Chris Carter is not, by any stretch of the imagination, what one would characterize as a “pure” or “complete” hitter. He’s the owner of a .218 career batting average and has struck out in 33.1% of his plate appearances. However, 150 of his career 499 hits have also been home runs. As a result, Carter has always found a place to play. His most recent stop was with the Brewers. He hit 41 bombs in Milwaukee this past year, which was enough to tie him with Nolan Arenado for the league lead. He didn’t do much else (recording just a 0.9 WAR this year), but 41 dingers don’t just fall into one’s lap every year. That’s why it’s a little weird that the Brewers seem to have cut ties with their big, slugging first baseman last night. Again, Carter wasn’t that far above replacement level in 2016, but power is power, and it’s hard to imagine that someone wouldn’t have signed up for that in a trade over the winter or at the deadline, when power is such a hot commodity.
To replace Carter, Milwaukee has brought in Eric Thames. Yes, as you’re doing your best Obi-Wan Kenobi impression, Eric Thames. What’s he been up to since 2012, when he last appeared in a big-league game? Do you have half an hour to spare?
Those are all from 2015. Thames joined the NC Dinos in South Korea in 2014 and immediately became one of the biggest offensive threats in the league. He won the league’s MVP award in 2015 with a .381/.497/.790, 47-homer effort. He lost this year to Dustin Nippert, who appeared in 119 major-league games between 2005 and 2010 and posted a 5.31 ERA during that stretch.
In case you hadn’t heard, the KBO is an offensive paradise. Men like Yamaico Navarro, Felix Pie, Brett Pill and Thames have gone there and thrived. The pitching simply isn’t as good. Of course, simply playing in a league that makes the PCL look like Petco Park doesn’t render one unqualified to pick up a bat in the big leagues. Jung Ho Kang and Hyun Soo Kim are supporting evidence for that particular argument. But there’s a big difference between mashing in Korea and mashing here.
The last time Thames saw action in the majors, he hit .232/.273/.399 while splitting time between the Blue Jays and Mariners. He struck out in 30% of his 290 plate appearances while walking just 15 times. That’s not going to fly for a starting first baseman, regardless of whether the Brewers are in the thick of contention or not. Thames was a Quad-A player at best during his first run at the league, and we know that those players can succeed overseas. Did Thames make a concrete adjustment to his approach at the plate, or did he merely feast on the lesser pitching?
We’re going to find out soon enough. Thames has a big-league deal, and a three-year one at that. Per Adam McCalvy, he’ll 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. The $4 million salary for 2017 is also substantially less than Carter projected to make had the Brewers held on to him.
In the event that Thames did make some adjustments, a good outcome here is a hitter who’s relatively similar to Carter: a high-powered three-true-outcomes monster who won’t hurt the offense but also won’t be a driving force. Thames has some more speed than Carter (he stole 40 bags in his MVP campaign in 2015, but just 13 this year), so that’ll help his offensive value. A high-percentile outcome could be something like this year’s version of Jose Bautista, but with fewer walks and more steals.
In the end, we don’t really know what Eric Thames is going to do. We’ve got a pretty decent idea, sure, but there’s a large grey area here. What we do know is this: Thames is cheaper in 2017 than Carter looked to be and has a higher upside. Just how much of that upside he realizes remains to be seen, but it’s there. When all is said and done, we’re probably looking at a slightly swifter version of Carter. The Brewers, first and foremost, saved cash on this year’s payroll, and committed to $11 million for two years after that. That’s a relative drop in the bucket.
Carter is going to land on his feet. He may get a job in Baltimore as a Pedro Alvarez replacement, or maybe he’ll suit up in Colorado and swat a ton of dingers behind Arenado. There’s always room for 40-plus-dinger power in today’s game. Apparently, there wasn’t room for $4 million more on the Brewer payroll. That’s not to say that the Brewers shouldn’t have signed Thames, who represents an utterly fascinating roll of the dice. It’s good that Thames is back stateside and playing here, because if everything clicks, we’ve got a ridiculously fun player on our hands. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that money was a factor here. Which big player is being saved up for here? What’s the big splash that they’re going to make?
Deductive reasoning tells us that there isn’t one. The Brewers aren’t going to sign Bautista, and they aren’t going to sign Rich Hill. They’re not clearing payroll so that they can acquire Miguel Cabrera. If anything, they’re probably going to be shopping Ryan Braun around, and that’ll take even more money off the books.
David Stearns comes from the Jeff Luhnow school of team-building. Luhnow sold everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor in Houston and trimmed the trees down to the trunk. Carter was a branch that was growing a little too big in Milwaukee. Thames is going to be a ball to watch, one way or another, and that’s great. And yes, technically, the Brewers still have a brief window during which to trade Carter for a spare part or two. For one thing, there’s very little first-base depth behind Thames, with Carter’s departure and Adam Brett Walker’s recent DFA-ing. So maybe another first basemen will be coming to town.
In the end, though, this deal appears to be the act of a team looking to save $4 million in what is likely to be an uncompetitive season. It’s possible that the Brewers know more about Eric Thames than we do. In fact, they almost certainly do. Maybe their evaluations say Thames is going to rip the cover off the ball for the next three years and be a star. If so, congratulations to the Brewers. But if Thames is the three-true-outcomes guy that he looks like, then he’s essentially Chris Carter Light — and is going to be compensated that way.
So this is an instance of “good business” for the Brewers. As for “good taste,” that’s a different matter. For a club that was valued by Forbes at $875 million in March and featured a $104 million payroll as recently as 2015 and which is benefiting from constantly increasing league revenues, a $4 million savings doesn’t seem to be a figure of great consequence. If you’re not going to win, it doesn’t make sense to pay Carter. At the same time, though, what’s the difference? The Brewers were incentivized by the system to make this move in the name of profit. This might be evidence that the system needs to be altered.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.