10 Reasons the Brewers Will Stay Afloat Despite a Hampered Ryan Braun

Coming into the season, the Milwaukee Brewers considered themselves a postseason-caliber ballclub. Now mid-June, their attitude remains in-tact despite stomaching a laundry-list of injuries to some of their most key players. Now, their trying stay afloat with the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, Ryan Braun, on injury-watch.

Here are 10 reasons the Brewers will be able to stay afloat in the hunt for the postseason with their most indispensable player slightly banged up.

Norichika Aoki Has Been Absolutely Dependable at the Plate

There were plenty of those who questioned Milwaukee’s signing of former Japanese superstar Norichika Aoki coming into the season. Now mid June, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe he’s been a tremendous addition to Ron Roenicke’s roster.

The 30-year old prototype Japanese outfielder has been absolutely dependable for the Brewers thus far into the season, particularly at the plate. Outside of Ryan Braun, Aoki’s .361 on-base percentage and .293 batting average rank tops among all Brewers regular starters. He’s been the epitome of a contact-hitter at the plate, hardly ever getting cheated during an at-bat and moreover putting the ball in play to all corners of the field.

In a Brewers lineup that’s labored to stay productive and disciplined on offense this season, Aoki’s bat will have serious value as the season progresses. Who knows — it may even be enough to keep Milwaukee afloat in the logjam National League Central division race.

Corey Hart’s Versatile Bat Continues to Produce Power

One of the key contributors to Milwaukee’s historic postseason run last season, Corey Hart has had his own set of struggles this season, namely a palpable increase in strikeouts and subsequent decrease in walks. However, for as concerning as those numbers are, there are some positives to take away from his 2012 season.

First and definitely foremost, Hart’s power-swing has manifested itself in the form of some pretty gaudy numbers. This season, Milwaukee’s surrogate first-baseman holds true to a .249 ISO (isolated power) and .502 slugging percentage. The latter is just a shade under his .510 SLG from last season, however, the former presently ranks as a career-best.

Manager Ron Roenicke has placed Hart in a number of different spots in his lineup thus far this season, with most of his at-bats coming at the leadoff position or fifth in the order. If Hart continues to rake the way he has thus far this season, though, it won’t matter where he’s batting. His power-packed 2012 swing could help keep Milwaukee afloat in the second-half of the season.

Marco Estrada’s Comeback Gives Brewers Options at Back of Rotation, Bullpen

After filling in for the injured Chris Narveson early in the season as Milwaukee’s No. 5 starter and performing quite well during that stretch, Marco Estrada suffered a strained right quadriceps that currently has him on the disabled list. Now just over three weeks later, and it looks like he’s about ready to make his way back into the rotation.

According to MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy, Estrada threw a bullpen session last Sunday and participated in a simulated game on Tuesday. Manager Ron Roenicke was quoted as saying that Estrada is “doing pretty good.” For a team that’s been taxed with injuries this season, Estrada’s soon-to-be comeback gives the Brewers options at the back end of the rotation.

Not only will Estrada have the capacity to be an every-fifth-day starter, but he’ll also have the ability to make the transition to the bullpen if need be. Prospect Mike Fiers performed well in place of Estrada while he was on the disabled list, and that should be able to give Roenicke more options with respect to his back-end starter as the season progresses.

The Brewers will be heavily-dependent on their pitching as the season progresses. Estrada’s return should help to keep Milwaukee afloat in the postseason hunt.

Road Woes from 2011 Haven’t Carried over to 2012

As complete a team as the Brewers were last season, their biggest downfall was quite possibly their inability to play as efficiently on the road as they did at home. This season, that hasn’t been nearly as much of a problem, despite being five games under .500.

At this juncture last season, Milwaukee topped the division at an impressive 38-29 mark with the best home winning percentage (.735) in all of baseball. Yet they weren’t nearly the same team on the road, posting a 13-20 mark away from Miller Park. Despite everything that’s transpired so far this season, they’ve managed a 16-17 mark at home and 12-17 mark on the road of which includes a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Their overall record has been nothing to write home about, but the fact is that the Brewers have out-performed what many had expected of them on the road coming into the season. Should that trend continue, it will certainly help their chances at staying afloat in the playoff hunt.

Reds, Pirates, Cardinals Aren’t Running Away with the Division…Yet

The laundry list of injuries that the Brewers have had to cope with this season has been truly amazing. Even more amazing, though, is that they’re only five and a half games out of first place at this juncture of the season, and that reality is a big reason that the Brewers should stay afloat in the postseason hunt as the season progresses.

As it stands, the Reds (34-27), Pirates (32-29) and Cardinals (31-31) currently top Milwaukee (28-34) in the standings, with the Astros (26-35) and Cubs (21-41) nestled comfortably in the cellar of the division. Despite being fourth in the division at the moment, the Brewers find themselves in a pretty good position. Only in the AL East division is there an more favorable discrepancy between the first-place and fourth place team.

If the Brewers are able to stay at the very least relatively close to the division leaders as the season progresses, odds are they’ll be in good position to make a late-season run comparable to what the Cardinals accomplished last season.

Despite His Struggles, John Axford Is Still Striking People out

Since becoming Milwaukee’s full-time closer at the start of last season, John Axford has developed a reputation for being one of the most dominant ninth-inning pitchers in baseball thanks to an array of gaudy statistics. But as any Brewer fan would tell you, it’s his peerless strikeout rate that’s become his most valuable tool.

While the 29-year-old born-and-bred Canadian has witnessed a shocking lapse in production across the board this season — most notably his ERA, which has jumped to an underwhelming 4.37 this season compared to an MLB-best 1.95 last season — his strikeout abilities have actually improved.

In 24 games (22.2 IP) this season, Axford boasts a strikeout rate of 30.8% and K/9 ratio of 13.1. A lot of that success stems from the effectiveness of his slider, which has garnered a whiff rate of 21.9% compared to the league average of 13.69%, according to Texas Leaguers. His mid-90s fastball and power-curveball have also seen slight increases in whiff rates this season.

The first priority of a power-type close such as Axford is to get batters out via the strikeout. So far this season, Axford has been tremendous in that respect. If that continues, the Brewers will be able to stay afloat in the division race.

Rickie Weeks Is Still Getting on Base — to Some Extent

Coming off his first trip to the mid-summer classic as the National League’s consensus top second baseman, Rickie Weeks looked to rebound from his 2011 postseason struggles by getting off to a hot start this season. For those of you who’ve lived under a rock for the last two months, that objective was not fulfilled.

Now roughly a month removed from the All-Star break, Weeks holds true to a career-worst strikeout rate of 28.9% and a slash line of .166/.305/.293 through 77 games. However, on the bright side, Milwaukee’s 29-year-old second baseman is at least getting on base.

Despite his unambiguous labors with the bat, Weeks has been somewhat impressive with plate discipline. Never really known for drawing a ton of walks, he currently boasts a career-best walk rate of 15.7% and a .305 on-base percentage. While the latter is well under the .334 OBP league average, the former is well-above the 8.8% walk rate league average.

The graph displays Weeks’ base-on-balls compared to the league average

The graph displays Weeks’ on-base percentage compared to the league average

Weeks has been anything but himself this year, but if there’s one positive to take away from his performance, it would be his ability to get on base relative to each at-bat. Should that improve even more so, it would greatly help Milwaukee’s chances to stay afloat in the postseason hunt.

Shaun Marcum Has Been a Horse on the Road

Fresh off an extremely productive inaugural season with Milwaukee, Shaun Marcum aimed to give Brewers fans more to cheer about early on this season. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), just as last season, his best work has come away from Miller Park.

Last season, the tried veteran went 8-3 with a league-best 2.21 ERA on the road. This season, he’s off to another fast start, garnering a 2.84 ERA (3.11 FIP, 3.59 xFIP) while holding opponents to a awe-inspiring .217/.275/.333 slash line with a .270 wOBA. Moreover, Marcum has cut down on his walks some, holding true to a walk rate of 7.1% away from Miller Park.

If Marcum can continue to produce quality starts and be a rock-solid force on the mound, particularly away from Miller Park, then not only will it help keep Milwaukee afloat in the postseason race, but it will also guarantee him a big payday this winter.

Ryan Braun Has Been, Well, Ryan Braun

After putting up all-time great numbers en route to being named the National League’s Most Valuable Player last season, Ryan Braun faced colossal expectations heading into this season. Fortunately for Milwaukee, he’s answered his critics in impressive fashion.

This season, the catalyst to manager Ron Roenicke’s offensive lineup has managed a .310/.389/.587 line with a .277 ISO that would be a career-best if not for his scintillating rookie campaign. While his batting average and on-base percentage have slipped slightly from last season, his extra-base hitting abilities have been equally if not more remarkable than they were last season.

Needless to say, the Brewers will go only as far as Braun manages to take them. Aramis Ramirez has been an absolute bust out of the cleanup spot and has failed to give the reigning NL MVP any sort of protection, so Milwaukee’s success lies largely on Braun’s productivity. If he can continue to sustain his current slash line, the Brewers will have a great shot at staying afloat in the hunt for the postseason.

Zack Greinke Is Back to Cy Young Form

When the Brewers dealt a handful of their top prospects to the Royals in return for Zack Greinke, they envisioned that the youthful yet experience right-hander would produce equally to his indelible 2009 Cy Young Award-winning campaign. Almost halfway through his second season with Milwaukee, it seems they’re finally getting their return-on-investment.

In 13 starts this season, Greinke is 7-2 with a 2.96 ERA (1.98 FIP, 2.34 xFIP), striking out over 27 percent of all batters for a 10.1 K.9 ratio. A large portion of Greinke’s success this season stems from the effectiveness of his slider, which boasts a whiff ratio of 23.9%, according to Texas Leaguers, compared to the league average of 13.63%.

It’s no secret that Greinke has been one of the best and most valuable starters in all of baseball this season — he’s currently tied with Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander with a 3.0 WAR that tops all big-league starters. So if he’s able to produce anywhere near what he’s been able to accomplish thus far this season, the Brewers will have a puncher’s chance at a wild card spot or possibly even a division title.

Alec Dopp covers the Milwaukee Brewers as a featured columnist at Bleacher Report.  Follow him on Twitter @alecdopp and read his blog, Brewers Rumors.

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