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Brewers latest moves signal larger issue at play in MLB

June 28, 2011: Blue Jays rookie outfielder Eric Thames (46) hits a double during the game with the pirates at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Trevor Mahoney/Icon Sportswire

So what’s going on over in Milwaukee?

Over the past 72 hours the Brewers have non-tendered Chris Carter, their 41-home-run-hitting first baseman from last year, allowing him to hit waivers rather than pay him anywhere between $8 and $10 million in arbitration — probably closer to the lower number than the higher one — and then turned around and signed Eric Thames out of the Korean Baseball Organization, the South Korean professional league, to a three-year, $15 million deal.

There are defenders of this pair of moves. Most of them are Brewers fans. The thinking goes that Carter had a shiny home-run total but was not particularly useful in any other aspect in the game — which is a fair enough cop, as far as it goes — and that the Brewers can still trade him during the waivers process while installing Thames as their everyday first baseman in both the media and on the roster. Thames is coming off an MVP year for the NC Dinos of the KBO, and has put up impressive 1.288 and 1.101 OPS back-to-back seasons for them; the idea being that he’s gone out into the world questing for the Holy Baseball Grail, and is now returning to the United States with it, triumphant.

Problems abound with this interpretation. First, Chris Carter has much more trade value as a guy on a one-year contract — whether signed to avoid arbitration or handed down by a league arbitrator — than he does as a guy on exit waivers who will hit free agency in a few days. Lots of teams are intrigued by a guy with Carter’s skillset — but he’s not a guy you give up prospects just for the right of first negotiation. Arbitration contracts don’t even become guaranteed until spring 2017, so by not even offering arb, the Brewers are mainly just shutting out the possibility that Carter’s market is so small that they might end up having to pay him whatever the arbiter decides is fair.

24 April 2016: Milwaukee Brewers First base Chris Carter (33) [7031] at bat during a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park in Milwaukee, WI. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

Second, a 30-year-old Eric Thames can probably be a semi-useful bench player in Major League Baseball — that’s what he was the last time he was here, as a Seattle Mariner — but gaudy numbers in the KBO mean basically nothing. The competition level there is lower than in Nippon Professional Baseball, and while the highest level teams roughly equate to Triple-A-grade competition, a hitter like Thames will get a lot of opportunities to feast on bottom-feeding teams. Scouting wins the day when it comes to translating a player like Thames back to the majors, and there’s nothing to indicate that he’s significantly stepped up his game against inferior competition; rather, it suggests his skills are just a better fit for that league.

A number of teams — the Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Baltimore Orioles chief among them — pay very close attention to the KBO. That there wasn’t a bidding war for Thames indicates that even at most optimistic, he’s pretty much who he appeared to be in his best days his first time through the majors: a fringe starter with issues against lefties.

It’s unsurprising that there’s some excitement around Thames, of course. Whenever a team gets a guy with gaudy numbers from another pro league, fans know that there’s every possibility that those numbers won’t translate — fans aren’t idiots, by and large. But they want to believe, and there’s always an upper ceiling to how much a guy can dominate even bad competition in baseball. Who knows? Maybe Eric Thames has discovered the secret to being at least an above-average major league first baseman — because no one defending this move is actually expecting an MVP — and at the price point the Brewers got for him, it’s a risk well worth taking.

Thames isn’t the problem here; pretty much everyone but other NL Central fans should be hoping he does well. Stories of guys who have to go out on a journey to hone their skills, come back to the league that spurned them and lay waste to all expectations are some of the best in sports. And wanting to improve past Chris Carter at first base isn’t the problem here, either — Carter is a flawed player, despite his excellent power.

August 12 2011: Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Eric Thames #46 in action during a game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario.

August 12 2011: Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Eric Thames #46 in action during a game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario. (Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire)

No, the problem is that there is, in fact, an actual, rational explanation for these moves: The Brewers wish to get fiddlier and cheaper on their 2017-2018 payroll commitments, spending as little money as possible for the foreseeable future in a hard tank for high draft picks as they emulate the Cubs and Astros models of doing business.

The league has signaled to-date that they are fine with this behavior, even permitting the Houston Astros to run a $26 million payroll in 2013. The Brewers are a team that has been bad for some time now, but not too long ago was a competitive team year-in and year-out, running payrolls in the $85-$100 million range. Last year they had a $64 million payroll. This move signals even further cut backs.

For those who view sport as fair competition rather than an optimization problem, a team intentionally tanking their payroll is as anti-competitive as a team who leverages their massive capital advantages to buy all the best players on the market. It leads to the same boring, lopsided contests and wild imbalances. It should not be encouraged, even if it leads to winning down the road — in fact, especially if it leads to winning down the road. If hard-tanking results in super-teams like the Cubs, then all that does is encourage teams that aren’t the Cubs to give up and hard tank, making those Cubs (or Yankees, or Dodgers, or whoever) look better than they are by beating up on bad competition. Check the margins on Chicago/Cincinnati games last year for an example of this in action.

MLB devolving into a cyclical state of two teams in each division spending money on their current winning team while two other teams intentionally tank their seasons for high draft picks would be one of the worst things that could happen to the product on the field. We’re already seeing that happen in the NL Central and arguably the NL East. It would be a shame to see it spread much further.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Jonathan Bernhardt's Brain On Intelligence

    Dec 2, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    This was a horrible article. Might as well have run it before last season like everyone else did, only to concede that the Brewers did/were not tanking. The Brewers have shed payroll while loading up on talent and remaining competitive. Teams have to build when they can’t buy. Welcome to how the MLB works.

  2. Darrell Birkey

    Nov 30, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    I will enjoy it if this writer is proven wrong. No one knows how the guy will do after three years in Korea and certainly this writer does not know.

  3. Some one who actually understands sports

    Nov 30, 2016 at 1:31 am

    What a dumb article. So what he’s saying is the Brewers should go out and pay for players to be competitive. Who could they realistically get at any position? Why not get upside and have them signed to cheap long term contracts and be highly competitive for years rather than sort of competitive. This brewers team you complain about tanking, Actually didn’t even secure a great draft pick. I suppose now a days your supposed to just throw around money and pay big money to watch a guy like Chris carter strike our 290 times. And seriously are you so dense that you couldn’t figure out no one wants a guy with below average defense, below average on base percentage, and high power. He had a .9 War for Christ’s sake. What team right now is so desperate for a power hitter they’d give up anything other than a coupon for a ham?

  4. Isaac

    Nov 29, 2016 at 7:52 pm

    I see problems about in your interpretation of the situation… If Carter was able to be traded for anything of value, he would have been at the trade deadline last year or in the last month since the off-season started. There clearly isn’t a market for a bad average player that happens to hit mistakes hard. Just look at the last off-season. Nobody was going to trade for him at a projected $5.8 million salary, so he was non-tendered by the Astros. The Brewers signed him at $2.5 million. Nobody will trade for him at a projected $8+, but he will get signed for about $6-7 million I bet.

    On top of nobody wanting to trade for Carter, the Brewers need to open up a 40 man roster spot for Eric Thames, and Carter is clearly the most readily replaceable now with Thames in the fold. Rather than removing someone else that they feel has value to the team from the 40 man roster and exposing them to waivers, they went with the guy that clearly has no future with the team (controlled through 2018 while their top prospects are looking at ’18 and ’19 as the year they even start to theoretically make some noise). Thames, on the other hand, can be controlled through 2020. Even if he is only a bench player, that still makes for better value in ’19 and ’20 than Carter would have.

    Now to the HILARIOUS parts of the article…

    “Scouting wins the day…there’s nothing to indicate that he significantly stepped up his game…” It is absolutely hilarious that you pretend to know anything about Eric Thames time in Korean baseball and what he has or has not done to be successful over there. You are throwing about a claim with literally nothing to back it up, except for (false) claims that nobody coming over from Korea has success (Jung Ho-Kang, Hyun Soo Kim contradict your lazy narrative).

    “That there wasn’t a bidding war…” Again, making false claims. The Padres, Rays and Athletics were all bidding on Thames. Two of the more respected scouting teams (Rays, Athletics) in the majors were bidding for Thames, but let’s just ignore that because “Scouting wins the day…” or something.

    “…Holy Baseball Grail…” Or, god forbid, he was rushed to the majors and pressed, trying to be an all-star player. Wouldn’t be the first time a young player has struggled early in his career and, given some time to hone his skills, starts realizing some of the potential that got him to the majors so quickly in the first place. Jose Bautista? Carlos Gomez ring a bell? Amazing how everyone thought he was so useless after his time with the Twins and Mets. Heck I doubt you ever would have got this quote out of him 4 years ago when he was in MLB (via ESPN)…

    “I focus on the process rather than the results,” Thames said. “When I was younger, I just wanted to be liked by fans and wanted to be an All-Star, but there is a process to succeed at that high of a level. I believe meditation is very important. It helps keep your head above water. It helps you live in the present moment.”

    And now we get to the good stuff…tanking for picks.

    Where in Milwaukee’s process, have they shed payroll for the sake of shedding payroll and not for future production? In 2015 they were running the highest payroll in their franchise history with ill-advised contracts meant to prop open their window of contention. They lost 94 games with that franchise record payroll. Spending for the sake of spending is comically ill-advised.

    Now let’s look at the actual shedding of payroll.
    Aramis Ramirez ($14M – retirement)
    Kyle Lohse ($11M – FA, 2 starts with Texas in ’16)
    Jonathan Broxton ($9M, ineffective, traded to Cardinals for marginal prospect…somehow)
    Carlos Gomez ($8M, traded to Astros in big deal for 4 prospects…worked out extremely well for Brewers, Astros not so much)
    Adam Lind ($7.5M, traded to Mariners for 3 teenage pitching prospects…had a -0.6 fWAR in Seattle)
    Gerrardo Parra ($6.2M, traded to Orioles for Zach Davies. Davies was the 2nd best pitcher on the team at 23 years of age)

    Those moves alone shed over $50M of payroll, and there isn’t a single move that doesn’t make GLARING sense as to why they were made. And considering the poor quality of play of all of these players (except for Gomez), it’s pretty clear why they lost 94 games with that record payroll.

    Now if you want to claim Lucroy as your one potential source of “obvious tanking,” then take a look at the length of time he is controlled (only til 2017), the timeline for presumed contention considering the talent around him (2018 or 2019), the contract it will take to sign Lucroy when he hits free agency to carry him into the next window of contention (over $100M at this rate), there ability to outbid larger market teams for free agents (CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder, Zack Greinke, etc)…and it is pretty obvious why he was traded for top prospects from Texas who will be controlled cheaply for years and able to help as soon as next year (Brinson, ETA 2017) and in the near future (Ortiz, ETA 2018; Cordell, ETA late 2017, 2018).

    There is also the trade of Jean Segura, who struggled mightily in Milwaukee after a breakout 3 months in his first full year. Except they were able to pick up a short term contribution in Aaron Hill, some control of a back of the rotation pitcher in Chase Anderson, and a very good prospect in Isan Diaz. Oh, and that opened a spot for breakout player Jonathan Villar and then top prospect Orlando Arcia.

    Finally, there is Khris Davis. Traded for a catching prospect that they direly needed with Lucroy’s departure and allowed them to improve their defense by removing Davis, moving Braun back to his natural left field spot, and then replacing Davis with Domingo Santana (acquired in Carlos Gomez trade). If Domingo doesn’t work out, there is always a stable of outfield prospects that the Brewers have built in the minors, including Brinson, Brett Phillips, Cordell; and down the road…Monte Harrison, Corey Ray, Trent Clark.

    This got way too long, but I’m bored and annoyed with lazy narratives surrounding the Brewers.

    • Hibbisco

      Dec 1, 2016 at 6:22 pm

      You took the words out of my mouth. Thanks for saving me an hour by writing this up yourself

  5. Elling

    Nov 29, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    Not to burst your bubble, but the Brewers did win 73 games last year with around ~50 million payroll – not considering salaries retained from traded players. 20 million of that went to Ryan Braun. You seem to ignore the fact that the Brewers have incredibly talented, young every day players in their lineup under team control that make the team look like they’re in more of a re-tooling stage. Stearn’s acquisitions have reached their potential far faster than teams in flat-out rebuild mode. The fact of the matter is, their future position-player core is already 4-players deep: Villar, Arcia, Santana, and Broxton – which gives the Brewers time to figure out their pitching. Look for them to be contending in 2018.

  6. Andrew

    Nov 29, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    That the Brewers announced the signing the day after non-tendering CC implies that they tried hard to trade him and couldn’t come up with anything. You have to imagine they tried to move him at the deadline too and couldn’t get a worthwhile return on Carter, then making 2.5M. If you aren’t thrilled with him, and you can’t move him at what should be the peak of his value, why commit to the same asset at 300% of the cost.

    Thames doesn’t figure to be a revelation, but if he’s Brandon Moss that’s well worth 5M.

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