It was a disastrous weekend in Chicago for the Brewers, who managed all of two runs as they were shut out twice in a four-game series at Wrigley Field. First place in the division was swiftly surrendered as the Brewers bats went cold; Milwaukee now sits tied for third, 1.5 games back.
The cold bats highlight what has been a problem all year. Following this weekend’s paltry effort, the Brewers now have a .673 OPS, better only than the Padres and Marlins among National League clubs. Which is to say, among National League clubs that are actually trying to win, the Brewers have had the worst offense.
It’s easy to blame Eric Thames’s absence for Milwaukee’s struggles over the weekend. He has been the club’s best hitter all year, and Lorenzo Cain has been the only one carrying the weight with Thames. I think it’s fair to expect Ryan Braun and Christian Yelich to pick up the slack soon; neither is performing that far before average, and power can be a fickle beast in April. But that leaves at least three slots in the order in flux, and possibly more. The Brewers have been among the bottom five teams at both catcher and second base this season, and they would be at shortstop as well if it weren’t for the golden glovework of Orlando Arcia, whose bat has been ice cold.
Perhaps one of those problems can be solved by the recent return of Manny Pina from the disabled list, and Stephen Vogt’s eventual return. But despite the depth on the Milwaukee roster, nobody has begun to look like a solution at second base. One of the strengths of this roster was supposed to be its ability to provide a hot hand, but none of the second basemen has pulled it together in the season’s first month. Jonathan Villar’s .275/.301/.325 triple-slash line leads the second base trio of himself, Hernan Perez and Eric Sogard across the board. Sogard owns just a .352 OPS in 57 plate appearances, and only his defensive versatility is keeping him on the roster at this point.
Despite the number of players who can play multiple positions on Milwaukee’s roster, the reality of the defensive spectrum means that unless the Brewers shop for second base help from outside the organization, there will always be at least one weak spot in the lineup. Realistically, there will likely be two or three, as Arcia’s glove makes him too good to replace at shortstop and the catching duo of Pina and Vogt can be suspect even when healthy.
We’re through roughly the first full month of play now. This squad navigated its first 30 games with a winning record largely on the back of its bullpen and its defense, with an honorable mention to a much-maligned starting rotation that has proven neither as necessary nor as bad as people expected. Baseball Prospectus’s Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) has Milwaukee as the fourth-best defensive team in the majors thus far, making roughly 2.5 percent more plays than the average squad. The Brewers also have the fifth best bullpen by DRA at 3.00, a particularly impressive mark given the workload they’ve faced. And as mediocre as Milwaukee’s 4.70 starters’ DRA sounds, it ranks a respectable 16th in the league.
I don’t expect this Brewers offense to stay the worst in the league (among those trying). I expect the second base crew to improve, even if marginally, and I expect Yelich and Braun to inch towards their career numbers and become the heart-of-the-order forces the club needs. But it was easy to make the assumption that after this team beefed up the lineup this offseason, it would be the offense that would carry the squad.
Right now, the Brewers look like they have the gloves and the relievers to make a push for the postseason. The question, odd as it might have seemed a month ago, is if they have enough oomph in the lineup. Let this weekend’s drudgery agianst Chicago be a wake-up call. Especially without Eric Thames, this team needs to find stability at second base or catcher, or its should-be stars like Yelich and Braun need to step up. Ideally, the answer is both, but without at least one or the other, expect more disappointing, frustrating series like this weekend’s sweep.