Brewers won’t go away, and neither will doubters
They see the skepticism. They listen to the doubters. They read the latest projections.
The Milwaukee Brewers are in first place in the National League Central, where they have been sitting for more than a month, and yet it seems everyone is waiting for the collapse.
Why, after losing backto-back games to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday and Tuesday, FanGraphs was giving them a 3.7% chance to win the division and a 6.5% to reach the playoffs.
Maybe the collapse in 2014 is too fresh in everyone’s mind. It was the year the Brewers led the division right up to September, only to lose 22 of their final 31 games and finish eight games behind the St. Louis Cardinals and completely out of the playoffs.
Now, three years later, the Brewers are the firstplace team no one wants to believe in.
“A lot of people thought that we’d be in first place for like a week,” says first baseman Eric Thames, who leads the team with 20 home runs, “and then we’d fall off and just kind of be like the team last year. But it’s a whole new team. Guys feel the confidence. We feel the mojo.”
Still, the Brewers have been leading a division that’s the worst in baseball, with no team within even seven games of the second wild-card spot.
Everyone keeps waiting for the Chicago Cubs to wake up. After they won two of three from the San Diego Padres this week at Wrigley Field, there’s a sense the Cubs will take off and leave everyone in their fumes.
But the longer the Cubs let the Brewers hang around the penthouse level, the more the Brewers believe they can extend their lease. Certainly, they should hang around for at least another month, considering from now until July 25 they have four games against teams that entered Wednesday with winning records.
“I felt like what set us apart from everybody in the division is that we had nothing to lose,” Thames says. “We weren’t playing up to anybody’s expectations. We were going to play hard and just see where we end up.
“Then, a month ago, we looked at the standings, and it was like, ‘Wait, we’re in first place now?’ Ever since then, the confidence started coming out. It was like, ‘Hey, we’re a first-place team. We can do this.’ It’s crazy. We expect to win now, and we’re pretty pissed off when we don’t.”
The most surreal aspect of the Brewers’ success is that they’re doing it without Ryan Braun. Braun, the 2011 NL MVP who has averaged 28 homers and 88 RBI over the last two seasons, is on the disabled list because of a strained left calf. He has 16 at-bats since the start of May.
They’ve survived a threeweek slump by Thames, who went 15 games and 63 plate appearances without a homer. It ended the earlyseason flurry of reporters surrounding him before games and drug testers following him to the bathroom after games.
“I kind of missed those guys,” says Thames, who has been drug tested seven times this season, but only once in the last month, in his first year back from starring in South Korea. “Every time I homered, it seemed they were there waiting for me. I stopped hitting, and those guys disappeared. Now, maybe they’ll start coming around again.”
The Brewers’ staying power is a credit to general manager David Stearns, whose slew of moves jumpstarted their rebuilding process. He sent reliever Tyler Thornburg to the Boston Red Sox for third baseman Travis Shaw and three prospects. It turned out to be perhaps the most lopsided trade of the winter. While Thornburg just had season-ending shoulder surgery, Shaw is performing like an All-Star. He entered Wednesday with a .295 batting average, 13 homers, 48 RBI and a .887 on-base plus slugging percentage and had gone 41 consecutive games without committing an error.
The Brewers picked up slugger Jesus Aguilar off waivers from the Cleveland Indians, and he was hitting .329 over his last 33 games. Eric Sogard, who hadn’t played in the big leagues since 2015, had a slash line ( batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of .356./.464/.538 as the leadoff hitter. Catcher Manny Pina, the player to be named in the Francisco Rodriguez trade, was hitting .295 with a .799 OPS and leading the major leagues with five pickoffs.
And, of course, there’s Thames, who they signed to a three-year, $16 million contract in December, with his 20 homers, 38 RBI and a .970 OPS.
“We came into the season with the understanding that we have a young team,” Stearns says. “And young teams can surprise.
“We knew we had a young talented group of position players ready to learn together and mature together, so we were not going to put any limits on any player or our team.”
So while owner Mark Attanasio’s holiday refrain in his open letter to season ticketholders was patience, Stearns never once uttered that word, despite having only a $62.8 million payroll with $24 million on the books for next season.
“I have never used the term ‘rebuilding,’ ” Stearns says. “I know that’s the label placed on us, but we don’t pay too much attention to that. From my perspective, our front office and the guys in the clubhouse, we have avoided thinking about that. We want to accumulate as much young talent as we can, allow that young talent to grow together and be patient with it.”
The rotation has been the backbone of the success, and closer Corey Knebel led all relievers with 63 strikeouts. He had struck out at least one batter in his first 36 appearances, one shy of equaling the modern record.
And, oh, yes, can they hit. They have hit 100 home runs quicker than any team in franchise history and have scored a franchiserecord 17 consecutive runs via the homer until Tuesday night.
“We’re a complete team, and we’re for real,” Braun says. “If you’re in first place after 2½ months of a season, it’s no fluke.”
The Brewers, who have spent the last two years rebuilding their farm system, could face an intriguing dilemma at the July 31 trade deadline.
Do they stand pat, trade away prized prospects for a front-line starter or dare trade away a veteran or two to keep the minor league pipeline flowing?
“We have to balance the near- and long-term future,” Stearns says. “I think we have to keep that balance to be consistently competitive. I don’t really see any change in that just because where we sit in the standings.”
In other words, the Brewers have no intention of trading the likes of Thames, Shaw or even Braun, no matter how tempting the package.
And they’re not about to mortgage the future by going all-in this season. They will, however, share the spotlight.
Thames is happy to cede much of it.
“That made me so uncomfortable,” he says. “Now, everything is all about the team, the Milwaukee Brewers, the firstplace Milwaukee Brewers. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.”
“It’s a whole new team. Guys feel the confidence. We feel the mojo,” says Brewers slugger Eric Thames, who lost his shirt while celebrating a walk-off home run last week with teammates.