In one of the most out-of-the-box signings in recent baseball history, the Brewers on Tuesday finalized a three-year contract with Eric Thames, a 30-year-old going on five years since his last at-bat in the big leagues and who spent the past three seasons putting up monster numbers in Korea.
The Brewers are investing at least $16 million in Thames on the premise that his success in Korea, where he topped 37 home runs in three straight seasons, will translate back to Major League Baseball. He'll be the Brewers' regular first baseman.
"I'm excited to add a left-handed hitter," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "At times, there were games and segments of the season where we struggled without a left-handed presence. I'm excited to add someone like Eric.
"His journey thus far is inspiring. You always respect and admire someone who has gone through a journey like this and ended up in a place like this and a day like this. You also respect and understand that someone like him is going to feel like he has more to do, and that his journey is not finished. That sets him up to have success here, and I'm excited he has chosen this as the place to continue his journey."
The club designated incumbent first baseman Chris Carter for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot for Thames, and they will spend the rest of this week trying to trade Carter before Friday's non-tender deadline. Carter's salary could jump to $11 million next season in arbitration after he hit 41 home runs in 2016, and he has another year of arbitration eligibility after that.
Thames signed for $4 million in 2017, $5 million in '18 and $6 million in '19. His contract includes a $7.5 million club option for 2020 with a $1 million buyout. He also can earn $500,000 per year in incentives for plate appearances.
So, the decision came down to two years of Carter for $20 million to $25 million, versus three or four years of Thames for $16 million to $24.5 million.
Confident in their evaluation of Thames' adjustments since he last played in the U.S., Brewers officials believe his upside and more modest salary give him a better chance than the costly Carter to be a contributor for the team when it reaches the other side of its rebuilding project.
"As we talked about a lot, we're building something here where we want to establish a core of players that is going to allow us to lead us to a competitive team and a team that reaches the playoffs," Brewers general manager David Stearns said. "As we evaluated the market this year and the areas where we can add players to help us accomplish that, we noted that Eric could be one of those players."
It's a gamble. Until very recently, the Brewers did not have a permanent scouting presence in Asia, so their background work on Thames consisted primarily of video study of every one of his at-bats and defensive plays over the past three years. In that time, Thames hit .348/.450/.720 with 124 home runs, 379 RBIs and 64 stolen bases in 388 games. His home run totals in those seasons were 37, 47 and 40. Thames won the Korea Baseball Organization's gold glove award at first base in 2015, when he became the first player in league history with 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in the same season.
The KBO is generally considered a step below the competition in Japan, and comparable to Triple-A baseball in North America. The top player to move to the Major Leagues from the KBO, infielder Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates, has said the biggest transition was adjusting to the increased fastball velocity in the big leagues.
"I'm so honored to be here," said Thames. "Last year, two years, three years ago, I had no idea what the future had in store for me and I'm very fortunate that David and the Brewers' organization looked at me with hope and believe in me and believe in my talent set."
Thames has not played stateside since 2013, when he was released by the Astros' organization and subsequently signed to play in Korea. He has not played in the Major Leagues since 2012, when he split the season between Toronto and Seattle, putting up a .232/.273/.399 slash line in 86 games as a 25-year-old.
"The biggest thing is just getting the reps in," said Thames. "I know guys are nastier now. It's crazy being gone, all these rookies here, I never [faced them in the Minors]. I have a lot of studying to do."