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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Brewers shining example of competitive balance

Armed with depth, NL Central leaders prepared for wide-open postseason races

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On this Fourth of July, the Brewers are sitting pretty. That's 86 consecutive days alone atop the National League Central, if you're counting.

Just like Ryan Braun predicted. No, really.

As far back as Spring Training, he told anyone who'd listen that this club had a chance to be really solid.

He pointed to the Crew's pitching depth, to dazzling center fielder Carlos Gomez and a rock-solid pro like Aramis Ramirez.

And all that good work general manager Doug Melvin had done with the farm system was paying off with the emergence of an array of homegrown players, from catcher Jonathan Lucroy to outfielder Khris Davis to pitcher Wily Peralta.

The Brewers took over sole possession of first place after their eighth game of the season, and they've been there ever since.

They're led by an offense that does everything well. Only the Rockies have scored more runs in the National League, and the Brewers are second in home runs and fourth in stolen bases. In other words, they can beat you a couple of different ways.

Lucroy has played well enough to insert himself into the middle of the NL Most Valuable Player discussion. So has Gomez. Braun? He's on pace for a 21-homer, 32-double season.

The Brewers extended their NL Central lead to a season-high 6 1/2 games earlier this week, and while the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds are all good enough to make a run, Milwaukee seems perfectly capable of finishing the deal.

Needs? Yeah, probably another starting pitcher. On the other hand, isn't every general manager saying that right about now?

The Brewers' rotation has the NL's ninth-best ERA at 3.74. On the other hand, they may have an internal solution in 25-year-old right-hander Jimmy Nelson, ranked by MLB.com as the club's top prospect. In a summer when a dozen teams may be scrambling to find another starter, the surest way to find an answer is to produce your own.

These Brewers are a tribute to owner Mark Attanasio for giving his baseball people the resources to put a competitive team on the field. And Melvin, one of the game's smartest and most thoughtful executives.

Manager Ron Roenicke is respected and honest and decisive, as no-nonsense a man as the game has. He has assembled a first-rate coaching staff, too. And, of course, this season is a tribute to Braun, who has overcome a painful and frustrating nerve issue in his right thumb to put together a very solid first half.

He needed this type of season to push the reset button on his career and to remind us all that he's as likable and as gifted as almost any player in the game.

This is one of those seasons in which we're reminded that Milwaukee is one of our best baseball cities, a place where they care deeply about their team. They also show up in huge numbers.

The Brewers have averaged almost 2.9 million fans for the last seven years and could make a run at their fourth 3 million season if the Crew keeps rolling.

The Brewers are the best example of baseball's changing landscape. Competitive balance rules. Twenty of 30 MLB teams are within 5 1/2 games of a playoff berth, and some of us think teams like the Rays and Red Sox may yet make a run.

If the season ended today, six of the 10 playoff teams would be different from the 10 teams that made it in 2013.

That said, three of the six division races are virtual ties, and no lead is larger than five games (Brewers and Tigers).

At various stretches, the Tigers, Blue Jays and A's have looked like the American League's best teams. Friday morning, though, the Orioles, winners of 20 of 32, may have that honor.

Meanwhile, the Nationals and Dodgers have ridden those tremendous rotations to the front of their divisions -- the Dodgers are a half-game up on the Giants in the NL West, the Nationals a half-game back of the Braves in the NL East.

The Braves and Giants have survived a mountain of injuries to keep on going. And the Brewers have withstood every challenge.

This is another of those seasons when a case could be made for at least 20 teams. This means contenders may be forced to trade with contenders as the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches.

It also means that teams with internal options -- the Brewers and Nelson, for instance -- have an advantage. Regardless, we could be in for another chaotic September, and won't that be fun? Happy Fourth, everybody.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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