After winning 95 games last year, and bringing back a team with three legitimate aces in its rotation and a lineup loaded with power — all under the direction of Craig Counsell, whom some view as the best manager in baseball — the Milwaukee Brewers were a popular pick to repeat as champions of the National League Central.
With the annual trade deadline a week away, the Brewers were indeed leading the Central through Monday with a 53-44 record. And with an expanded playoff field creating a third wild-card spot in each league, Milwaukee could seemingly rest on its laurels and coast to the postseason.
They may not want to start hanging bunting just yet, and they could use some reinforcements if they want to reach October.
While there is no way to perfectly predict future results, run differential — a simple calculation of a team’s runs scored versus the runs it has allowed — has proved to be one of the more accurate measures of a team’s quality. And based on a formula originally developed by Bill James, in which run differential is used to create a team’s “expected” record, the Brewers should actually have been trailing the St. Louis Cardinals in the Central by four games, rather than leading them by two, according to ESPN.
The competition is fairly wide open for the N.L.’s three wild cards as well, once you adjust for run differential. The Atlanta Braves, at 58-40 through Monday, held the top spot, and their expected record of 57-41 would have as well. But instead of the San Diego Padres holding the second spot, and the Philadelphia Phillies having the third one, run differential indicates the order should have been Braves-Phillies-Brewers, with the Padres and the San Francisco Giants hot on Milwaukee’s trail, just a half-game out of the third spot.
The Brewers being vulnerable is not all that surprising.
Freddy Peralta, one of the team’s aces, has been on the injured list since May with a shoulder injury. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain was released after bottoming out following years of solid service. Shortstop Willy Adames, who boosted the team dramatically after a May trade last season, has regressed considerably. Third baseman Jace Peterson, who leads the team with 2.4 wins above replacement this season, recently hit the injured list.
Even Josh Hader, the team’s All-Star closer who was tied for the major league lead in saves through Monday, has struggled quite a bit in July, watching his E.R.A. balloon from 1.05 on July 3 to 4.50. Opponents have been crushing the ball against him, resulting in an on-base plus slugging percentage of .722 that was 301 points worse than what he allowed last season.
Considering that list of obstacles, the Brewers have done surprisingly well. Now the question is who they might be able to add at the deadline to hold off St. Louis, as well as the gaggle of wild-card contenders.
The jewel of this year’s trade options is outfielder Juan Soto. The Washington Nationals could look to trade Soto, a 23-year-old superstar who has two more years of team control after this one, after he recently turned down a $440 million contract extension. The price tag, though, would be extraordinary and would be likely to rule out any team that doesn’t have a stacked minor league system.
There are plenty of sellers out there, though, who won’t demand a haul like the one necessary for Soto. The Chicago Cubs will look to get some return for catcher Willson Contreras, a three-time All-Star who is eligible for free agency this off-season. Teams looking for a starting pitcher might approach the last-place Cincinnati Reds about Luis Castillo, or the hapless Oakland Athletics about Frankie Montas. And the surprising Baltimore Orioles, who have embraced their youth movement and have discovered something similar to legitimacy, may look to further stock their cupboards by offering up Trey Mancini, a veteran slugger with some positional versatility.
The Brewers could also stand pat, wait for Peralta and Peterson to get back from the injured list, expect Hader to right himself and wish for Adames to rediscover his second-half magic from a year ago.
But baseball is often a game of follow-the-leader, and 29 teams watched the Braves, who were trailing in their division at the deadline last year, make a few savvy trades and then race past the Mets on their way to a World Series title. So teams on the bubble this year are likely to be hoping to find their own Eddie Rosario or Jorge Soler.
If the Brewers want to hold off the Cardinals, they may want to get on the phone.