It was in November, yet we may already have the most fascinating free-agency signing of the offseason. Traditionally, free agency is for contending major-league clubs looking to overpay players in hopes that they can deliver a championship. The Milwaukee Brewers went off the beaten path and may be using free agency as a vessel to help their rebuild.
This year’s free-agent class, headlined by Edwin Encarnacion (34) and Carlos Beltran (39), has a shortage of quality bats. The 2016-2017 free-agent class will more than likely be defined by complementary players rather than typical studs who will impact a pennant race. This lack of possible assets forced the Milwaukee Brewers to get creative. The Brewers’ signing of KBO baseball star Eric Thames, four years removed from his last MLB at-bat was…genius?
First, let’s see how we got here.
The Brewers were unhappy with Chris Carter manning the first-base position. It is not often a team will cut a player after he hit 41 home runs, but that is exactly what happened. Carter’s overall lack of production outweighed the power output. Posting a .218 batting average, coupled with a 33.1% strikeout percentage, Carter performed slightly better than a replacement-level player. After cutting ties with Carter, Milwaukee looked at its free-agent options.
With his coming off a 47-home-run season, it is unrealistic for the Brewers to sign All-Star Mark Trumbo (30). The only other impact bat would be Mike Napoli (35). Napoli should benefit from the scarcity of sluggers this offseason. In 2016, Napoli had a nice bounce-back campaign, launching 35 home runs and making headlines such as “Party at Napoli’s.” However, the party stops at first base. Napoli is a below-average baserunner and defender, causing his VORP (Value Over Replacement Level Player) to total just 1.0.
The Brewers would have to be in love with Napoli’s ability to swing the stick for the club to decide to pull the trigger. But a 35-year-old slugger with poor defense is likely not a good fit for any National League team, let alone the rebuilding Brewers.
As for the rest of the free agents, there is a theme of mediocrity. Moreover, each of them will be over the age of 30 by opening day. Even if the remaining players are able to defy the odds and maintain their levels of performance, it will be nothing more than a stop-gap signing.
After a 73-89 campaign in 2016, the Brewers are not in “win now” mode. Over the past two years, the Brewers have sold, sold, and sold some more. Each trade Milwaukee made brought in quality talent, and according to MLB.com Milwaukee now has MLB’s #1 farm system. Milwaukee has eight players cracking the top-100 prospect list that will be making themselves known as soon as next year. So for a team in rebuilding mode, why sign Eric Thames? Low risk; high reward.
Per Adam McCalvy, Thames will make $4 million in 2017, $5 million the year after, and $6 million in 2019. The team also holds an option on his contract for 2020 for $7.5 million, with a $1-million buyout. That totals out to $16 million guaranteed. Fiscally, it boils down to this: Approximately $25 million for two years of Carter or 3-4 years of Thames for $16-$24.5 million, including bonuses.
In 181 major-league games, Thames posted a .250 batting average with 21 home runs. He had a respectable .727 OPS in that time. This bodes well in comparison to recent Cubs signee Jon Jay who had a similar .774 OPS in his first two seasons. Thames found himself out of the league, while Jon Jay continued his successful career. After 2012, Thames found work in the aforementioned KBO. Over three seasons, Thames averaged 42 home runs while hitting .347 and earned an MVP award in 2015. Oh, and there’s a 30-minute highlight reel of just home runs.
Pitching in Korea cannot be compared to the talent in Major League Baseball. There is a big difference between putting up numbers in Korea and doing so in MLB. However, Jung Ho Kang and Hyun Soo Kim are supporting evidence that succeeding can be done. One thing is evident when watching Thames swing: he has raw power to all fields.
If Thames performs similarly to his 2011-2012 form, then Milwaukee has lost nothing. The deal would simply mean they swapped two replacement-level first basemen while simultaneously saving money. But if Thames shows that he truly is a new player, Milwaukee will once again be front and center during the trade deadline. Thames could be the premier left-handed bat on the trade market while also having a dream contract for contending clubs. The value of his bat along with contractual control over him through 2020 at only $16 million guaranteed could bring in multiple top prospects. This is the dream scenario of course, but hey, it can’t hurt to dream.