Brewers’ bullpen must match starters’ success

The first half of the Milwaukee Brewers’ 2012 season was loaded with uncertainty.

Injuries reigned supreme in April and May. Slumps forced the offense to further adjust, as big-time contributors struggled to get their bats going. Uncertainty was the only thing the Brewers could rely on as the once-vaunted back end of the bullpen fell down in June.

And now, with the All-Star break here, more insecurity lies ahead.  The Brewers are 40-45 heading into the break, putting them eight games behind the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates when Milwaukee’s win against the Houston Astros ended Sunday.

Time isn’t on Milwaukee’s side, but the first few series of the second half should count for a lot, as the next three teams the Brewers face are ahead of them in the NL Central standings. For now though, let’s take a look at the few things we do know about this team after a first half encumbered with uncertainty.

1. Ryan Braun’s offseason is behind him, and he’s having an even better year than he did in 2011.

It’s almost laughable now to think that two months ago, everyone was talking about Braun slumping to start the season. Of course, now Braun’s batting average is .306, and in every other category he is surpassing his 2011 NL MVP numbers. Before the season, the Brewers star left fielder said the best way to put his tumultuous offseason behind him would be to produce on the field, but Braun has done more than simply produce. He’s carried a Milwaukee lineup that desperately needed his help at times throughout the season. His 61 RBI and 24 home runs rank first and second in the NL, and if he keeps up this pace he’ll at least be in the NL MVP discussion again despite the Brewers’ record. His offseason issues may creep back in with voters and erase any chance he has to win the award, but Braun has shown with a heck of a first half that there shouldn’t be any remaining doubts about his talent.

2. The starting pitching hasn’t been a problem, but the bullpen needs to be fixed.

When Chris Narveson went down with an injury and Shaun Marcum was in and out of the Brewers’ rotation, there was some concern that the starting five not be able to bounce back. But through one half of the season, that concern hasn’t been warranted in the slightest. Much of the first-half success in Milwaukee’s rotation can be attributed to the consistency of Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke. Both are potential aces and the two combined for 27 quality starts in 31 tries. In addition to a strong first half by Marcum between injuries, two young pitchers no one would have expected to excel put the team’s rotation over the top. Rookie Michael Fiers leads the Brewers with a 2.31 ERA and boasts 9.64 strikeouts per nine innings  That number leads all Milwaukee starters except Marco Estrada, who was initially called on to be the No. 5 starter when Narveson was hurt. Estrada hasn’t yet registered a win, but he’s been a strong fill-in at the tail-end of the rotation, striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings. But as solid as every starter other than Randy Wolf has been, the bullpen has been equally bad. Closer John Axford and middle reliever Jose Veras have had ERAs between 4.00 and 5.00 all season, and Axford has blown five saves already. Setup man Francisco Rodriguez has had trouble with command, and the rest of the bullpen has had similar problems. Without a bullpen, the starters have seen more than a few strong outings slide by the wayside, and if the team plans on turning things around in the second half, the improvement will have to start in the bullpen.

3. The Brewers need all of their offensive pieces contributing if they want to overpower teams.

In 2011, when Milwaukee took the NL Central by storm, the Brewers had three All-Star starters. Braun, first baseman Prince Fielder, and second baseman Rickie Weeks were the most dominant players in the league at their positions. This season, the only player on Milwaukee’s offense that has been consistently dominant has been Braun, as Fielder left for Detroit and Weeks struggled mightily through the first two months of the season. Weeks has come on at the end of June and beginning of July, and so has third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who now fills Fielder’s cleanup spot in the order, but Milwaukee can no longer win games on the strength of a few overpowering performers. Since June 30, Milwaukee has averaged more than seven runs per game, and that has been the result of top-to-bottom production that will need to continue. The offense has definitely missed Fielder’s consistent power, but the Brewers have had added at least one piece to their arsenal, as rookie right fielder Norichika Aoki has proven to be a valuable asset and everyday leadoff hitter. Heading into the All-Star break, Aoki has an active 15-game hitting streak. Braun isn’t likely to slump throughout the rest of the season, but the rest of the offense is still a question mark — especially until catcher Jonathan Lucroy returns from a broken hand. If they can’t continue their recent consistency on offense, the Brewers won’t stay in the playoff hunt for long.

4. Injuries were the biggest reason for the Brewers’ subpar first half.

It was the story of the first two months of the season, as injuries tore apart the Milwaukee clubhouse and killed early-season optimism coming off a trip to the NLCS. Narveson, shortstop Alex Gonzalez and first baseman Mat Gamel were lost for the season. Estrada, Marcum, Lucroy, shortstop Cesar Izturis and center fielder Carlos Gomez all missed significant time. At times, half the Brewers’ lineup was filled out with players who started the season at Triple-A Nashville. There’s no telling where the Brewers would be if those injuries wouldn’t have happened. Recently, Milwaukee’s fill-ins have started to get their bearings in the lineup, as replacements like catcher Martin Maldonado and shorsttop Cody Ransom have had their moments in the sun. The Brewers still miss some of their injured players — especially Gonzalez and Lucroy — but with Milwaukee beginning to get players back and into a groove, the narrative for the second half could be changing.

5. The next two weeks might decide the direction of the rest of the season.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said as much before his team left for its recent road trip to Houston. Milwaukee will face the top three teams in the NL Central to open the season’s second half. The team’s record in the first half — 40-45 — is decent, but it’s not good enough to allow for any extra slippage right after the break. With Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cincinnati on tap, a whole lot of ground could be made up if the Brewers can start post-All-Star-break play with a few wins. If those W’s don’t start piling up, Milwaukee could very quickly become a seller in the trade market and focus on gaining prospects for the future. Zack Greinke will be the most interesting piece to watch in that regard, but if the next two weeks go well, the Brewers’ fate may change quickly.

Follow Ryan Kartje on Twitter.