David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers had been unnaturally vocal about their desire to sign a free-agent first baseman this winter. Media reports repeatedly connected Pedro Alvarez to the Brewers, to the point that it seemed inevitable. Of course, Alvarez made a lot of sense for the club, but Stearns changed speeds yet again this winter. The Brewers announced on Wednesday evening that they inked Chris Carter to a one-year deal, reportedly worth $2.5 million with another $500K available in incentives.
The 29-year-old slugger hit .199/.307/.427 with 24 homers for the Houston Astros in 2015. He’ll add significant power to the middle of the Brewers’ batting order, but obviously not without his warts. Carter struck out in 32.8 percent of his plate appearances a year ago and failed to eclipse the Mendoza Line. Although his power production and walk rate kept him from dipping below the replacement-level mark, he was still, broadly speaking, a replacement-level-type player at a premium offensive position. Of course, it’s not that his extreme offensive profile can’t provide value. He’s only a year removed from hitting 37 homers and posting a +2.6 WARP, so we can assert that Carter comes with some pedigree.
The Stearns-Astros connection should be acknowledged, too, which is why Carter may have chosen the Milwaukee Brewers over another big-league club and why Stearns felt more comfortable with Carter than other free-agent first basemen.
The former 15th-round draft pick of the White Sox offers two other benefits over someone like Pedro Alvarez. First of all, Carter has two arbitration years remaining, which means the Brewers own his rights for the next three seasons, despite ostensibly signing him to a one-year deal. This means that Carter could serve as a low-cost, multi-year solution for Milwaukee; however, it also means any potential summer trade partner won’t necessarily be shopping for a rental, which should hypothetically increase his trade value. The multiple control years — assuming he plays well enough to warrant exercising them — are a significant benefit compared to many of the available first-base options on the market.
Secondly, Carter should cost significantly less than Alvarez, freeing up funds to allocate elsewhere. Although it appears that the Brewers are effectively done shopping in free agency, the organization can (and should) spend extra money on their farm system. That could mean overspending in the international market, using the banked money to buy high-end talent and pay overage penalties. That could mean overspending in the 2016 MLB Draft, being one of the first franchises to blow their bonus budget out of the water in this format and pay a similar overage penalty. That could even mean hiring more minor-league coaches or siphoning more resources of any kind to the farm system. No matter what, saving money at the Major League level can benefit the rebuilding process, as long as that money is actively spent elsewhere and not just pocketed. Signing Chris Carter and not Pedro Alvarez affords the Brewers an opportunity to do this.
Overall, though, Chris Carter continues a marked shift in strategy for the Milwaukee Brewers under David Stearns. Aside from positional versatility, which he has in a limited way, Carter shares one trait with almost all of the players the club has acquired this offseason: a massive walk rate. Carter’s 12.4 percent walk rate in 2015 was almost double the Brewers’ team walk rate (6.8 percent). In fact, of every player acquired this winter, only Will Middlebrooks had a walk rate below the Brewers’ team walk rate from 2015.
|Eric Young Jr.
The above numbers were taken from the level at which these players spent the majority of their time in 2015, but the overall trend is crystal clear. The Milwaukee Brewers are loading up on players who walk at an above-average clip. This can only mean Stearns and his staff desperately want to see the Brewers increase their overall on-base percentage next year. It was one of the club’s biggest weaknesses in 2015 — a weakness that former GM Doug Melvin readily acknowledged before the year even began — and it should improve with the players being added this offseason.
In terms of on-the-field production, that’s what Chris Carter represents to the Milwaukee Brewers: more walks and more power. But we can’t be naive and pretend that Stearns signed Carter with an eye toward the 2016 season. He acquired Carter because, with a hot three months, the first baseman could fetch a solid return on the trade market. And that’s how the organization should be utilizing free agency, as a place to buy potential trade chips on team-friendly deals. That has the added benefit of improving the on-field product in the process, though, so it can be perceived as a positive scenario for the fans.
Don’t construe any of this to be suggesting that Carter is a slam-dunk signing or a no-risk signing. He’s severely limited in his offensive abilities, due to massive holes in his swing that have regularly been exploited at the Major League level. Instead, I’m stressing the positive strategy behind the Carter deal, the strategy that potentially addresses key needs for the club. And why not focus on the pay-off, regardless of the likelihood of it? The downside is a couple more losses during a rebuilding year and $2.5 million of ownership’s money down the drain. That’s nothing to worry about.