Milwaukee Brewers ready to be the team to beat in the NL Central?

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Expectations were not high for the Milwaukee Brewers last season. The outcome wasn’t exactly anything special, but they did lead the NL Central for much of the year. But then the Chicago Cubs eventually woke up and they fell back down to Earth a little.

They won 13 more games than they did the year before. But since they finished six games behind the Cubs and one game out of the wild card does that really matter? Winning games is great but winning enough to win the division is even better.

The Brewers haven’t done that since 2011.

In 2017, they finished inside the top ten in staff ERA (9th; 4.00). But on the offensive end, they were 20th in runs scored (732; roughly 4.5 a game). Taking the next step in 2018 would require some of the young guys taking the next step and/or adding some help in free agency— which they did.

To help their offense, the Brewers acquired outfielder Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins via trade and signed free agent Lorenzo Cain to a massive contract. All they really did for the pitching side of the game was sign Jhoulys Chacín.

The Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds had more productive offenses last year. Only the Cubs had a better staff ERA. To have a shot at becoming the team to beat in the NL Central the offense had to be the focus in the offseason.

But did they do enough? Should they have done more to bolster their pitching staff? Will they rise to the top or will it be another disappointing season for the Brewers?

It’s Going to Be Tough

Their pitching staff was their strength last season and will likely serve the same purpose in 2018. They have a decent rotation in Zach Davies, Brent Suter, Chase Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin. Jimmy Nelson had to have surgery in the offseason but will become the fifth member when he comes off the DL.

Josh Hader is one of the better setup men in the league. When healthy, Corey Knebel is one of the better closers in the league.

All in all, their pitching is good. But it is not a staff that is going to strike fear into the hearts of batters. Yes, their ERA was one of the better ones in baseball last season, but it was only the second-best in their division (Brewers—4.00; Cubs—3.95).

On the offensive end, they needed to improve off of last year’s performance if they were going to close the gap. Adding Yelich and Cain was a step in the right direction. But they would need the rest of the roster to improve their games a little bit if the team is going to make a leap forward.

They would need Eric Thames to be more consistent. It wouldn’t hurt if Ryan Braun could pick up his game. Getting more out of Travis Shaw and Manny Pina would be nice. However, with the acquisition of Yelich and Cain, they no longer had a regular spot for Domingo Santana (last season’s best hitter).

So far…no good

For them to become the team to beat in the division, they needed to take a step forward across the board. But that hasn’t happened.

The pitching staff has done better so far this season despite the starting rotation being hit hard with injuries. As of May 16, the Brewers pitching staff had the seventh-best ERA in baseball (3.50). But that is thanks in large part to the bullpen. Their starters rank 17th with an ERA of 4.28 while the bullpen has the second-best ERA in the league (2.61).

While the pitching staff is holding up its end of the bargain, the offense has not. As of May 16, they have the 19th best team batting average at .241. They have produced 168 runs so far; good enough for 23rd. That’s eight points off their batting average from last season (.249).

But more importantly, that’s a half a run less per game than last season. They averaged about 4.5 runs/game in 2017; so far this season they are averaging 3.9.

Yelich and Cain are playing as well as the Brewers likely expected them to. The problem has been everyone else. Eric Thames started off well with seven home runs and 22 RBIs in his first 22 games. But he’s been out with an injury and isn’t expected back until mid-to-late June.

Manny Pina, Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun, Orlando Arcia and Domingo Santana have all seen their batting averages dip by at least 25 points and close to 100 points.

There was more concern when the season started that the pitching staff might regress. But it seems that the offense has instead.

But going forward…

Right now, the Brewers are tied at the top of the NL Central, but that doesn’t mean they are the team to beat in the division just yet. But it is not hard to imagine a scenario where they win the division. It would require the pitching staff to at least stay the course. But it wouldn’t hurt if the starting rotation could improve—which it will when Jimmy Nelson and Wade Miley come off the DL.

The problem with young players like the ones the Brewers have is that they can be streaky and are prone to slumps because of that. However, the good thing about having young players like the Brewers have is that when they break out of the slump they forget it ever existed.

What that means is that the offense has a chance to wake up and help the team win a few more games. Should they do so, there is a good chance they could take the division. 

For now, they are in the hunt but maybe next season they can become the team to beat.