Now that the new CBA has ended MLB’s transaction freeze, teams are in a frenzy to finish off their rosters as players report to camp.
The Brewers are likely comfortable with their roster in its current form. Baseball Prospectus recently projected them to lead the National League with 97 wins. They are returning one of baseball’s best starting rotations, and their lineup has enough hitters who are at or around the league average offensively to back them up. That formula won the NL Central in 2021, and Milwaukee will use it again this year. David Stearns and Matt Arnold could simply add a couple of middle relievers to round out the bullpen and call it an offseason.
However, the addition of the designated hitter to the NL means that the Brewers would be best served to bring in another hitter. They’re not likely to be in on prominent offense-first players like Nick Castellanos, Nelson Cruz, or Kyle Schwarber. As a team that rarely stretches their payroll beyond the $120 million mark, the Brewers will not commit serious dollars to a player who only provides value with his bat and rarely sees action in the field.
Consider the last few major acquisitions the Brewers have made. Christian Yelich is an excellent baserunner and was an above-average fielder when the Brewers traded for him. Lorenzo Cain is arguably the best defensive center fielder in the NL, can steal bases, and has a high baseball IQ that he has demonstrated on multiple occasions. The since-departed Yasmani Grandal is one of the best pitch framers in baseball.
All of these players can hit, but they possess other strong skills as well. When the Brewers shell out significant money, they only give it to players who have multiple above-average tools. A stereotypical DH does not fit that criterion.
Given the organization’s emphasis on depth and versatility, expect Craig Counsell to rotate several players in the DH position throughout the season. Yelich, Keston Hiura, Omar Narvaez, Hunter Renfroe, and Rowdy Tellez are candidates to get at-bats in the role. Rather than signing a big bat strictly to DH, it’s more likely that Milwaukee will add another player to join a corner outfield, first base, and DH rotation.
Enter Tommy Pham. The former Cardinal, Ray, and Padre is on the open market after wrapping up a two-year stint in San Diego. His tenure on the west coast was not as productive as either party would have liked. During the shortened 2020 season, Pham suffered a fractured hamate bone in his right hand on an awkward swing. He then underwent surgery for the injury and was able to return for the stretch run. When he was on the field, he slashed just .211/.312/.312 (79 wRC+) in 31 games.
The veteran bounced back a bit in 2021 with a .229/.340/.383 line (102 wRC+), but those numbers were still rather disappointing compared to his production in St. Louis and Tampa Bay.
Given his age and underwhelming performance over the past two seasons, one might assume that Pham is on the decline. In all fairness, his best days are likely behind him. However, his 2021 season was more encouraging than his slash line indicates.
Pham posted his highest barrel rate (10%) since 2018, when he put up a strong 130 wRC+. After struggling to elevate the ball in 2020 (2.4-degree launch angle and 62% ground ball rate), he rebounded with the highest fly ball rate (31.6%) and second-highest launch angle (7.6 degrees) of his career. Unfortunately, any positive impact of these developments was restricted by the fact that Pham played his home games at pitcher-friendly Petco Park. His 13.5% HR/FB ratio was the lowest of his career.
Overlaying Pham’s 2021 spray chart onto American Family Field demonstrates just how much his home venue limited his power output.
That’s quite a few doubles and flyouts that would have cleared the wall in Milwaukee. Of course, playing the what-if game with all of Pham’s batted balls is a misleading exercise. He would only be playing half of his games at American Family Field, not all of them. However, he still gains a handful of home runs when only his batted balls at Petco Park are transposed.
Pham still has 20-homer power, and a more favorable home ballpark could help him quite a bit in the power department.
Not only did Pham get short-changed when he elevated the ball, but he did not have great luck on batted balls in general. He entered 2021 with a career .334 BABIP, yet he finished the season with a .280 BABIP, more than 50 points below his typical mark.
A low BABIP is not necessarily a symptom of bad luck; it can also be the product of poor quality of contact. In Pham’s case, it appears to be the former. Pham’s xwOBA, a metric based on quality of contact and plate discipline metrics, was a solid .354. His actual wOBA was just .318. That was the 11th-greatest difference among all qualified hitters.
It may seem at first glance that Pham is on a clear downward trend, but he has a couple of productive years left in the tank. Steamer projects him to hit for a 114 wRC+ this year, which is a reasonable expectation.
Why is he a potential fit in Milwaukee? First of all, his age and recent history mean he should be available on a one-year deal. Second of all, Pham recently expressed a willingness to learn first base to make himself more attractive to potential suitors.
Pham checks off many of the boxes that a typical David Stearns signing does. He shouldn’t reacquire a multi-year commitment, can rotate between multiple positions, and is an above-average (but not outstanding) hitter. With the addition of the DH to the NL, there is room for a player like Pham on the roster. He could accumulate plenty of at-bats by rotating between the corner outfield positions, first base, and DH.
Even if Pham doesn’t end up in a Brewers uniform, expect them to check in on him. The fit on paper is there.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.