The Milwaukee Brewers are doing a creditable job of staying relevant for a team that was supposed to be in "tank" mode this season. They've seen varying degrees of progress from Jimmy Nelson, Jonathan Villar, Jeremy Jeffress and Domingo Santana -- former prospects settling in at the highest level -- and the organization has amassed enough talent in the pipeline to suggest the Brewers might be ready to make some noise in a couple of years.
Will the two most prominent players in the lineup be around to see what life is like on the other side?
Ryan Braun, the former NL Rookie of the Year, MVP and six-time All-Star, is in major revival mode at age 32. He ranks second in the National League to Washington's Daniel Murphy in hitting with a .337 batting average and is third in OPS at .959.
"I've seen every Ryan Braun season," said manager Craig Counsell, "and this is as good as any of them."
Jonathan Lucroy is in a similarly positive place two months into the season. After missing 59 games because of injury in 2015, he ranks first among MLB catchers in batting average (.316), on-base percentage (.372), hits (61), runs (30) and triples (three).
The two All-Stars are laying the groundwork for an intriguing narrative with their strong seasons. While Braun and Lucroy help the Brewers stay afloat in the NL Central at 26-31, they're also looking more attractive to contending teams in search of a bat. Along with Cincinnati's Jay Bruce, they're the position players most likely to achieve human trade-rumor status in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline.
"It's inevitable this time of year when you have players who are performing at the level some of our guys are -- and you're under .500 at this point -- that those players are going to pop up in rumors and be topics of discussion around the industry," said Brewers general manager David Stearns. "We all recognize that, and certainly those guys have been around long enough to recognize that.
"That doesn't make it any easier for them. But they're both highly professional, and I have no doubt they'll be able to perform even with some of the questions that will inevitably come at them."
Lucroy easier to move
Within baseball circles, the consensus is that Braun will be the more difficult player to trade -- for an abundance of reasons. He has about $88.5 million in guaranteed money still owed him through 2020, and his contract includes a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block a deal to 23 teams. The six clubs that Braun can be traded to without his permission: the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks and Miami Marlins.
Next year, Braun will have accrued 10 years of service time and five with the Brewers, so he'll be able to block deals to all 29 other clubs.
There are ancillary factors in play beyond Braun's contract and statistics. He has the longest relationship with Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, who took over the team in 2005, a few months before Milwaukee drafted Braun out of the University of Miami. His 65-game PED suspension in 2013 will always be the elephant in the room. And his recent history of back and hand problems could give some teams reason to wonder how he'll hold up as he moves into his mid-30s.
Potential fits aren't easy to find. San Francisco could use a bat with Hunter Pence out eight weeks with a hamstring injury, but the Giants just spent $251 million on Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span during the offseason. Braun would lengthen out an already potent Boston lineup and be a potential replacement at designated hitter for David Ortiz in 2017, but the Red Sox need pitching more than offense at the moment. And while the Angels' left fielders have posted an anemic .574 OPS, it's hard to envision GM Billy Eppler taking the plunge on a big bat now when the team refrained from spending over the winter.
The path to a Lucroy deal is less complicated for Stearns and Milwaukee's front office. Lucroy is eligible for free agency after the 2017 season, and he plays a position that's a chronic area of need for numerous clubs. Among teams still in the playoff mix, the catching contingents for the White Sox, Dodgers, Mets, Indians, Red Sox and Blue Jays all have an aggregate OPS of .620 or lower.
As the speculation percolates, Braun and Lucroy are determined not to get caught up in the noise. They have their trade deadline speculation responses down pat.
"I've learned over the years that it does you very little good to focus on things that are out of your control," Braun said. "Obviously, I'm aware of it. I have friends in different cities who text or call and keep me filled in on the trade rumors. But I don't pay much attention to it because I don't have any control over it.
"I think 90 percent of what's mentioned out there is probably inaccurate, anyway. Sometimes it's a competing team that throws a name out there. Sometimes a team has no interest in a guy, but puts it out there to drive up the price for another team. It just wouldn't do me any good to worry about it."
Lucroy, similarly, understands the value in rolling with the business side of baseball. He received his first brush with trade rumors in 2008, when he was playing in Class A ball and his name surfaced as a potential player to be named in the Brewers' deal to acquire CC Sabathia from Cleveland. Lucroy remained with the Milwaukee organization and took over as the Brewers' starting catcher in 2011.
"Every player is going to deal with something like this sooner or later," Lucroy said. "It's part of the game, and I accept it as part of the game and part of the business side of it. Right now I'm a Brewer, and I'm going to continue to be one until my agent calls and tells me different. That's the way I'm treating it."
With 105 games left in Milwaukee's season, Braun and Lucroy are more concerned with staying healthy than staying put. Braun underwent surgery in October to repair a herniated disc in his back, and he was dogged by thumb issues before undergoing a procedure known as cryotherapy, which involved freezing an inflamed nerve in his right thumb. The injury prevented him from using his top hand in his swing and caused him to get into some bad habits at the plate.
Lucroy dipped to .264 with seven homers in 2015 while dealing with a concussion and a broken toe. He now wears a toe guard on his shin guard and his spikes, and he's absorbed several dings behind the plate without a recurrence of the concussion he suffered on a foul tip in September.
"I was in a dark place," Lucroy said. "You're kind of underwater when it comes to a head injury. There was no way I was getting back behind the plate with that. I was just thankful I ended up OK and there were no lingering effects."
Searching for a haul
If anyone understands the potential haul that Braun and/or Lucroy could fetch at the deadline, it's Stearns. Last summer, he was working in Houston's front office when the Astros acquired outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitcher Mike Fiers from Milwaukee for a package of four prospects. Almost a year later, Santana has shown flashes of power as Milwaukee's starting right fielder, Josh Hader has a 0.88 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 51 innings with Milwaukee's Double-A club in Biloxi and outfielder Brett Phillips has an .833 OPS in 43 games with Biloxi.
Now that he's on the other side of that trade and realizing the benefits, Stearns needs to determine how hard a bargain he should drive with Braun and Lucroy. If no megadeal materializes, the Brewers can always dangle their power-hitting and strikeout-prone first baseman, Chris Carter.
"It's our responsibility to explore every single avenue," Stearns said. "But we're only going to do something if it really makes sense for us."
For Braun and Lucroy, the business side of baseball contrasts with the sentimental tug of the only organization they've ever known. Braun broke into the majors in 2007 on a Brewers roster with Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo. While they all moved on eventually, he's remained the resident face of the franchise through the good, the bad and the ugly.
"For me, it would be more meaningful to help get us back to the place where we want to be as an organization and win again here than it would anywhere else," Braun said. "I feel like we're heading in a direction where we have a wave of impact players coming, so it would be a lot of fun for me to be a part of that. I would be the guy they would come to for help with the transition. I enjoy that mentor aspect. But we'll see what the future holds."
In June, in Milwaukee, the short-term future is hazy and the air is filled with static. It's only going to get louder in July.