Guerra, Villar among first-half Crew surprises

Right-hander is a bright spot during rebuilding process in Milwaukee

Guerra, Villar among first-half Crew surprises

MILWAUKEE -- Individually, there were good and bad surprises for the Brewers during the first half of 2016. As a team, however, at 38-49 and in fourth place in the National League Central, it is right where most prognosticators expected the club to be.

"I think we all recognized in Spring Training the journey we were embarking on, and that we were at the beginning of a process of getting back to where we want to be as an organization," left fielder Ryan Braun said. "There certainly have been some positives. … And then there have been some challenges, as well, which is what we all anticipated.

"I still think we're a little bit better than people give us credit for. We're in a tough division; in my opinion, it's the toughest division in baseball. But starting pitching is always the key to success. There have been stretches where our starting pitching has just been phenomenal; that's what we need to consistently compete with the teams in our division."

First-year general manager David Stearns saw many of his offseason acquisitions pay immediate dividends, including shortstop Jonathan Villar (.298 average, .380 on-base percentage and a Major League-leading 31 stolen bases), first baseman Chris Carter (team-high 22 home runs, 51 RBIs) and starter Junior Guerra (6-2, 3.06 ERA). Guerra and fellow starting pitcher Zach Davies were terrific in the first half, helping to stabilize a starting rotation that was baseball's worst during the opening month. Braun produced at an All-Star level in his first three months off back surgery, and catcher Jonathan Lucroy rebounded from a poor 2015 season, re-establishing himself as one of baseball's top catchers.

Lucroy, Carter go back-to-back

Davies and Guerra were called up to the Majors only because Opening Day starter Wily Peralta and Game 3 starter Taylor Jungmann were so ineffective -- they combined to go 4-11 with a 7.27 ERA in 18 starts -- that the Brewers demoted them to the Minor Leagues, where both continue to struggle. Another established starter, Matt Garza, spent the first two and a half months on the disabled list and has a 5.54 ERA after five starts.

To borrow a line from former Arizona Cardinals football coach Dennis Green, they are who we thought they were. An 8-15 April put the Brewers in an early hole for the second straight season, and while a 15-14 May and 12-14 June were respectable, the Brewers were outplayed during a 2-7 road trip against the Giants, Dodgers and A's in late June, leaving .500 in the distance.

Braun was the team's most productive hitter (132 weight runs created plus), but Lucroy was its most valuable player at 2.3 wins above replacement, according to the measure. Lucroy's .853 OPS, 11 home runs and 42 RBIs are on pace to best his performance in 2014, when he finished fourth in NL MVP balloting.

Braun's two-run homer

There's a spot for Guerra below, so we'll give this one to Jeremy Jeffress, who was handed sole possession of the closer's role when Will Smith sustained a right knee injury during Spring Training. Jeffress went 23-for-24 in save chances, was unscored upon in 32 of 40 appearances and posted a 0.59 road ERA. Not bad for a player who entered the season with one career save.

Jeffress gets the save

Guerra stumbled in the first-half finale vs. the Cardinals, but he wasn't just the Brewers' best rookie (albeit a 31-year-old one). He was the team's best starting pitcher, period. Guerra started three of the team's four shutout victories, including each of its 1-0 wins, and impressed Lucroy with an ability to get better as each outing progressed.

Guerra's scoreless start

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.