The Milwaukee Brewers took the field Tuesday evening in Miami with a decimated lineup and a remote chance of playing into October, as FanGraphs pegged their odds of sneaking into the postseason at 22.6% prior to their 4-3 win over the Marlins.
It was very much a Pyrrhic victory.
Already beset by an injury to rookie sensation Keston Hiura - and with veterans Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Ryan Braun each struggling through their own physical issues - the Brewers received a devastating blow when reigning (and presumptive 2019) National League MVP Christian Yelich fouled a pitch off his right kneecap in the top of the first inning, fracturing the thing and ending his season.
It was likely an insurmountable blow for the Brewers - who currently sit just one game back of the second NL wild-card spot - despite their recent surge and a relatively cushy remaining schedule.
Yelich, after all, has been baseball's best player not named Mike Trout this year, following up his eye-popping 2018 campaign with even better production. He ends his season trailing only Trout for the major-league lead in FanGraphs WAR (7.7) and wRC+ (173), while posting a number of other career bests:
|Yelich's career highs in 2019|
The 27-year-old Yelich also seemed increasingly likely to edge Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the MVP race and become the NL's first back-to-back recipient since Albert Pujols in 2008 and 2009.
The magnitude of the injury wasn't lost on those in the Brewers' clubhouse, or, for that matter, those in the opposing dugout, with Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas describing Yelich's fractured kneecap as "awful for baseball."
"That's some big news," Cain told MLB.com's Christina De Nicola. "He's one of our leaders, he's our MVP. To get that kind of news during the game, a lot of guys were down in the dugout. We continued to battle out there and find a way to get it done, and we put it together at the end and find a way to get a win. We're going to miss him. That's big shoes to fill, and hard to replace."
Indeed, replacing an MVP-level talent is always a difficult task, but these Brewers seem particularly ill-equipped to survive the loss of their best player. In all likelihood, the injury will only reinforce that Milwaukee doesn't have much going for it other than Yelich, who will likely be replaced by some combination of Ben Gamel and rookies Trent Grisham and Tyrone Taylor.
Even with Yelich's outsized contributions at the plate, the Brewers have been a mediocre offensive team in 2019, managing a wRC+ of 96 - 100 represents league average - thanks to significant steps backward from Cain, Travis Shaw (who spent a good portion of the year in the minors), and Jesus Aguilar (who was so abysmal that he was traded to Tampa Bay). As the season's final fortnight looms, the Brewers rank 19th in runs per game (4.72), and with so many of their other regulars also ailing, the burden of staying afloat in the wild-card race is now largely on their pitching staff.
That's a big problem, because the Brewers' starting pitching is even worse than their offense. Between myriad injuries and underperformance - Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin was released in August, for goodness sake - Milwaukee's rotations ranks in the bottom five in the NL in ERA (4.62), FIP (4.73), and WHIP (1.38), while producing quality starts in only 22% of its outings, the second-lowest rate in the majors. The team's only above-average starter in 2019, Brandon Woodruff, has been sidelined with an oblique strain since late July.
That widespread inability to pitch deep into games has put additional pressure on a bullpen that was heavily relied upon last year too, and the attrition appears to have taken a toll. In 2019, Milwaukee's relief corps owns a 4.55 ERA with a 4.37 FIP - significant drop-offs from last year's marks of 3.47 and 3.57, respectively.
Of course, these deficiencies have been present all season, but Yelich's Barry Bonds impersonation made them harder to see.
Could the Brewers still reach the wild-card game without their best player? Well, sure. It could happen. They're only one game back of the Chicago Cubs, who are themselves reeling from Javier Baez's season-ending thumb injury, and none of the other three teams vying to join Washington in the wild-card game are particularly scary. Additionally, after a series this weekend against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, the Brewers won't play another good team the rest of the way, wrapping up their schedule against the Padres, Pirates, Reds, and Rockies.
Still, Milwaukee's 76-68 record notwithstanding, there's a decent amount of evidence that suggests this isn't a good team either - Exhibit A: a minus-27 run differential - and that Yelich's superstardom obscured that truth.
Now he's done, and it sucks. It sucks for him. It sucks for baseball. And it really sucks for the Brewers.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.