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Tigers vs. Brewers Series Preview: Will the Brewers clinch the NL Central?

The Tigers square off with a red-hot Brewers team eyeing a division title this weekend.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, turns out the Detroit Tigers are playing meaningful games in September 2018 after all! It’s not their doing, unfortunately, but rather that of the Milwaukee Brewers, who enter the final series of the season in the hunt for an NL Central Division title. The Brew Crew has already clinched a playoff spot, and is just a game behind the Chicago Cubs, who host a St. Louis Cardinals squad fighting for their own playoff lives.

Yeah, this should be fun.

For the Tigers, it means little more than offering their young players a few more at-bats to close out the season. Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull will each get one final start — until Norris embarks on his Winter Ball adventure, at least — and the Tigers will squeeze out a few more at-bats for Christin Stewart, Jeimer Candelario, and others. It could also represent the final days in a Tigers uniform for a few players. Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Francisco Liriano are goners after the season, while James McCann and Jose Iglesias (who will not play due to injury) have more uncertain futures.

Who are these guys anyway?

I hope that the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers serve as a future guide for MLB owners and front offices. The Brewers were 86-76 last season, with a pythagorean expected record a win shy of that. They were very consistent throughout the year, never winning fewer than 12 or more than 15 games in a month. They led the NL Central for 60 days of the regular season, but ultimately finished six games back of the division champion Chicago Cubs.

And they went for it.

The Brewers zigged while everyone else zagged this offseason, spending money and trading prospects in order to make their major league roster better. They paid $80 million for Lorenzo Cain, forfeiting a first round draft pick in the process. They sent four of their top 21 prospects to the Miami Marlins for Christian Yelich. They signed a few more guys as well, including righthander Jhoulys Chacin for $15.5 million over two years.

The Brewers didn’t necessarily take advantage of some of the bargain bin contracts free agents were getting — $15 million seemed fair for Chacin at the time, and $80 million for Cain didn’t feel like a discount. They just spent money and capital to make their team better, a seemingly novel concept in today’s game.

It has paid off in spades, with a guaranteed playoff berth and a legitimate shot at the NL Central title (and the best record in the National League). Yelich will probably be the NL MVP, while Chacin is the staff’s ace. Cain has been worth 7.0 rWAR on his own, and the rest of the roster has been good enough. Even midseason additions like Mike Moustakas have joined in the fun.

But if we look at the Brewers statistically, they’re a bit more than the sum of their parts. They have already won 92 games, but are four games ahead of their pythagorean expected record (88-71). Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win percentage is slightly kinder, at 89 wins. Their offense, starting rotation, and bullpen are all good, but not great. The ‘pen might be the best unit of the bunch, with a 3.52 ERA that ranks fifth in baseball and second in the National League. Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress are the stars of that group, with Corey Knebel and Joakim Soria also filling in during the later innings.

Game times, TV listings, streaming info, etc.

Game 1: Friday, Sept. 28, 8:10 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, Sept. 29, 7:10 p.m.
Game 3: Sunday, Sept. 30, 3:10 p.m.
Venue: Miller Park
SB Nation site: Brew Crew Ball
Media (all games): Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchups

Game 1: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (7-8, 4.31 ERA) vs. RHP Zach Davies (2-7, 4.65 ERA)

Before you say anything, no. This is not the guy who pitched all those mediocre innings for the Kansas City Royals roughly 10 years ago; that’s Kyle Davies.

Zach Davies is a 25-year-old righthander who the Brewers acquired in 2015. He has missed most of this season with a shoulder issue. That injury caused him to allow a 5.23 ERA in 43 innings to start the year. Since coming off the disabled list in early September, he has a 3.32 ERA with 15 strikeouts to four walks in 19 innings of work. This is similar to what we’ve seen from him over the past couple years; he had a 3.91 ERA in 388 23 innings with a below-average strikeout rate from 2015 to 2017. His raw stuff doesn’t lend itself to many whiffs, but he generates a high ground ball rate and misses enough barrels to get by.

Game 2: LHP Daniel Norris (0-5, 5.22 ERA) vs. LHP Wade Miley (5-2, 2.32 ERA)

Wade Miley was one of the worst starters in baseball last year. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings, Miley’s 5.61 ERA was the second-highest in the major leagues. His FIP was also above 5.00. So, naturally, he has sliced his ERA in half in 15 starts with the Brewers this year. He is fooling hitters with smoke and mirrors — his 14.9 percent strikeout rate is his lowest since 2011 — but is generating a career-best ground ball rate and limiting home runs. His tricks might not work against better offenses in the postseason, but they might not need to; the Brewers will probably look elsewhere for their playoff rotation.

Game 3: RHP Spencer Turnbull (0-1, 5.73 ERA) vs. TBD

The Brewers used Dan Jennings as an opener on Monday before turning to Freddy Peralta and the bullpen, and could do the same on Sunday if the circumstances allow it. Nearly everyone will be on deck at that point if needed, but the Brewers will have to weigh the consequences; it’s possible they could end up playing a Monday tiebreaker against the Cubs, or a Tuesday Wild Card Game at home. Lefthander Gio Gonzalez will be on full rest as well, should the Brewers want to use a traditional starter for the game.

Who’s hot: Christian Yelich

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The Crew’s skipper may have a point. ➡️

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Yelich has a 231 wRC+ over the past 30 days, and a 210 wRC+ in the second half. He’s the MVP.

Who’s not: Does it matter?

One thing that general manager David Stearns has done exceedingly well during his team’s rebuild is amass depth. The Brewers have their stars, but nearly everyone else can be replaced by another plug-and-play option if necessary. They have used 17 position players in at least 40 games this year, and nearly all of the pitchers on their current roster have been at least league average or better. Jonathan Schoop has struggled since arriving at the trade deadline, but Travis Shaw has capably moved to second base with Moustakas at third. Ryan Braun hasn’t been great lately, but veteran Curtis Granderson has stepped in when needed. Manager Craig Counsell has a lot of options at his disposal.

What we’re rooting for: baseball on Monday

Seeing the Tigers win is nice and all, but let’s be honest: these games don’t matter. If anything, winning is detrimental to Detroit’s best interests. There’s no moral victory to winning any of these last three games, and it could make all the difference in a draft spot or two. Plus, a Milwaukee sweep gives us a better chance at seeing a tie atop the NL Central — one assumes the Chicago Cubs will win at least two games in their series — and thus, a Game 163 on Monday. There could be fireworks elsewhere too, with Los Angeles and St. Louis separated by a game in the NL Wild Card race, and the Colorado Rockies just a game ahead of them.

Basically, the more tiebreakers there are, the better.