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MLB to Across the Pacific and Back

The player that all Milwaukee Brewers fans, and baseball fans for that matter, should be watching most closely this spring is Eric Thames. Thames, after three incredible seasons in the KBO, signed a three-year, $16-million deal to man first base for the Brewers. The front office likes what they see from the 2015 KBO MVP, but admittedly did not scout him in person while he was playing overseas; instead, they relied on video to make their assessment of his game. I’ll admit, I can’t wait to see Thames play this year; the mystery, concerns, and potential all make for great theater, but there is one question that keeps haunting me at night: How do former MLB payers fare when they play overseas and then return? As much as this post is about Thames, it is also about those few players who have done what he is doing.

I approached this by looking at all the major-league players who have played in both Korea and Japan over the past 10 years. I could have gone further back to the days when Cecil Fielder was playing in Japan, but the game, both in North America and across the Pacific, has changed significantly since then. The argument could be made that the game has changed significantly over the past 10 years — it changes every season — but that is the beauty of baseball.

I wanted to isolate Korea only, but, perhaps not surprisingly, there were too few players to make anything of that. Out of the several hundred total players in both these leagues over the past 10 years, only a total of 11 players who began their career in MLB returned to MLB after an overseas hiatus. That’s 11 between the KBO AND NPB. 11! Four players from the KBO and seven from NPB. Here’s a graph that shows their names and WAR before and after their careers in Japan and Korea:

Pre WAR MLB Season(s) Pre Post WAR MLB Season(s) Post
Joey Butler 0 2013-2014 0.5 2015
Brooks Conrad -0.1 2008-2012 -0.5 2014
Lew Ford 8.4 2003-2007 0 2012
Andy Green -1.2 2004-2006 0 2009
Dan Johnson 4.0 2005-2008 -0.8 2010-2015
Casey McGehee 1.6 2008-2012 -0.4 2014-2016
Kevin Mench 5.8 2002-2008 -0.4 2010
Brad Snyder -0.1 2010-2011 0.1 2014
Chad Tracy 5.7 2004-2010 -0.3 2012-2013
Wilson Valdez 0.7 2004-2005, 2007 -1.1 2009-2012
Matt Watson -0.5 2003. 2005 0.1 2010
Total WAR: 24.3 -2.8
Eric Thames -0.6 2011-2012 ? 2017-?

(Numbers courtesy of baseball-reference.com)

The outcome for these players is, well, not good. A select few players like Lew Ford and Chad Tracy carry the “pre-Japan/Korea WAR” section thanks to longer, successful careers in MLB before they changed leagues. It also seems unfair to compare these players to each other due to their careers, or lack thereof, upon their return. For example, Ford’s 79 plate appearances are incomparable to Wilson Valdez’s 966. But, in every case, the story arch is the same: Begin their professional baseball career in North America, make it to the majors as a 20-something, decline at the major- and minor-league level, go to Japan/Korea, return to North America in a very limited capacity and fail to make an impact with a major-league-affiliated team.

If the careers of these 11 players is a trend, then Eric Thames is in for a lot of trouble.

But there is reason to believe that Thames is the exception to the rule. Will Franta wrote a convincing Community Research article about the reason to believe that Eric Thames will do well. Additionally, various projections believe that Thames could be anywhere from a 1.2 to 2.2 WAR player with mid- to high-20 home-run totals and an above-average wRC+. Dave Cameron wrote an article analyzing the projections for Thames and concluded that he has the potential to be “the steal of the winter,” and for three years and $16 million, that could very well be true.

But there are factors going against Thames. It isn’t all too often professional players find their footing at the major-league level in their 30s (Thames will be 30 on Opening Day). Plus, with several other corner infielders in the form of Hernan Perez, Travis Shaw, Jesus Aguilar and others who could fill in at first if need be such as Ryan Braun and Scooter Gennett, a team in the middle of a rebuild might not completely be opposed to disposing the incumbent starting first baseman if another star emerges. Even comparing career KBO and NPB players to their transitions to MLB, we can see that there are a lot more Tsuyoshi Nishiokas than Jung-ho Kangs, which is why players like Kang, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo, and Yu Darvish are lauded when they succeed in the majors.

I believe that Eric Thames will not be like the 11 others who, by and large, failed in their returns. Thames is intriguing and there is a lot to like about him — and a lot to worry about with him. There are pros and cons to his game. I believe that he will be a great addition to a team that, honestly, could afford to wait for him to assimilate completely to the game.


Gary Sanchez Should Bat Second

What do Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Dustin Pedroia, Corey Seager and Manny Machado all have in common? Besides the numerous accolades that they share between the Rookies of the Year, the Silver Sluggers, the MVP awards and the combined 16 All-Star appearances, they all share one less obvious trait: they have more career plate appearances batting second in the lineup than anywhere else. Gone are the days of your team’s best player batting third or fourth. The new normal is now MVP-caliber players batting second. It has worked for Pedroia and the Boston Red Sox, Machado and the Baltimore Orioles, Donaldson and the Toronto Blue Jays and Seager and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not for nothing, but those teams all made the postseason last year with large contributions from their second-hole hitters AND Trout was the AL MVP for the second time in his career on a last-place Los Angeles Angels team. And as more teams continue to adopt this trend, the New York Yankees should also look to bump up their best hitter.

In an appearance the other week on a YES Network interview, GM Brian Cashman has stated that the Yankees have kicked the tires on splitting Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the lineup. This makes a lot of sense when looking at their game; they both rely on their ability to get on base and set the table more so than their ability to drive in runs. Additionally, both players have slowly, but noticeably, been in decline in recent seasons, primarily due to age and injury. Gardner has been the subject of trade rumors over the past few seasons and Ellsbury has been the ire of the New York media for largely failing to live up to the seven-year, $153-million deal he signed before the 2014 season. River Ave Blues has already had a look at how the Yankees would approach this situation and they have provided a solid solution, but they almost immediately toss out the idea of Gary Sanchez batting there for one reason or another, while Sanchez is most deserving of the promotion.

Sanchez has established himself as the Yankees’ most dominant hitter after bursting on the scene last year. The Yankees, their fans, and the nation all expect Sanchez to hit in the third spot in the lineup, a prestigious position considering the history of the franchise, but moving the young slugger to second would not only better suit the team, but would also play to his strengths. Sanchez, despite the short sample size of 231 plate appearances, has proved to be a pretty good fastball hitter. Of the 294 fastballs he has seen, he has connected for a .328 AVG and .781 SLG, and nine of his 20 home runs. Why does this matter? Traditionally, number-two hitters have seen more fastballs than elsewhere in the lineup, and to further cement his commitment to the fastball, per Brooks Baseball, Sanchez had an exit velocity of 94.3 MPH against the heater (Sanchez ranked in the top 10 in overall exit velocity last year). Young players are also traditionally late to adapt to major-league breaking pitches. Can you blame them when they’re up against this or this?

Secondly, it has been proven that two-hole hitters collect more plate appearances per season than the three through nine spots. This is not new information, but the exact number of plate appearances has been up for debate for years. Beyond the Box Score might’ve ended the debate while also examining how the two hole has changed, stating that “[e]ach drop in the batting order position decreases plate appearances by around 15-20 a year,” which might explain why MVPs Trout and Donaldson have made a living there over the past few seasons. An extra 10-20 plate appearances could mean an extra home run or two over the course of the season. Baseball is a game of inches, but it’s also a game of runs.

With a lineup bereft of veteran power and more intent on utilizing the “Baby Bombers,” as they’ve been so aptly named, moving Sanchez up to second could and should give the lineup a much-needed boost if the reliance on Greg Bird and Aaron Judge should go somehow awry. Veterans Matt Holliday, Chase Headley and Starlin Castro have had good seasons and impressive resumes, but they need to return to All-Star form to carry a team of youngsters and a questionable starting rotation. No one really expects Sanchez to produce at the same rate that he did last year, but perhaps a bump up would allow him to produce at an above-average level again.


Beware the Brew Crew

The Milwaukee Brewers have had a really quiet off season. Just how quiet? They only signed two players to major league contracts. For a team that needed a lot of help, two major league signings doesn’t seem like a lot. However, they did get a lot of help this off season. The other teams in the NL Central have failed to make a splash big enough to make the central a three team race again, and this is a potential opening for the Brewers to move in.

The Brewers were, and are, not expected to make a playoffs appearance during the 2014 season, but is that really true? They could. They very well could, and here’s how:

First, the three other teams who made the playoffs last season have regressed. The Cincinnati Reds have not done anything to improve. They lost their, arguably, two most important players to free agency in Bronson Arroyo and Shin-Soo Choo. The two players combined for an even six wins above replacement. Their replacements (Billy Hamilton and Tony Cingrani) have a combined WAR of 2.9, a 3.1 difference! Albeit, the two players have not been major players in 2013 having spent most of the season in the minors, but that is more reason to be concerned. Who knows how two second year major leaguers with little experience under their belt will do to replace two All-Star caliber players. Will the loss of Choo and Arroyo hurt the Reds? Of course! And Hamilton and Cingrani may not be the best replacements for a team who won one of the NL Wild Card spots in 2013.

The other team who didn’t make moves AND who won the NL Wild Card series, the Pittsburgh Pirates, is in a tougher boat. They lost several key players in Marlon ByrdJustin Morneau, and A.J. Burnett and they replaced them with, well, nothing really. The only major league signing that the Buccos pulled off was for Edinson Volquez who had an absolutely atrocious season in 2013 and is the least likely replacement for an ace. Plus, first base and right field are still questions with no viable replacements at those positions. So does this mean that the Pirates will be out of the playoffs? I don’t think that the front office will go down without a fight. They want to appease their fan base and they still have many pieces in place to win over 80 games again, but unless they upgrade the rotation, first base, and left field, they are not going anywhere.

The final team and NL Central winners are perhaps in the best shape to make the playoffs again. The St. Louis Cardinals have done enough to maintain their dominance in the central. With Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos in the fold including dominant young players such as Oscar Taveras and Michael Wacha, the Cards are looking like they will win another central title. But the Brewers might have something to say.

Other than the Cardinals, the Brewers have made the most important moves to improve their ballclub for 2014. They addressed all of their issues: The rotation, first base, and a left handed relief pitcher (according to ESPN). The rotation was fixed momentously with the addition of Matt Garza. Garza, one of the most sought after starters during free agency, will help to form a powerful front three rotation. With Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo leading the way and Marco Estrada and Tyler Thornburg rounding things out, the Brew Crew’s rotation is looking like it can compete with the best of them. Plus, the addition of Garza helps to address another issue. Will Smith, a lefty who was acquired in the Norichika Aoki trade, will move to the bullpen. Here, the Brewers are able to add to an already strong bullpen that features a strong back-end and now a stable and reliable left handed pitcher.

Although the Brewers never signed a first basemen to a major league deal, the ones that they were able to acquire will impact the ball club in many ways. Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay will help what was a weakness for the Crew last season. Their combination of power, defense, ability to platoon, and familiarity to the NL Central and other leagues will impact the Brewers as if they had signed a major league contract. Plus, the Brewers have many great players in place at other positions. Jean SeguraCarlos GomezJonathan Lucroy, and even Ryan Braun will make a formidable lineup while young players like Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett have shown that they can play at the major league level.

Overall, the Brewers are a much better team and are starting to look much better than the 2013 season. They have addressed all of their pieces while other teams in the NL Central have regressed. Although the Brew Crew may not make the playoffs, as many predict, they will cause havoc and surely improve from the 74-88 record they posted last season.


The Last Remaining Top Starting Pitcher

Ubaldo Jimenez: Check.

Suk-min Yoon: Check.

A.J. Burnett: Check.

Ervin Santana: Nope.

The first three names have all signed contracts within a week and a half, the last one has not. Ervin Santana, a top 50 free agent according to many, is still unsigned and, according to MLB Trade Rumors top 50 free agents list, the only starting pitcher unsigned. So what does that mean for Santana? Well, it means that he may garner a large contract with a large sum of money from a desperate team, or he’ll be robbed of what he’s actually worth. Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors predicted that Santana would receive a 75 million dollar contract over five years. Pretty good by any standards, but most likely not what he will get. Jimenez received 50 million while Matt Garza received 50 million as well only weeks ago, while Ricky Nolasco early on in the winter received a 49 million dollar contract. Of course, the annual average salary varies for each player, the highest guarantee salary is 25 million less than that predicted for Santana. So although he may still receive his projected 75 million, the likelihood of that happening looks slim. At this point in the stage, a four year deal seems logical, but I think with an annual salary of ~12 million, perhaps less. Although his career numbers and career in general don’t garner a salary like this, teams will match this price, or exceed it, in order to fill a hole.

The fact that Santana, and many other free agents, took so long to sign does not bode well with the player’s association and reflects negatively on the qualifying offer. The fact that a team is passing over a player with ties to a draft pick means A) that teams value their picks more so than ever and B) that the ability to win now is not as important as the future. Let me explain.

Option A makes sense. Many teams have depleted farm systems a la the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels, so restocking their farm system and building towards the future (whether that be future trades, future post season aspirations, etc) is a viable, and necessary, option for all teams whereas option B is only for a few teams. Not every team is in a position to win now, so signing a player tied to their draft picks would be a lose-lose, but then you have the other teams who can win, and can win now. The Yankees clearly have attested to this. They have signed players tied to draft picks and thus lost those picks, but they are in an excellent position to win now, and for the future. You see, since a team loses a draft pick, they are obligated, but not obliged, to sign players to long term deals in order to make the signing worth wile. The Seattle Mariners believe this as do the aforementioned Yankees.

Thus the qualifying offer, although in place to help players which it does, can hurt teams and players alike. Teams can’t make respectable offers to players without losing their draft picks, and if they do, they tend to offer the player more money than he is worth. While the players, on the other hand, receive large paydays and security for their families, they do have to wait for a team to take a chance on him, if they even want to and lose their draft pick. And Santana perfectly reflects this. The notion that a team in need of a player (the Toronto Blue Jays for example) is not willing to offer a worthwhile deal to a player because they need the picks, while the player has to hope that what he receives is a viable, and legitimate, contract.

In conclusion: I do not like the qualifying offer. It ruins a team’s ability to sign a free agent while at the same time makes a player less valuable since his is tied to a draft pick.