The most wins in the National League.

Rumors of being the front-runner for one of the top sluggers in the game.

A guy they call ‘Zeus’ resembling the God that his name implies.

A record five all-stars.

There is a lot going right for the Milwaukee Brewers, who sit 2 games behind the mighty Chicago Cubs heading into Tuesday’s All-Star Game. It’s important to note that when this article was published in the July 12 edition of the Burlington Standard Press, the Brewers had the NL’s best record and sat 1.5 games ahead of the Cubs.

However, Milwaukee limps into the break losers of six straight and seven of eight.

I know it’s hard, folks, but let’s say this was their Mulligan. Every team goes through a rough patch, and now that nightmare “phase” is thankfully over.

Without any big names in the starting rotation, or in the lineup, really, and without supposed star Ryan Braun doing much of anything, the Brewers sat atop the National League at 55-37 on July 10, three wins ahead of the Cubs.

It’s quite remarkable considering last year’s ace, Jimmy Nelson, is still injured, and Zach Davies, who led the team in wins in 2017, is out.

Three out of the last four years, though, Milwaukee has been in first place on July 4, and they didn’t win the division any of those times.

It’s inevitable that the loaded Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee’s heated rival, should eventually pass them up, right?

After all, Chicago has made it to the National League Championship Series each of the past three seasons, highlighted by a history-changing World Series title in 2016, the franchise’s first in 108 years.

A strong second-half team, the Cubs, led by stars like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester and Javier Baez, always seem to find a way to overtake the Brewers and win the division.

But this summer, Milwaukee is off to its best-ever start, and a first playoff berth since 2011 seems within the realm of possibility.

 

Big offseason

This season’s success is a direct result of General Manager David Stearns’ aggressiveness in the offseason.

On the same day last winter, the Brewers signed Lorenzo Cain, a career .300 hitter and former Brewers’ prospect who won a World Series and became an All-Star with the Kansas City Royals, and a trade brought over budding star Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins.

Cain and Yelich have been the 1-2 punch at the top of the lineup and have solidified the outfield defensively.

Cain is batting .297 and Yelich is at .292, and the two will represent the Brewers in the All-Star game.

But a player that’s really come out of nowhere and has been even more impressive is “Zeus,” or Jesus Aguilar, who has captivated the hearts and minds of Brewers fans with walk-off blasts and clutch power.

Aguilar, who played sparingly in 2017 but hit 16 home runs, was basically acquired off the scrap heap last season from the Cleveland Indians.

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound powerhouse is leading the fan vote currently for the final National League All-Star spot, and for good reason.

Longtime star Ryan Braun gave up his No. 3 spot in the batting order earlier this season for Aguilar, who was tearing it up in the 5 hole.

Aguilar has taken the vote of confidence and become one of the best sluggers in the league. He leads the N.L. in home runs (23) and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) at 1.007.

Aguilar is also third in the league with 64 RBIs.

Most impressively, he leads the team in batting with a .305 average.

I can definitely see Aguilar getting that final All-Star spot and challenging for N.L. MVP if the Brewers win the division.

 

Bullpen team’s biggest strength

While the offense provides enough pop, the Brewers’ greatest strength is by far its bullpen, highlighted by left-handed pitcher Josh Hader, the lone Brewers pitcher to make the All-Star game.

A long-haired flame-thrower that features a plus fastball and an unhittable sweeping slider, Hader reminds me of a young Randy Johnson, though obviously not that good yet.

The 24-year-old has struck out an absurd 85 batters in 46-1/3, nearly two per inning, and his ability to close, pitch in middle relief and perform at a high level for as many as two or three innings separates Hader from most pitchers in baseball.

With Hader leading the team with 14 holds, he usually locks down the seventh, followed by Jeremy Jeffress dominating the eighth and Corey Knebel finishing teams off in the ninth.

Hader has a 1.55 ERA and 0.82 WHIP.

Many Brewers fans hope for another starting pitcher, but when the playoffs get here, a shut-down bullpen will be the team’s most dangerous weapon.

While there hasn’t been an ace in the starting rotation, Junior Guerra, Jhoulys Chacin and Chase Anderson all boast ERAs under 4, and rookie Freddy Peralta could be a hidden gem.

Peralta, 22, has fanned 46 batters in only 33 innings, including strikeout totals of 13 and 10 in two of his first four games.

For a guy who’s only started six career games, those are ridiculous numbers.

And don’t forget Brent Suter, who leads the team with eight wins.

Sure, the bullpen seems worn out after tons of usage and a damaging stretch of games to finish the first half, but a four-day rest will be beneficial.

Third in the National League in team ERA, and only a few percentage points from the top, pitching is not the issue. It’s hitting.

Milwaukee ranks in the bottom half of the league in batting average, and who knows where this team would be without all of its walk-off victories and late, clutch magic.

A major jolt is needed for this squad in the middle of the order.

Enter Manny Machado.


Machado sweepstakes

The Brewers are in the Machado sweepstakes and may have emerged as a front-runner.

But it will take a lot to get the 26-year-old Baltimore Orioles superstar shortstop, who could simply be a two-month rental with one year left on his contract.

Machado is hitting .315 with 24 home runs and 65 RBIs, and he would certainly take the Brewers’ lineup to another level. Throw in a .387 on-base clip and an OPS near the top of baseball, and you’re looking at a game-changing option that can carry a team almost single-handedly to postseason success.

Contemplate a batting order of Cain, Yelich, Machago, Aguilar, Shaw 1-5, followed by hitters based on matchups.

That’s not only extremely effective, but it strikes fears in opposing pitchers, and in a mental game like baseball, it can make the difference.

However, the Orioles want Corbin Burnes, the Brewers’ top pitching prospect, as part of the deal, and sources are saying Milwaukee aren’t willing to part with him.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are also in the running, but they don’t want to part with High-A infield prospect Gavin Lux, a former Kenosha Indian Trail star, who is tearing up the minor leagues this summer.

Luckily, the Brewers’ farm system has become so deep and strong thanks to Stearns’ stellar moves over the past three years, so acquiring Machado should be a high priority.

Unfortunately, little cities like Milwaukee tend to miss out on these big names, and the Dodgers can afford to pay Machado beyond 2018.

The promising reality for Brewers baseball lovers is that Stearns and brass went all-in this offseason, so why would they stop now? I fully expect Milwaukee to exhaust all options and potentially over-sell for Machado, and the will acquire more pitching before the season ends.

Even after the July 31 trade deadline, teams can claim players off waivers, and sometimes talent slips through the cracks.

Even without Machado, I believe the Brewers will make the playoffs, but as a Wild Card.

The Cubs will win the division. They are simply too stacked.

But Milwaukee is legit, and this is one of its best teams in the last 10 years.

So enjoy the rest of this fun ride, Brewers fans, and let’s hope we don’t run into the Cubs in the postseason.

When I wrote this column, everything was going right, Milwaukee was riding high and it was all good. All it took was five days, and six losses, to change everything.

However, the Brewers still sport a 55-43 record, the second Wild Card spot in the NL and limitless potential for a strong finish, including 33 of the remaining 64 games at home.

Surprise, surprise, the Cubs have finally figured it out, it appears, and they won’t be caught.

But with Atlanta also slumping, Arizona up and down and the Dodgers a bit down this season, the National League is wide open sans Chicago.

Milwaukee has as good a chance as any in their 49 years of existence to get to the World Series, and they simply need to go for it. This loyal fan base deserves it.

The farm system is in a position where it won’t be affected by a few departures, and there’s enough talent currently on the roster to reach the postseason for only the third time in 11 years and fourth time in three decades.

All Milwaukee needs is that X-factor, that final push and this team has an excellent chance to play into late October.

Comments

comments