Brewers Allowing Everyone to Hang Around in the NL Central

The Brewers hold a one-game lead in the NL Central, but they failed to capitalize on an opportunity establish a significant division lead.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - APRIL 17: Corbin Burnes #39 of the Milwaukee Brewers walks to the dugout during the first inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on April 17, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The NL Central is one of the more fascinating divisions in baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals, who were the odds-on favorites to win the division heading into the season, got off to one of the most disappointing starts of any team in baseball.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates flew out of the gates, getting off to impressive starts and battling each other for the top spot in the division.

However, after a rather brutal month of May for the entire division, no NL Central team has risen above the others and seized the opportunity to stack up a big division lead. The Milwaukee Brewers currently hold a one-game lead in the division, but it has been a tale of two perspectives for the ball club.

On one hand, the Brewers have battled through a myriad of injuries to key contributors on offense as well as valuable arms in the starting rotation and the bullpen. And yet, they remain the division leaders and sit three games above .500, finding ways to win ball games any way they can.

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On the other hand, there are areas that yield concern. Their offense has been rather stagnant in the month of May as they have struggled to get consistent production from the back-end of their lineup. And despite battling through the injury bug, the absences are starting to pile up in the starting rotation and bullpen.

As we approach the month of June, the Milwaukee Brewers are looking for a fresh start with the turn of the calendar month and will look to build upon their one-game lead in the NL Central.

Current NL Central Standings

NL Central TeamWinsLossesGBMarch + April RecordMay Record
Milwaukee Brewers292618-1011-16
Pittsburgh Pirates28271.020-98-18
Cincinnati Reds26293.012-1614-13
Chicago Cubs24315.014-1310-18
St. Louis Cardinals25325.010-1915-13
Courtesy of Baseball Reference

The Brewers failed to capitalize on an opportunity to stack up a substantial lead in the NL Central. While there is still a lot of baseball to be played, it would have been encouraging to see Milwaukee take advantage of the disastrous start in St. Louis.

After a 10-19 record to start the 2023 season, the Cardinals finished the month of May with a record of 15-13 and were the only team in the division with a record above .500 in the month. While St. Louis has had their share of struggles to start the year, they managed to slow the bleeding in May.

Despite being last in the division, they find themselves only five games back from the Brewers. Considering all the talent that they have on their roster, they still have an opportunity to go on a run and challenge the teams ahead of them for a division title.

The Pirates caught lightning in a bottle in the month of April. The team lost Oneil Cruz, their up-and-coming star shortstop, to a fractured ankle in the middle of the month. And yet, Pittsburgh managed to head into May with a record of 20-9, and at one point, held the best record in the National League.

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However, things went south fast for Pittsburgh as their offense hit a roadblock, posting bottom-five numbers in team wRC+, OPS, and wOBA in May. Still second in the division and within striking distance of the Brewers, the Pirates are skidding heading into June.

The Chicago Cubs put up some of the best offensive numbers in baseball in the month of April. They were also getting a productive outings from their pitching staff to open the year and were looking very sharp heading into May. However, as was the trend with the entire division, they really scuffled in May as they now sit six games below .500.

The Cincinnati Reds have some intriguing young pieces. And while they may play spoiler against the other teams in the division, they aren’t expected to compete for a division title this season.

All things considered, the Brewers were unable to build greater than a one-game lead in the division. Despite being the division leader, their -26 run differential is the worst in the division.

They finished the month in the bottom five in baseball in several offensive metrics, such as wRC+, wOBA, and OPS, as well as ended with the third-worst team ERA. If it weren’t for the division struggling as a whole, the Brewers might have found themselves slide out of first place.

With that being said, Milwaukee deserves credit for sustaining the division lead considering the flurry of injuries they’ve dealt with.

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The Positives: Brewers Lead Division Despite Injuries

There are a number of things that have gone well for the Brewers.

For starters, Milwaukee still ranks 17th in team ERA on the year despite suffering a myriad of injuries to their starting rotation and bullpen. They’ve adopted a “next-man up” mentality, attempting to get the most out of the arms that are called upon.

Injuries to the Bullpen

Milwaukee lost young lefty Aaron Ashby prior to the start of the season. He underwent arthosopic shoulder surgery a few days into the season and is slated to miss most of 2023. While there is a possibility the southpaw could return for an end of season playoff push, it was a big blow for the Brewers as their young arm appeared ready to take a leap-forward in 2023.

Matt Bush was slated to be the team’s setup man to open the season. He was struggling in the early goings of 2023, as his susceptibility to the long ball continued to present an issue for Bush.

He was pitching to an 8.22 ERA through seven innings of work before hitting the injured list with right rotator cuff tendinitis. The Brewers will hope he can bounce-back when he returns to the team following his stint on the injured list.

Bullpen Arms Stepping Up

In turn, the team has called upon fresh faces to carry the load to start the season. One of those names is Joel Payamps, who has been a pleasant surprise in Milwaukee’s bullpen. Payamps was a throw-in piece from the Oakland Athletics in the William Contreras trade, and he has arguably been their second-best arm in the bullpen.

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Payamps is pitching to a 2.13 ERA and a WHIP just over 1.00 in his 25.1 innings pitched for the Brewers. He is sporting a stellar walk rate of just 3.9% and has been great at striking out batters, posting a strikeout rate of 28.6%. He could find himself as one of the more important bullpen arms for the Brewers down the stretch this season.

Peter Strzelecki is another arm who has pitched well for the Brewers bullpen this season. Strzelecki has looking solid thus far, posting a 4.18 ERA in 23.2 innings of work. However, his ERA was ballooned in an appearance against the Rockies in which he allowed five earned runs in 1/3 innings pitched.

He has made strides in his command, slashing his walk rate from over 10% last season to an impressive 4.9% this year. As long as he can continue to develop his pitch arsenal and improve his pitch command, the second-year pitcher should be poised for the setup role for Milwaukee moving forward.

Injuries to the Starting Rotation

The most significant blow to Milwaukee’s roster was losing Brandon Woodruff with a subscap strain. While Woodruff was initially slated to make an end of June return, the Brewers will likely take precaution when easing him back into play. Woodruff is as valuable as anyone to this ball club and will play a significant role in the team’s success down the stretch. It’s crucial Milwaukee handles his injury with caution.

Milwaukee also lost veteran starter Wade Miley for 6-8 weeks with a lat strain, which poses as a huge blow for this pitching staff. Miley was delivering on expectations and then some, pitching to a 3.67 ERA and providing a strong veterans presence in the clubhouse.

Assuming he returns to form following his stint on the injured list, the Brewers will be highly anticipating his return for the final months of the season.

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The blows to Milwaukee’s starting rotation didn’t end there. A few days after Miley got injured, southpaw starter Eric Lauer hit the shelf with right shoulder discomfort. It was evident something wasn’t clicking with Lauer this season, as he was struggling in almost every aspect of his game.

He was struggling to strike batters out, he was posting a walk rate above 10%, and he was allowing some of the hardest contact in the league, illustrated by his 13 home runs surrendered. With that being said, the subtraction of Lauer from the starting rotation presents another glaring hole for this pitching staff, and forces Milwaukee to find yet another pitcher to eat some innings.

Next-Starter Up

Adrian Houser was slotted for a bullpen role to open the season. However, a groin injury forced him to miss over a month to start the year. Upon his return, given the bare-state of the starting rotation, Houser has returned to the starting rotation in 2023.

Houser has impressed to open his 2023 season. Prior to his most recent start against Toronto, he spun back-to-back shutout performances versus the Rays and the Astros and looked in control on the mound. Milwaukee will desperately need Houser to return to the 2021 version of himself- someone who was so successful at keeping the ball on the ground and producing outs.

The Brewers called upon Colin Rea earlier in the year to fill Woodruff’s spot in the rotation. After struggling in the month of May, the Brewers sent him down to Triple-A Nashville, but only for a breif period of time.

Upon the emergence of Miley’s injury, the team has once again called Rea’s number to help fill the back of the rotation. Allowing nine hits and four runs in his 11 innings of work since returning to the starting rotation, Milwaukee will attempt to get as many quality outings as possible out of the 32-year-old.

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More recently, the Brewers added veteran pitcher Julio Teheran to the rotation to help soak up some innings. Milwaukee will need all the help they can get at the end of the rotation, and they’ll see what they can get with a guy like Teheran, once a two-time All Star with Atlanta. Going five strong innings in his Brewers debut last week, we’ll see how long Milwaukee can ride the arm of Julio Teheran.

Offensive Injuries and Their Replacements

The Brewers have been without several starting positional players as well. Infielder Luis Urias has been on the shelf since the second game of the season after suffering a strain to his hamstring. Additionally, they lost their starting center fielder and up-and-coming rookie Garrett Mitchell to a torn labrum at the end of April.

More recently, the Brewers were dealt another significant blow, temporarily losing their starting shortstop. Willy Adames was involved in a scary play over the weekend, getting hit in the head with a foul ball while sitting in the dugout. Thankfully, Adames appears to have avoided any fractures and is recovering well. He will spend some time on the concussion injured list, and the Brewers will be without one of their most important players for the time being.

Their absences forced Milwaukee to restructure their infield and outfield composition. In turn, newcomers Brian Anderson and Owen Miller were thrust into more significant roles on the team, and so far, both have stepped-up in a big way.

Utility man Owen Miller put together a phenomenal month of May. Miller slashed .360/.395/.600 for an OPS just under 1.000 and a whopping 168 wRC+, production that Milwaukee desperately needed. He was acquired from the Cleveland Guardians back in December, and so far through the first two months of the season, he has been a major contributor to Milwaukee’s offense as of late and has well surpassed all expectations.

Brian Anderson has provided extraordinary value both offensively and defensively. Posting an OPS+ of 110 to go along with eight homers on the season. Anderson brings a nice bat to the middle of their lineup, while providing positional versatility as well. Filling in at third base and right field when needed, Anderson has one of the best arms in the league and has been extremely valuable defensively. He will be a key piece for Milwaukee as we progress through the season.

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From the optimistic lense, it’s encouraging that the Brewers still lead the NL Central division considering all the injuries they have faced.

While injuries are part of the game, and all major league teams will deal with their share of injuries, Milwaukee has battled through what has felt like an endless stream of IL stints. In the meantime, the Brewers have players filling the void and have continued to find ways to win ball games.

The Negatives: Areas That Need to be Addressed

As previously mentioned, the team’s offensive production has really hit the brakes in recent weeks. Milwaukee has a team wRC+ of 88 and an OPS of .688 on the season, both sit at 26th in baseball. There are several issues that are contributing to those offensive struggles, and in turn, are restricting the Brewers from establishing a substantial lead in the division.

Issue # 1: Designated Hitter Production

Milwaukee’s designated hitters have been a major disappointment this season. Their DH spot has yielded a 57 wRC+ on the year, which is worst in baseball. It has been a revolving door of players, and the Brewers haven’t quite found a combination that has succeeded.

Jesse Winker has struggled mightily thus far in 2023. He has a brutal wRC+ of 61 on the year to go with an OPS of just .546, while hitting only .204 through his 127 plate appearances. After a solid start to his Brewers tenure, Winker has cooled down tremendously since missing a handful of games in April with various ailments.

More recently, he hit the injured list on Tuesday with a neck strain. Still searching for his first home run on the season, the Brewers desperately need him to find his groove at the plate once he returns to the lineup.

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Luke Voit, who was Winker’s platoon complement to start the year, was sporting a 54 wRC+ before he was designated for assignment by the ball club on Monday. Voit was a low-risk signing before the season started, but it was one that did not pay off.

Fortunately for Milwaukee, Luis Urias’ return is on the horizon. It will be interesting to see how Milwaukee will utilize him upon his return. With Brian Anderson providing so much value in the field, and Owen Miller swinging the hottest bat on the team, Milwaukee could work Urias into a DH role as they ease him back from his hamstring injury.

In the meantime, Darin Ruf will see some run as the team’s designated hitter for the foreseeable future. Ruf is slashing .200/.286/.240 in his 28 plate appearances with Milwaukee this season.

Issue # 2: Struggles Versus Left-Handed Pitching

Not to sound like a broken record, but Milwaukee continues to struggle versus left-handed pitching. They have an OPS of .618 versus lefties, which is by far the lowest mark in baseball (the Guardians are second-last with a .651 OPS).

They are sporting the second-worst wRC+ versus lefties in MLB, and this is an area the Brewers need to iron out in some fashion. It’s an area the team struggled with last season, and many Brewers fans thought they might acquire a lefty-smasher at the MLB trade deadline last season. While it’s too early to be discussing trade-deadline targets, the team could be in a similar situation this season.

Issue # 3: Struggling Rookies

Of those with a minimum 70 plate appearances, the Brewers have just five players with a wRC+ over 100 this season. After starting the season receiving consistent production all throughout their lineup, the production from the bottom of their order has tapered off as of late.

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After a hot start out of the gates, Milwaukee’s rookies have seen their numbers regress offensively. Both Brice Turang and Joey Wiemer have an OPS under .600 and have struggled to put the ball in play.

Joey Wiemer has the ability to send a ball into the second deck when he connects, but he is hitting just .187 on the year with a wRC+ of 56. He has failed to get into a rhythm at the plate, and he continues to battle swing-and-miss concerns as well as his ability to lay off pitches outside the zone.

Brice Turang brings game changing speed to the plate, but hasn’t had many opportunities to apply that speed. He has a wRC+ of just 58 on the year and has an on-base percentage of just .264. We’ve seen how much of an asset he can be on the base paths, but Turang is still looking to find his footing at the plate.

Both rookies are posting strikeout rates over 28% and have struggled to generate quality contact. With both Turang and Wiemer thrust into everyday roles for this team, offensive growing pains were to be expected. They shouldn’t be relied upon to carry an offense, and others around them haven’t relieved the offensive-burden as of late.

It has been an interesting start to the season for the Milwaukee Brewers. They’ve battled through adversity since the start of the season and have really embraced the “next-man up” mentality. Whether it is getting closer to full-health, having their rookies turn a corner offensively, or someone stepping up at the plate to address their offensive issues, there are areas this team will need to improve upon to capture a division title.

They still hold a one-game lead of the NL Central, and yet there remains some lingering concern that the ball club wasn’t able to pull away in a month where the entire NL Central struggled. There are reasons to be optimistic with this ball club, but there are also aspects of the team that yield concern. Two months into the season, it’s looking like the NL Central will be a fight to the finish as we wait to see which team will establish themselves as top-dog in the division.

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