The Milwaukee Brewers have had a sort of revolving door at first base for the last five or so years. After the departure of Prince Fielder after the 2011 season, we’ve seen the like of Corey Hart, Alex Gonzalez, Juan Francisco, Mat Gamel, Adam Lind, Jason Rogers, and even Yuniesky Bentancourt get time at the position in recent years. Last year was Chris Carter’s turn, and while he did lead the National League with 41 home runs, his low on-base percentage and porous defense mitigated much of that value, making him roughly a one win player. The club could have controlled Carter for another two seasons, but Slingin’ David Stearns decided to explore other options rather than pay Trogdor a sizable raise through arbitration. Carter was designated for assignment yesterday, effectively bringing his tenure as a Brewer to an end.
To replace Carter at first base, the Brewers made an outside-the-box move yesterday by inking 30 year old Eric Thames, who starred in the Korean Baseball Organization for the last three years, to a three-year, $16 mil contract with a $7.5 mil option ($1 mil buyout) for 2020. The Brewers had no real internal options at the position after cutting CC loose and are without a top first base prospect in the minors, so this move was designed to fill that void for at least the next three seasons. During yesterday’s press conference announcing the signing, Stearns told reporters “We're building something here where we want to establish a core of players. We quickly noted Eric could be one of those players.” So what can we expect from our local nine’s new first baseman?
Before heading to Korea prior to the 2014 season, Thames had spent some time with a few MLB organizations. He began his career as a 7th round draft pick by the Blue Jays in 2008 out of Pepperdine. Thames debuted with Toronto in 2011 appeared in a total of 181 big leagues games with the Jays and Mariners between the 2011-2012 seasons, batting a solid, if unspectacular .250/.296/.431 with 21 home runs and three stolen bases (96 OPS+) while playing mostly in the outfield. He walked in just 5.6% of his plate appearances while punching out 25.6% of the time. Thames didn’t appear in the majors in 2013 and after being released by the Astros (who had claimed him on waivers), he ventured to Korea in search of an everyday opportunity and a much heftier payday than he’d receive playing AAA ball.
Thames immediately became a star after signing with the NC Dinos of the KBO. Over the last three seasons he’s swatted 124 home runs, stolen 64 bases in 78 attempts, and hit a cumulative .348/.450/.720 in 1,634 plate appearances. That level of sustained production is incredible even for a league that’s considered very friendly for offense. Thames recorded the first 40-40 season (47 HR, 40 SB) in KBO history in 2015 and showed improved selectivity during his time overseas, striking out in just 17.9% of his plate appearances while walking 14.4% of the time. He even captured the KBO’s version of the Gold Glove at first base in 2015.
Thames attributed his success to finally getting an opportunity to play everyday consistently. He was able to make adjustments at the plate, which is something he struggled to do while playing in a platoon role with Toronto after GM Alex Anthopoulos challenged him to “walk more and hit more home runs.” Thames’ first base coach helped improve his base running and stealing techniques, which has allowed him to become a threat on the base paths even if he never again comes close to the 40 steal threshold. During his final season with the Dinos, Thames posted a .317/.425/.676 slash line with 40 home runs and 13 steals across 525 plate appearances.
So how will those eye-popping numbers translate back to the Major Leagues? We’ve started seeing an influx of talent coming over from Korea in recent seasons, with some players more successful than others. Jung-ho Kang (125 OPS+ in 229 games) has become an important player in Pittsburgh and is probably the most successful Korean import thus far. Hyun Soo Kim of the Orioles (113 OPS+ in 95 games) and Dae-ho Lee of the Mariners (102 OPS+ in 104 games) had solid debut seasons this year, though Byung Ho Park struggled during his first year with the Twins (83 OPS+, 32.8% K rate in 62 games). None of those players hit at the same levels that Thames did during his time in Korea, however, nor did any of them have previous MLB experience like Thames so while it shows the varying levels of success players have had making the jump stateside, they are imperfect comparisons.
2014: .286/.348/.542, 7.4% BB, 26.4% K
2015: .320/.412/.616, 11.3% BB, 22.2% K
2016: .262/.344/.517, 9.2% BB, 27.8% K
While that level of productions would be outstanding to see from Thames, it’s hardly what we should expect. Dan Szymborski, the developer of the ZiPS projection system seen at Fangraphs, plugged in some numbers and posted this projection for Thames’ next three seasons in Milwaukee:
ZiPS for Eric Thames in Milwaukee. pic.twitter.com/CUJhF3TJTr— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) November 29, 2016
Those are hardly star-level numbers, but at just over $5 mil in AAV the Brewers don’t need Thames to be an MVP in order to justify their modest expenditure. Josh Shepardson of Fangraphs wrote that Thames’ best current MLB comps are Jake Lamb, Jorge Soler, and Khris Davis, who were all above-average hitters in 2016. Lamb hit 29 home runs and Davis ‘khrushed’ 42 long balls, while Soler slugged 12 homers in just 264 plate appearances.
Overall, it appears that a batting line in the range of .240/.320/.470 with 20+ home runs would be a reasonable expectation for Thames going forward. While he doesn’t offer the same power potential as the man he’s replacing, Thames should be able to hit for a better average and on-base percentage than the departing Chris Carter. Add to that the ability to steal 10+ bases and the possibility for league-average defense at first base (Carter was both a base-clogger and butcher in the field) and it’s not hard to have hope that the Brewers may have found themselves a very reasonably priced upgrade over CC for the foreseeable future.
So, Brewers' choice boiled down to two years of Carter for ~$25M or 3-4 years of Thames for $16-$24.5M, including bonuses.— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) November 29, 2016
In order to justify a $16 mil commitment, Thames need only about produce 2 total wins above replacement over the next three years if you subscribe to the theory that 1 WAR equals $8 mil on the open market. There’s plenty of room in that contract for excess value, and even if Thames can become a 1.5-2 WAR player annually this deal would be a huge victory for the Brewers’ front office. He fills a position of long-term need and his left-handed bat goes a long way to providing balance in a very right-handed starting lineup for Craig Counsell.
The monetary risk in this deal is relatively minimal with today’s financial climate around the MLB, and even if Thames were to flop, a $5 mil payroll expenditure shouldn’t prevent the Brewers from being able to make other moves. The upside, however, could be quite high for Milwaukee. Thames need only produce like a solid platoon bat to earn his keep, and the potential to be at least an average regular or better at first base appears to be there. Given all of that, it’s difficult not to conclude that this deal was an excellent gamble by the Brewers’ front office.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference