The Brewers made their first splash of the offseason this past week, signing first baseman Eric Thames while non-tendering incumbent first baseman and NL home run leader Chris Carter. This may come as a surprise to many. However, when you look at the multitude of factors surrounding this decision and peel back the layers, it starts to make perfect sense, and could very well be a stroke of brilliance.
So who is Eric Thames? Well, his MLB pedigree doesn’t say much. Over 181 career games and 633 AB, Thames held a batting line of .250/.296/.431, while also striking out nearly 28% of the time. Like many young hitters, he lacked plate discipline and pitch recognition skills, leading to his extremely low on base percentage and ultimate exit from the MLB.
This prompted his move to the KBO League, South Korea’s equivalent of the MLB. The KBO has produced a number current major leaguers such as Cardinals’ reliever Seung-hwan Oh and Mariners’ first baseman/designated hitter Dae-ho Lee, both of whom proved to be effective contributors at the MLB level. Upon arriving in Korea, Thames miraculously transformed into the patient and powerful hitter that he always had the potential to be. In his first year in the KBO, he hit .343 and slugged .688, while also drawing 58 walks. He improved upon that with an even more outstanding year in 2015, when he hit .381 to go along with an otherworldly .790 slugging percentage, bolstered by 47 home runs and 42 doubles. He regressed slightly in 2016, hitting .321 with a .679 slugging percentage, but he still posted elite numbers nonetheless.
Despite this success, Thames is a wild card. His inability to hit major league pitching in the past still looms over him, but he certainly has seemed to make quite the transformation while overseas. In a worst case scenario, Thames’ success overseas has been due merely to a drop in competition and he fails to latch on as a major league contributor. I do not see this to be a scenario that has any significant chance of playing out, however. A more likely baseline would be that Thames’ hits in the .240 to .250 range with 20 plus home runs, which is great production for a first baseman at his price tag. This is only a baseline projection, and the possibility that he produces above it is definitely there and prevalent.
The logic of this addition comes when you look at what it means financially for the Brewers. Chris Carter was due to make in the neighborhood of $8-10 million through arbitration in each of the next two seasons. Let’s suppose he makes a cool $9 million in 2017 and 2018, which amounts to two years of Carter for $18 million. Comparatively, the Brewers will have Thames for three years and $16 million. Signing Thames gives the Brewers much more value, as well as similar offensive production. Carter’s elite power plays down because of his high strikeout rates and low batting average on balls in play (BABIP), not to mention additional troubles like his poor baserunning and defensive skills. Thames can be considered a comparable offensive weapon at this point in time, with the potential to out-perform Carter on multiple levels.
This signing is the epitome of low risk/high reward. If the Brewers have struck gold, they will have made the biggest steal of the offseason. Watching video on Thames, he reminds me more and more of a slugger very familiar to the Brewers: former first baseman Prince Fielder. Thames displays power to all fields much like Fielder did, and creates leverage through a slightly uphill swing plane, though it definitely is not as drastic as Fielder’s. However, to expect Thames to be the second-coming of the Prince to Milwaukee is much too steep. It is important for Brewers fans to keep expectations tempered and not buy into the hype until it (hopefully) becomes actualized.
The path Eric Thames has taken is anything but typical, but his exit from the MLB and subsequent time in South Korea could very well turn into an integral part of the Brewers rebuild. If all goes well, this signing could just be the latest example of how David Stearns and Co. are brewing something special in Milwaukee.