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.
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.
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.