If you’ve paid any attention to the Milwaukee Brewers this year, particularly as of late, then you are well aware that they are performing much better than expected. At 23-28, they are a couple of series wins away from climbing above .500 for the first time in over a year; not bad for a team that I personally predicted would lose 100 games. And while the messaging from the Brewers front office has been somewhat mixed with respect to certain players and the organization’s willingness to deal them, the word “rebuild” continues to be the theme for this team and their 2016 campaign.
The Brewers will pass the 1/3 mark of the regular season as they conclude their home series against the Cardinals this week. While they’re still on the outside, they are certainly not out of the Wild Card race at this point, only 6 games back from a playoff spot with over 100 games to play. Fresh off a 5-1 week (that should have been 6-0), and with a lineup that could potentially feature four All Stars in early July, the Brewers continue to compete day in and day out and give themselves a chance to win ball games. Admittedly, I’ve wanted to cover this topic for a couple of weeks, but felt I had to continue to wait to validate the question I now pose to all 50 of my loyal readers: do the Brewers actually need a rebuild?
Before we let our imaginations and dreams of a Cinderella playoff run cloud our judgement, let’s take a look at some of the numbers. The Brewers are 15-13 in the month of May, however 6 of their last 8 losses have been decided by two runs or less. You can attribute a lot of that success to the entire Brewers pitching staff, whose recent success is nothing short of remarkable given that their April numbers were some of the worst in Brewers franchise history. On May 27th, Fox Sports posted this article highlighting just how good the Brewers pitching has been since early May. I’ll summarize: almost everyone has been lights out. Jimmy Nelson (5-3, 2.88 ERA) and Brewers newcomer Junior Guerra (3-1, 3.47 ERA) have been dominant as of late, and the bullpen continues to give Craig Counsel the ability to pull starters early if needed. Both the rotation and the bullpen will also get a boost of healthy competition when veterans Will Smith and Matt Garza return in mid-June from their stints on the DL. The pitching has been solid, and they’ve finally got some momentum as a unit.
There is truly no replacement for solid pitching in the major leagues. It is the one thing that all World Series caliber teams unanimously have in common. In the case of the Brewers, the pitching has been just good enough to give the rest of the lineup a chance to win games, and they’ve done just that. Ryan Braun ranks second in all of baseball with a .351 batting average. Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter rank second in the NL in home runs during the month of May with 8 a piece.
But perhaps no player stands out more in this lineup than Jonathan Villar, who leads all of baseball with 18 stolen bases, and is sporting a .409 OBP. Remember, this is the same Jonathan Villar that hit .209 just two years ago in Houston. Villar was brought to Milwaukee as a glorified placeholder at shortstop as the Brewers waited to call up their number one prospect Orlando Arcia from AAA. Now, you have fans, writers, and commentators all speculating on whether or not Villar could move to second base and be a part of the Brewers success for years to come. Not a bad trade when you consider the Brewers didn’t even have to give up a top 30 prospect to acquire him from Houston.
So where do the Brewers go from here? Prior to the season, the message was patience. Rebuilding a baseball club from the ground up takes time, and the Brewers were going to need a couple of years to let their suddenly stacked minor league system develop the stars of the future. But is that really the case anymore? It’s a difficult decision, because the potential consequences of making the wrong moves over the next two months are significant. If they’re only in need of one or two more pieces to put them over the edge, then trading players like Braun, Lucroy, and Villar would be a colossal mistake. But if the recent success of these select few Brewers is just a blip on the radar, wouldn’t it be just as big of a mistake not to sell them when their value is at an all time high?
I assumed it would be easy to jump on board the rebuild bandwagon this year because I figured the Brewers would be downright terrible, but right now, they’re clearly not. So I find myself struggling to decide which side I’m on. I’m really enjoying watching this team, but when they play good teams like the Mets and the Cardinals, it’s pretty clear that they’re not an elite team, at least not yet. Would it be a huge gut check to see David Stearns trade Braun and Lucroy and watch the Brewers slowly fade into irrelevancy? Absolutely. However I think it would be even worse to watch both players slowly lose their currently elite hitting numbers, only to see their trade value diminish to next to nothing. It’s an incredibly complex and confusing situation for a fan base that is dying for a championship caliber team to return to Milwaukee.
I started the year saying the single greatest feat the Brewers could accomplish as an organization this season would be trading Ryan Braun. And while I still believe that 2016 is not the Brewers year, I don’t know how I’d react if I saw that trade alert come through on my phone. There’s only two months left until the July 31st trade deadline, and I don’t think the stakes have ever been higher for the organization to get it right. If the Brewers aren’t competing for Division titles in the next couple of years, it’s going to be because they made the wrong decisions surrounding the hot hitters that are keeping this year’s Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card mix.