Milwaukee Brewers Sign KBO Star Eric Thames

David Stearns almost lost me after the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t offer Chris Carter a contract. Now it’s pretty obvious why they didn’t.

I was baffled when it was announced yesterday that the Milwaukee Brewers had decided not to tender Chris Carter a contract.

He isn’t an outstanding player, and was projected to make $9-10 million in 2017, but where could the Brewers find anyone similar for a lesser price?

Turns out ‘Korea’ is the answer. Today, the Brewers announced on Twitter that they had signed 30-year-old 1B/OF Eric Thames, who spent the last three years in the Korean Baseball Organization, to a three-year deal. The deal is worth $16 million with a fourth year option.

This deal is a really solid low-risk, high-reward opportunity.

It’s true that Eric Thames already got a Big League chance. From 2011-12 Thames compiled 684 plate appearances with the Blue Jays and Mariners. Over that time, the then-outfielder slashed .250/.296/.431 with 21 home runs.

However, Thames looks like he’s refined his approach in the KBO. In his first year with the NC Dinos in 2014, Thames owned the second highest slugging percentage in the league.

He posted a .688 slugging percentage with 37 homers in 514 plate appearances. The only player to outslug him that year was current Pirates third baseman, Jung-Ho Kang.

The next season, 2015, was Thames’ best in the KBO. He led the league in each stat of the triple slash line, slashing .381/.497/.790 with 47 homers and 40 steals. He took home the well-deserved KBO MVP award as well as the Gold Glove award for first base.

In 2016, Thames again led the league in SLG% (.676) with 40 home runs. Overall for his career in the KBO, Thames slashed .348/.450/.720 with 124 homers in 388 games.

There are obvious questions about Thames’ ability to translate his numbers to the Majors. For starters, the average OPS in the KBO in 2016 was .802. In the Majors, that number was .739.

To better illustrate the point, the average number of runs scored in the KBO in 2016 was 5.68, while in the Majors it was 4.48. Moreover, the talent level in Korea is constantly in question.

However, the aforementioned Jung-Ho Kang cleared the path for other KBO stars after he stuck in the Majors as a solid hitter and defender in 2015.

Kang posted a 1.198 OPS in 2014 with the Nexen Heroes. In 2015 , Kang posted a solid .816 OPS in 467 PA with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kang improved on that number in 2016, posting an .867 OPS with 21 HR in a shortened year.

Other Koreans have benefitted from Kang’s example, with OF Hyun-soo Kim joining the Orioles and Byung-ho Park joining the Twins, each in 2016. Outfielder Dae-ho Lee also joined the Mariners in 2016.

The results from those players have been mixed, and small samples make an accurate assessment difficult. However, there is at least proof of concept with these players.

Kim posted an .801 OPS in 346 PA with the Orioles. Lee posted a .740 OPS with the Mariners, and he was also nowhere near the hitter Thames has been in the last few years.

The biggest flop so far is Park, who hit just .191 with the Twins in 2016. Park has struggled greatly with strikeouts in his young MLB career.

Thames’ strikeout rate in three years with the NC Dinos was a palatable 18%, while Park’s hovered closer to 25%. Additionally, Thames walked an excellent 14% of the time.

I think this deal is truly awesome for the Milwaukee Brewers. Sure, if Thames busts out of the league again, then the Brewers wasted $16 million. But if he succeeds like Jung-Ho Kang has so far in his career, he’ll have a ton of value, especially given his cheap deal.

True, his floor is lower than Chris Carter’s, but his ceiling is much higher, and the Brewers are in the perfect position to take some chances.

Additionally, while there aren’t reliable scouting reports for Thames at first base, he won a Gold Glove in Korea. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a stalwart defender, but he’s likely an improvement over Carter, who many still believe belongs as a full-time designated hitter.

Thames is also an undeniably better base runner than Carter, swiping 64 bags in the KBO with an 82% success rate.

If you’re looking for more optimism, Grant Brisbee over at SB Nation adores the deal for the Milwaukee Brewers.

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