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The Tigers should sign Eric Thames because he would make the team better

Thames shouldn’t come at a high cost and would immediately become the team’s most valuable hitter.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the World Series has concluded and the Washington Nationals stand above everyone else in Major League Baseball, the time has come for teams to start making roster moves with an eye towards 2020. The Milwaukee Brewers once again found themselves in the playoffs this past year, but bowed out to the eventual world champions in the National League Wild Card game. As they look to get back to the playoffs and make a run at some bigger names in free agency, tough decisions will have to be made about their roster, and one of those has already been made in the form of declining the option on Eric Thames’ contract. As a team strapped for power and in need of a stop-gap at first base, Thames presents an attractive option for the Tigers.

Eric Thames became a free agent on Monday when the Brewers opted to buy out his contract for $1 million rather than exercise his $7.5 million team option. While it’s been reported that the Brewers would be interested in bringing him back at a lower price tag, Thames should receive attention from many teams that are in need of a starting first baseman. The Tigers should absolutely be one of those teams.

The Tigers have a huge hole at first base

In 2019, the Tigers weren’t aptly prepared to deal with another injury to their longtime first baseman in Miguel Cabrera. When it was diagnosed that Cabrera’s knees will never allow him to play first base on a regular basis again, the team turned to a combination of Brandon Dixon, John Hicks, Niko Goodrum, and Jeimer Candelario to fill the void. This... didn’t go very well.

The Tigers first basemen combined to hit .248/.308/.402 and totaled only 19 home runs. While Dixon led the team in homers with 15, he brought nothing else to the table with his bat as he couldn’t get on base. Hicks is now a free agent destined to depart from the organization, Candelario is at risk of not making the team, and Goodrum is better served playing a more premium defensive position. No help is coming from the farm system anytime soon, and so for the first time in years, the Tigers have no choice but to address their first base problem in the off-season.

While not without his flaws, Thames would be a high quality, low cost option to fill the black hole that was left at first base in 2019. This is somewhat sad to type, but he would almost certainly become the best hitter in the lineup and perhaps the only player capable of handling everyday playing time. Last season Thames hit .247/.346/.505 with 25 home runs and 23 doubles, which was good for 116 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR. The 25 home runs and 116 wRC+ both would’ve led the Tigers, while the 1.9 fWAR would’ve tied for the team lead with Goodrum. Not counting players named Nicholas Castellanos, our dearly departed former third baseman of the future, Victor Reyes was the only Tigers’ hitter with at least 200 plate appearances to be worth 100 wRC+ — he finished right at 100 — and the Tigers didn’t have anyone reach 20 home runs. Thames would provide a much, much needed boost to the league’s worst offense.

When it comes to power hitters like Thames, you have to take the good with the bad. The Tigers are no strangers to strikeouts — their hitters led the league in them this last season — and Thames would fit right in with that crowd. While he cut down on his strikeouts from 2018, he still struck out at a 30.5-percent clip after a 34.9-percent rate previously. He did however up his walk rate from 10.4-percent to 11.1-percent. Both of these numbers are down from 2017, the season following his return from playing for three seasons for the NC Dinos in South Korea, where he posted 125 wRC+ on a 13.6-percent walk rate and a 29.6-percent strikeout rate. As a natural left-handed hitter, he also mashes against right-handed pitchers. The Tigers as a team were worth 74 wRC+ against righties in 2019, whereas Thames was worth 122 wRC+.

Thames grades out as a slightly below average first baseman on defense. Last season he graded out positively with 2 DRS, but his UZR pegged him 0.3 runs-below-average. Since he returned to the MLB in 2017, his career UZR/150 at first is 3.3 runs-below-average. He can play both corner outfield spots on occasion, but most likely wouldn’t find himself rotating there in the American League where there is generally less need for positional flexibility. The numbers certainly aren’t in love with Thames at first base, but get this: he graded out at -7.0 dWAR at the position while Anthony Rizzo, the NL Gold Glove winner graded out at -6.9 dWAR. Defensive metrics as a whole are a complete mess, and while he probably won’t wow you with the glove, he’ll make the routine plays and shouldn’t be a noticeable liability.

The Tigers could easily afford to add Thames’ power

There is no team in baseball right now that is more capable of adding payroll than the Detroit Tigers. They are currently on the hook for only an estimated $86.5 million in 2020. Still, they insist that now is not the stage of the rebuild to start adding big contracts. Thames then fits the mold of the type of player they’re looking for.

Thames is projected to receive a contract worth less annual dollars than his $7.5 million option, though it’s uncertain whether or not he’ll be able to land multiple years. The latter point is where the Tigers could separate themselves as a serious suitor for Thames. Going into his age 33 season, guaranteed money over multiple years will be important. A two-year deal worth around $10 million total is easily affordable, offers Thames a carrot other teams presumably will not in terms of security, and builds a little more potential value into a trade on the Tigers side should Thames post a strong first half.

The Tigers are not going to immediately start contending should they sign Eric Thames. However, he makes the team better and at some point in time the actual building part of the rebuild needs to start taking place at the major league level. It doesn’t help the few interesting young players the Tigers have on the roster to flounder in a lineup completely devoid of power.

Thames isn’t going to be the first baseman on the next competitive Tigers team, but they don’t need him to be. They need Thames to play 130-plus games, drive in runners while hitting in the middle of the order, and overall be one of the incremental roster improvements that will help this organization take a step forward. Teams rarely go from dead last to the playoffs. The jump from 2005 to 2006 was astronomical and rather unlikely to happen again. The Tigers need to start getting better, and Eric Thames could be a small piece that will support that goal.