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The Brewers cut the league leader in home runs to sign a failed prospect, and I love it

Chris Carter out, Eric Thames in. This is catnip for baseball nerds, and it just might work.

Seattle Mariners v Chicago White Sox

I’m going to write about the Brewers.

EDITOR: wait what no you’re not

No, no. They’re the most interesting team for the moment, even if the Mariners won’t stop making trades and the Braves won’t stop making moves. It’s the Brewers who are making me fake a Tom Waits growl and wonder what they’re building in there. It’s because I’ve been doing this too long, and this is a cry for help, I know, but the Brewers released Chris Carter and signed Eric Thames. That’s fascinating.

EDITOR: so anyway, here’s a list of 348 topics i’d rather you write about, including a Sochi Olympics retrospective

Please, listen. The Brewers deserved to be talked about, and I can prove it. They had the leading home run hitter in the National League last year ... and they just cut him.

EDITOR: ... go on ...

Not only did they decline to offer him a contract, and not only did it make baseball sense for them to do so, but they replaced him with a slugger who hasn’t played in the majors since 2012. And when he did play, he put up 684 plate appearances of .296 OBP sweetness.

To put it another way, here’s the old list of players who were waived/released/cut/non-tendered/DFA’d after leading their league in home runs:

And here’s the new list:

  1. Chris Carter

EDITOR: fine, but you’re responsible for opening 74,938 different incognito windows to click on the link and replicate the traffic we’ve lost

Deal. Now, the Brewers declined to offer Carter a contract because he was a low-contact slugger with negative defensive value, which meant his dingers came at the cost of Mendoza Line flirting and first base clomping. If that’s worth $10 million to another team, they can pay it. But there wasn’t a team that would trade for it. At least, there were no guarantees that a mystery suitor existed and were so enthused about paying Carter that much that they would part with a prospect.

So the Brewers released a player who averages 35 home runs for every 162 games played. They did it because he had troubles getting on base and making contact, didn’t have much of a position, and was going to make millions. Fair enough.

They did it to sign Eric Thames, former Blue Jays prospect. The last time we saw him, he was in Triple-A for the Orioles, where he had troubles getting on base and making contact, and he didn’t have much of a position. Now he’s going to make millions for the Brewers. This seems like exchanging one (1) bird in the hand for exactly one (1) bird in the bush, and also the bush is one of those spiky, ugly things that’s teeming with baby spiders.

And I love it. It’s exactly the kind of move a franchise like the Brewers should make, and I love it.

That description of Thames leaves out the most important part: For the last three years, he was the Albert Pujols of Korea — the vintage kind, not the later model. Over 388 games, he hit .348/.450/.720, with 124 home runs. The patience he lacked in the majors was back, and how. Those are numbers that are hard to believe and easy to enjoy, so the Brewers gave him a three-year contract worth $16 million, with a team option after that. Now they just need to figure out if he’s any good.

I’m sure they have some kind of idea. They didn’t spend the last week watching YouTube videos, hoping they would see something other teams wouldn’t. Their scouts had opinions. Their analytics people had opinions. This was a calculated gamble with a substantial payoff.

With each Korean player who makes the transition, it gets easier to translate the numbers. Dae-ho Lee hit for about as much power as he did in Korea, just with less contact. Hyun-soo Kim hit for a little less power, but maintained the batting average and on-base percentage. Jung-ho Kang hit better than expected, playing wherever the Pirates needed him and becoming one of the best values in baseball. Byung-ho Park lost just about everything that made him a star, struggling even in Rochester.

So either Thames will keep his power and lose his average, lose his power and keep his average, hit better than expected, or hit far worse than expected. Simple.


Let’s start over.

With each Korean player who makes the transition, it somehow gets harder to translate the numbers. This is where the scouting department takes the lead, and the Brewers aren’t going anywhere if that department is a mess, so they might as well dive into the deep end.

The reasons to love this move have to do with the best- or even medium-case scenarios, which include ...

  • Having a $20 million slugger for a quarter of the cost, ready for the next good Brewers team
  • Having a $10 million slugger for half of the cost, ready for a team in search of left-handed power at the trading deadline
  • Having a $5 million slugger for exactly what he’s worth, which at least makes the team that much more watchable

Those aren’t the only permutations, and you can mix and match as you see fit. There’s also a risk that Thames totally flops, that everything he did in the respectable, competitive KBL was a mirage. In that case, we’re reminded of what the Brewers gave up here:

  • Money

The Brewers could have made different moves with that money. They could have paid Carter, for one, a known quantity with a very obvious ceiling. They could have signed a reliever in the second or third tier and hoped he became an attractive deadline piece. They could have done the same with Andrew Cashner and hoped he reclaimed his form. They could have spent the money on international prospects, paid the fine, and sat the next signing season out.

Or they could get greedy. Greed is good for a team stuck in the Brewers’ spot.

If there’s a practical comparison to make, it’s not with any of the players listed above. No, the best comparison for what the Brewers might be hoping for is with Rich Hill, who was signed by the A’s for $5 million after four impressive September starts the year before. They gambled their limited money and were rewarded with premium prospects on the other side.

That’s what the Brewers want to do, but the contract is just long enough to give them a chance at using Thames for their own postseason hunt, should the stars align, and we all know that every team is potentially two or three years away from contending, regardless of how messed up they are. It’s a volatile investment, but a team that’s trying to compete with the Cubs and Cardinals shouldn’t waste their time with municipal bonds, at least not entirely.

Of all the things the Brewers could have done with $16 million, this was the best mix of immediate enjoyment and future advantage. It’s as if they kept Carter, but magically gave him a better chance at making enough contact to be a star.

I know that’s not going to excite the fans who got used to the 41-homer player from last year, and I know it’s not going to excite my editor, but I love these kinds of moves. Low risk, high reward, and with something to watch next year. Good work staying interesting, Brewers.

EDITOR: start clicking

On it. Enjoy the rest of the offseason, and keep baseball weird.