OOTP Brewers: So Long, First Place

Today puts a neat bow on the with-no-live-baseball portion of the Out Of The Park season. Next week, there will be actual live baseball games. This week, it’s the OOTP All-Star Break, which means there won’t be any games all week. The All-Star Break is the traditional first-half/second-half delineation, so everything is lining up perfectly, a fake-baseball-video-game Stonehenge.

In the game, on the other hand, not everything is going according to plan. Last week, Christian Yelich strained his oblique, an injury that will keep him out of commission until the end of August. This week, we’ve relinquished the NL Central lead. Not to the jerk Cubs, or the flavor of the week Reds, or even Milwaukee’s long-term nemesis, the Cardinals. The Pirates — the Pirates! — have blown past us and now sit atop the division.

It’s not as though this came out of nowhere. They’ve been just off the pace for the better part of a month now, lurking in second place keyed by a robust pitching staff and just enough offense. They haven’t avoided the injury bug completely, but it’s been less harsh; closer Nick Burdi recently tore his labrum, Jarrod Dyson is on the shelf with a muscle strain, and Chris Archer missed his most recent turn in the rotation. Despite those injuries, however, the Jolly Roger has been raised:

NL Central Standings July 13, 2020
Team W L GB Run Differential
Pirates 55 41 +79
Brewers 54 41 0.5 +24
Reds 46 50 9 -20
Cubs 45 51 10 +9
Cardinals 40 57 15.5 -57

It’s tempting to view these passing of the torch moments — the pursuing team tracking down their long-standing tormentor and seizing the reins — as final. A king has his reign, and then he’s deposed. It doesn’t work that way. We could be back in first place by the first game after the break and never give it up. We could trade the lead back and forth for the balance of the year. Any number of things could happen.

In other Brewers news this week, Brett Anderson, recently restored to the starting rotation, is on the IL with a dead arm. That’s his third trip to the IL this year, not to mention a four-day stretch earlier this season when he had a dead arm that didn’t require IL time. Oh yeah — he also has a 12.24 ERA. The time may have come to move on.

Luckily, we don’t have to resort to a minor league fill-in to take his spot in the rotation. Eric Lauer is available, though he’s not a huge upgrade on Anderson. He’s a nice depth starter, but nothing more. More importantly, Josh Lindblom is back.

Lindblom went down in his first start of the season. We’ve had many more pitching mishaps along the way — the Anderson saga, a season-ending Corbin Burnes injury, Corey Knebel’s late start, three bullpen arms out for the year, and even major league innings for Shelby Miller. But Lindblom’s injury set the whole carousel in motion. It’s good to have him back, even if OOTP is down on him:

A fly ball pitcher with poor movement (movement is a game setting that specifically affects home run rate) is a tough sell in today’s major leagues. He’s a fifth starter on our current roster, presented here with their grades in various categories:

Brewers Rotation Ratings
Pitcher Overall Stuff Movement Control Stamina
Brandon Woodruff 60 60 50 55 65
Kevin Gausman 60 55 55 60 65
Adrian Houser 50 50 50 55 60
Freddy Peralta 50 60 45 45 55
Josh Lindblom 45 50 40 55 60

Everything is on the 20-80 scouting scale, and Lindblom is a clear fifth place. He’s no slouch as a fifth pitcher, though, and putting him in Anderson’s place feels like a big upgrade.

While the rest of the season won’t exactly be a sprint to the finish, the real-life return of baseball means that we need to do some bookkeeping now. This series will be off next week, with a metric boatload of power rankings in its place. The following week, the trade deadline will be looming; a few last chances to upgrade the team, if our desperate attempts to upgrade weren’t quite enough.

Not to get too into the writing process, but that will obviously be the focus of the next OOTP Brewers article. Available targets, prospects we’re most willing to let go of, the whole nine yards. In deference to the artificial nature of this league, however, we need to start early. There’s no reason that trades in our league need to follow the rhythms of the real-life trade deadline. Every trade could happen on July 31, but they could also happen on the 30th, or the 25th.

Let’s not get caught flat-footed. There are four major areas we could look to upgrade over the next few weeks if the opportunity arises. The first is obvious; Lindblom is a good fifth starter, but Peralta would be a great fifth starter. If we can find a marquee pitcher on the block, we’d be turbo-charging our rotation for the stretch run, and getting Lindblom as an okay bullpen arm to boot. This isn’t a huge priority, but it’s certainly worth considering.

Next, there’s the bullpen. Corey Knebel and Josh Hader are already a high-octane top two, but adding a third pitcher to create a monstrous bullpen is attractive. Brent Suter is the current third banana, and he’s great, but unlocking him to handle long relief, high-leverage spots, or key lefties in the opposing lineup would be a boon. As an added bonus, relievers come cheap in general, so this might be the cheapest option.

A third simple change to make would be getting a real first baseman. Our current Ryan Braun/Justin Smoak/Brock Holt mix isn’t going to cut it long-term. Holt has been tremendous this year, but a lot of his value comes from playing other defensive spots adequately. The other two are mired with a wRC+ below 100 and overall ratings of 45 apiece. A league average, or even better, first baseman would help stabilize the offense while Yelich recovers.

Lastly, and most speculatively, we could shoot for the moon with whatever premium rental comes onto the market this year. Mookie Betts signed a contract extension and the Dodgers are great, so it won’t be him, but think someone like that; an early Francisco Lindor trade or some key Astro moving out (they’re 4.5 out of the second Wild Card in a disappointing down year).

We might not have the juice to make this kind of trade — the Brewers system isn’t awash in top end prospects. But we could keep our eyes peeled and lean into it, offering everything that’s not nailed down. Personally, I’m against that kind of move. The team seems built for longer-term contention, rather than a playoff push in 2020. That doesn’t mean you can’t vote for it, though.

I’ll have more on this later. For now, though, what will it be?

As always, join me tomorrow on FanGraphs Live at noon ET for a rehash of this week’s decisions as well as a jaunt around the league. The Brewers might be out of first place, but we’re not done managing this team just yet. There are still 67 games to play and countless decisions to be made.

We hoped you liked reading OOTP Brewers: So Long, First Place by Ben Clemens!

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Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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mpep86
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mpep86

E. Concede to the Pirates……. Go Bucs!