The Milwaukee Brewers are baseball's hottest team and its most stunning Wild Card contender, and we can look at them either of the following two ways:
They are either Exhibit A that the Trade Deadline ought to be pushed back in this new era of expanded postseason entries.
Or they are Exhibit A that one star player does not a 25-man roster make.
(By the way, there's no wrong answer here. Both can work.)
Ask president of baseball operations and general manager Doug Melvin, and he'll tell you that, yeah, he does wonder whether the Brewers did the right thing in trading Zack Greinke in late July, given all that's transpired since.
How could you not?
"We ask ourselves that question," Melvin said. "But we also look at the situation. We were 10 games under .500 at the time. The option was to keep Zack and get one Draft pick [when he left in free agency at year's end]. Instead, we felt we got three players who can potentially help us, and we had to weigh that against the one Draft pick we wouldn't get until next year."
No one faulted the Brew Crew at the time of the trade, because they were 14 back of the National League Central-leading Reds, and what sense did it make to keep Greinke for one Draft pick and one shot at what amounts to a play-in game?
And even as the possibility of reaching that Wild Card game has stunningly stayed alive with the Brewers' pristine play during the past month, no one is faulting them for the Greinke deal now.
It helps, of course, that Mark Rogers (before getting shut down to preserve his innings) and Wily Peralta have filled Greinke's vacant rotation spot so well, going a combined 5-1 with a 3.20 ERA since the deal was completed. Marco Estrada -- 5-1 with a 1.23 ERA in his past six starts -- has also provided a big boost.
But these Brewers, winners of 23 of their past 29 and sitting just 2 1/2 games back of a Wild Card spot with 13 left to play, are an obvious example of how quickly a club can morph from also-ran to in-the-running in this new postseason format. And this ought to lead to serious discussion as to whether or not July 31 is the right time to impose such a defining line in the swapping season.
"That's been brought up [at] every General Managers Meetings -- whether to push it to Aug. 15," Melvin said. "Some people are in favor of Aug. 31, but you're not going to get as much for players at that time. So it's hard to tell. But you can still trade them before that period of time, so if you want to push the Deadline, I think you can do that."
Melvin's not a big fan of deadlines, anyway, as they can compel an otherwise reasonable individual to rash judgments. That's why he likes to operate ahead of the Trade Deadline. He did it in the CC Sabathia trade that augmented his 2008 team (that deal was consummated more than three weeks before the Deadline), and he did it with the Greinke trade (four days before the Deadline).
And here's the funny thing about both of those deals: The Brewers, as a club, played slightly worse with
Sabathia and have played substantially better without
In 2008, the Brewers were 49-39 before the CC trade and went 41-33 after. Percentage-wise, those records are similar, but the offense went in the tank, and if not for the big man pitching what felt like every other day, that team never would have reached October. (And the Indians, meanwhile, went 44-30 post-CC after going 37-51 with him. Go figure.)
Here in 2012, the Brewers were 44-54 when the Greinke trade took place. They have gone 33-18 since.
"I think it's a team that's played more to its talent level than they did early on," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, whose club was swept by the red-hot Crew this week. "Their starting pitching probably has been as good as it has all year, their bullpen has stabilized, and, offensively, they found their rhythm."
Closer John Axford has said it's as if the Greinke trade made the Brewers feel they have nothing to lose and something to prove in the final two months.
"I don't know what the case was," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said when the topic was broached. "All I know is I'm enjoying what I'm seeing right now."
What he's seeing is an offense, which has been elite all year, taking its production to another level, with Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks producing at a profound pace, and Norichika Aoki playing himself into the NL Rookie of the Year Award conversation.
The Brewers lead the league in home runs, steals and sacrifice bunts.
"Any way you want to try to score runs, our lineup can do it," Melvin said. "And Ron's done a great job of utilizing every aspect of our club."
Remember, this is an offense that lost Prince Fielder to free agency. The additions of Ramirez and Aoki have made that an afterthought. In fact, the Brewers have about as good of a chance of reaching the postseason as Fielder's Tigers, and an even better chance than Greinke's Angels, who are 4 1/2 back of an American League Wild Card spot.
"Sometimes we get fooled. Whether it's the media or the hype on players, you get fooled into thinking one player's going to impact you," Melvin said. "But the Cardinals lost [Albert] Pujols and we lost Fielder, and we're the top two offenses in the league."
Again, go figure.
One area you could spend 100 years analyzing and never figure out is big league bullpens, the game's most erratic area. And a bumbling bullpen was a big reason the Brewers found themselves in such a gaping hole at the time of the Trade Deadline. There was a time this season when Roenicke had eight relievers at his disposal and didn't have much trust in any of them.
Now, with Axford reasserting himself in the ninth and the rest of the relief crew following suit, Roenicke doesn't feel like he's playing Russian roulette when he makes the call to the 'pen.
"It's a huge difference from where I was, maybe trying to get the starter a little farther then," he said. "Now I don't worry about it as much."
If the game's psychological elements are as important as we make them out to be, maybe there's something to the notion that the Brewers have essentially been playing worry-free ball in the wake of the Greinke trade. If the season was already given up for dead, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Maybe there's something to that, maybe not. All we know is that the 2012 Brewers are definitely Exhibit A in a presentation of the whims of the second Wild Card.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.