MILWAUKEE -- While manager Craig Counsell and the Brewers return to the field Friday in Cincinnati, general manager David Stearns will begin the stretch drive toward another first in his tenure: His first non-waiver Trade Deadline in charge.
The Brewers already made one notable trade, sending infielder Aaron Hill to the Red Sox on Thursday for a pair of prospects, and have additional pieces to deal if Stearns can find the right fits. Last year, as the Brewers dove headlong into rebuilding, predecessor Doug Melvin made four July trades -- five, if you count the Carlos Gomez-to-New York deal that fell apart.
"I think every July there is a lot of speculation, and that will continue to be the case until we get back to being consistently competitive," said left fielder Ryan Braun, one of the players whose name comes up in trade rumors. "There's always more speculation than there ever ends up being movement or change, but most teams are either looking to acquire guys or to trade off some asset. There's action one way or the other."
The Brewers' benefit, notable in this era of two Wild Cards in each league, is that they are not a team caught in the middle, waiting until the brink of the Deadline to decide whether to buy or sell. They are a seller, with players like Braun, catcher Jonathan Lucroy and relievers Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith among those drawing interest.
They are also positioned to deal for baseball reasons alone. The Brewers do not need to shed payroll.
"It's exciting," Stearns said earlier this month. "It's one of the major opportunities during the course of the year where front offices get to make an impact on the organization in a really defined capacity. The Winter Meetings is one of those, the Draft and generally the Trade Deadline.
"We'll see how it goes. It's certainly a busy time of year."
The Brewers' best trade chip is Lucroy, who has been one of the National League's top catchers this season. The 30-year-old is under club control through the end of 2017 at a bargain price and would boost a contender both at the plate and on the mound by virtue of his pitch-framing and game-calling skill. Two teams stand out for Lucroy: The Mets, if they opt to move on from Travis d'Arnaud as their long-term catcher, and the Astros, who are a prime trade partner for Stearns since he spent the last three years as their assistant GM. But after Houston sent four top-30 prospects to the Brewers last July for Gomez and Mike Fiers, is there enough left in that farm system to answer Milwaukee's very high price?
WHAT ARE THEY PLAYING FOR?
To determine who's in and who's out as the rebuild rolls along. Players like shortstop Jonathan Villar, first baseman Chris Carter, outfielder Ramon Flores and pitcher Zach Davies are all essentially auditioning to be part of the Brewers' eventual emergence from this period of organizational restocking.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The Brewers were 10-17 against fellow National League Central clubs in the first half and will see a lot of them coming out of the break. The second half begins with a six-game road trip to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, followed by a 10-game homestand that includes series against the Cubs and Pirates.
Braun was great in April and May before fading toward the break, which stands out considering his history of thumb pain and the fact he's coming off back surgery last fall. If he's healthy, he is one of the NL's most dangerous players. If he's compromised physically, the Brewers' lineup is severely compromised, too.
"It's been a grind coming off the surgery and not knowing what to expect," Braun said. "The first couple of months were pretty smooth sailing. The last six weeks or so have really been a challenge."
PROSPECT TO WATCH
At some point before the end of the season, it's a good bet that top prospectOrlando Arcia will make his big league debut. The question is whether Villar will continue to play well enough at shortstop to delay Arcia's ascension to September. So far, Villar (.298/.380/.426) has done his part.
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com 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.