers. Now, I believe it is reasonable to look for some starting rotation help, but the Brewers should do so carefully. They still face some fierce competition to make the playoffs, so it would be unwise to empty out their excellent farm system for short term help. Their surprising success in the first half of this season should have little impact on their long-term plans.
I believe that José Quintana would be a great trade target. The Brewers have the pieces to get him, and he can be held under contract through 2020 for cheap. Even if the rest of the season goes south for the Brewers, they will still have a great pitcher to build around. Yes, he has been struggling a bit with a 4.74 RA9, and his walk rate has been up 50 percent over last year, but his 24.6 percent strikeout rate is the highest of his career. Furthermore, his 3.96 DRA is just a bit higher than his 3.65 DRA last year. In other words, he is still good, and half a season should not change that.
It is very impressive that the Brewers managed such a rebuild without tanking to the levels achieved by the Astros and Cubs. The best organizations manage to be competitive while still fostering a strong farm system. It should be noted, however, that some of their best prospects have struggled this season, so the farm might not bear as much fruit as they had hoped. If that ends up being true, then fans better hope that Stearns and the Brewers coaches can keep repeating their 2017 success.
FanGraphs still only has the Brewers as having a 20 percent chance at winning the division and a 31 percent chance at making the playoffs. That is likely because the Cubs are still the Cubs, regardless of how much they have struggled this season. It is also hard to deny that the Rockies and Diamondbacks are more talented teams. Still, baseball is crazy random.
If most of the improvements we have seen from the Brewers are real — which is a big "if," let’s be honest — then they have a better chance at making the playoffs than the projections are giving them credit for. If we look at the FanGraphs Season to Date projections, which ignore everything that players have done in previous seasons, they give the Brewers a 62 percent chance to win the division.
It is hard to pick against the Cubs, even with everything that has gone wrong with them and everything that has gone right with the Brewers. It will be a lot of fun to see what happens, though, and a great story if the Brewers actually pull off a divisional win.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.