The Big 5-0! The Milwaukee Brewers have managed to crack 50 wins by the All-Star Break, a far cry from the projected 69.5 over/under win total for all of 2017 set by Vegas oddsmakers before the season.
Milwaukee (50-41) owns a 5.5 game lead over the defending champion Chicago Cubs in the NL Central right now. Here are five key storylines to watch for the rest of the summer.
1. How good are the Cubs?
Any conversation about the Brewers' divisional chances immediately shifts to Chicago. After all, the Cubs (43-45) are loaded with the same young talent that won 103 games and the World Series last year.
But they are clearly not the same team this season. On offense, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Addison Russell have taken steps back. Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward continue to scuffle. Cult hero Kyle Schwarber is a trainwreck at the dish; he is batting .178 with 78 strikeouts while bouncing between the majors and Triple-A.
The pitching has been even worse, particularly the starters. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey all own ERA's north of four. While the young position players seem like a good bet to turn it around, the starters are all on the wrong side of 30 years old (save for Hendricks).
A quick start by the Brewers in the second half could essentially end the division race. Without any success from its aging starters, Chicago might not have enough gas in the tank to make a late-season run.
2. Are any in-season trades available for the Brewers?
Last week, we looked at five starting pitching trades for Milwaukee after FOX Sports' Jon Morosi reported General Manager David Stearns was looking into a potential move.
Sources: #Brewers are prepared to buy at Trade Deadline and have begun background work on Jose Quintana, Sonny Gray and other starters. @MLB
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) July 7, 2017
Check out our trade breakdown for the Brew Crew.
3. Does anyone on the team have another gear?
Several Brewers are having career years right now. Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Orlando Arcia, and Eric Thames are all enjoying breakout seasons. It's unlikely they will all be able to hold their lines for the rest of 2017. Fortunately, the Brewers have plenty of young talent who could swing the season; look out for Lewis Brinson, Jonathan Villar, and Keon Broxton.
Milwaukee also hasn't seen a Ryan Braun burst in 2017 - he still has the ability to carry a team for a month, even at 33 years old.
4. Can the Brewers beat the best, and does it matter?
Milwaukee has played the sixth-easiest schedule in baseball thus far. They have gone just 5-9 against teams above .500 in the National League. But because there are only four other teams in the NL sitting above .500 right now, it might not even matter.
Obviously, the Brewers want to knock off the top dogs, but with so many bottom feeders remaining on their schedule, they should be able to skate through the tough series and whip up on the easy ones. A 5.5 game cushion affords them the opportunity to play without must-win pressure on each game.
Milwaukee starts the second half with 10 straight games against sub-.500 squads. Another hot streak against the scrubs will make up for potential losses against the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals down the stretch.
5. Machines finally believe in the Brewers - do you?
Several projection models are beginning to put their eggs in the Brewers' basket. Baseball Prospectus gives Milwaukee a 55 percent chance to make the postseason, compared to 53 percent from FiveThirtyEight. Those are up from percentages that were sitting in the mid-twenties just a few weeks ago.
What do you think about the Brew Crew?