The Milwaukee Brewers head into an offseason that will see the club make a lot of tough decisions. One of the toughest decisions, however, will be handling first base.
Eric Thames has had quite the tenure with the Milwaukee Brewers. After thriving in Korea, Thames signed a three year, $15 million contract with a $7.5 million club option to potentially make it four years. His first three years have passed and it’s time to make the decision on that club option.
Through 2017, this contract looked like a steal, with Thames having a breakout season. He stumbled in 2018 and lost his starting job after a thumb injury and Jesus Aguilar riding a first half hot streak for the ages. But in 2019, after a slow start, Thames started to put it together.
In his final guaranteed year, Thames posted a .247/.346/.505 slash line with 25 home runs, 61 RBIs, and a 117 OPS+. It was a resurgent season that saw Thames retake the starting first base job, but getting rest a lot of times against left handed starters.
Deciding on Thames’ club option
Thames’ option carries a $7.5 million salary for 2020 should it be picked up, with a $1 million buyout if it does not. So essentially, it’s a $6.5 million decision for the Milwaukee Brewers.
That salary is not an exorbitant amount of money, but it’s not a paltry sum either.
For a starting first baseman that has a ton of power, it’s an easy call to pick him for that kind of money. While Thames won’t hit for a super high average, as long as he’s around that .250 mark with an .850 OPS or so, he’ll be well worth it at that price.
However, Thames also might not be an everyday kind of guy. In 2019, Thames hit just .200/.339/.340 against left handed pitching. Although it was only 50 at-bats, it just goes to show that the Brewers don’t trust Thames against lefties and they have little reason to.
In his career, Thames is hitting just .197 against lefties and hits .254 against righties. That makes him a viable platoon option, getting the lion’s share of the playing time, simply because there are more right handed pitchers than there are lefties.
But is a $7.5 million salary too much for a platoon option? If that’s going to be the plan of action with him, and it likely will be, then his salary is starting to look a little high.
What Should The Brewers Do?
There are three ways the Milwaukee Brewers could approach this situation with Thames.
- Pick up his option and pay him the $7.5 million
- Decline his option and seek a different first base option, either internally or in free agency
- Decline his option and try to re-sign him at a lower salary
The first option is the simplest. It’ll provide the answer to the first base question this offseason and return a fan-favorite to the club.
The second option will be tough. There really isn’t much else internally in the Brewers system that could provide an easy solution at first base immediately. Travis Shaw might be able to move over there, but he’s a huge question mark. The free agent crop of first basemen is scarce. Jose Abreu is the best option out there, but he’s unlikely to leave Chicago and would command a lot of money, although he would bring more production. Other than Abreu, Thames would be the best free agent option.
The third option is the riskiest one. The Brewers will likely want to bring back Thames, but probably at a lower salary. If they plan to platoon him, $7.5 million is a lot to pay. If they decline the option, making him a free agent, they can try to re-sign him, but every other big league team would be able to talk to him and make him contract offers, which could outbid what the Brewers are putting up. If he leaves and gets that kind of money elsewhere, the Brewers will be sitting there looking like fools.
While the third option could bring the best rewards, signing Thames back at a more modest salary, it could also present the biggest disaster. It would leave them with their backup plan of either Shaw or Tyler Austin at first base, with the potential of bringing in a free agent. If they can’t get Abreu, it’ll likely be a downgrade from Thames.
That brings us back to our simplest option, picking up his contract and just paying Thames the $7.5 million. While potentially having an extra couple million dollars in payroll flexibility is a nice thought, it’s not worth the risk of being stuck with little to no production out of first base. The best option for the Milwaukee Brewers is to pick up Thames’ option and find a solid platoon partner for him.
Whether this is what the Brewers actually do remains to be seen. But with only one free agent first baseman better than Thames on the market, Jesus Aguilar now in Tampa Bay, and few other options for the position internally, the smartest move looks like it’s to bring him back.