Former Phillies, Mets and Giants outfielder Aaron Altherr, who has spent the past two seasons playing in the Korea Baseball Organization, is now a free agent and is eyeing a potential MLB comeback after a strong run overseas, MLBTR has learned. A jump to Japan’s NPB is also a possibility.
Set to turn 31 in January, Altherr spent the 2020-21 seasons with the NC Dinos as their primary center fielder, helping the club to a Korean Series championship and posting consecutive 30-homer/20-steal seasons. In a combined 1,111 plate appearances, Altherr slashed .275/.356/.528 (130 wRC+) with 63 home runs, 39 doubles, nine triples and 42 steals (in 48 attempts). Strikeouts have been an issue (27.4%), though he’s also drawn a respectable number of free passes (9.3% overall, including 10.1% in 2021).
A ninth-round pick by the Phillies back in 2009, Altherr briefly reached the big leagues in 2014, got his first extended look a year later in 2015, and at that point seemed like a potential long-term answer in the outfield. He posted a .241/.338/.489 batting line through 161 plate appearances as a rookie (124 wRC+), squarely putting himself into the team’s outfield mix. However, 2016 was largely a lost season. Altherr had wrist surgery that April, and while he made it back to the field late in the summer, his .202/.304/.293 slash showed that he clearly wasn’t at full strength.
In 2017, Altherr bounced back with a .272/.340/.516 batting line through what’s still a career-high (in MLB) 412 plate appearances. He swatted 19 home runs for the Phils that season while seeing time at all three outfield spots.
With the Phillies’ Carlos Santana signing pushing Rhys Hoskins into left field in 2018 and Odubel Herrera then entrenched in center field, Altherr found himself jostling with Nick Williams (who’d had a solid 2017 season himself) for playing time in right field. Altherr started the season in a slump and never really recovered, batting just .181/.295/.333 in 285 plate appearances.
Philadelphia’s subsequent signings of Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper completely eroded the path to playing time for Altherr in 2019. He was designated for assignment in early May, bouncing quickly from the Phillies, to the Giants (who gave him one plate appearance), to the Mets via waivers. Altherr struggled in 35 plate appearances with the Mets before being outrighted to Triple-A Syracuse, where he hit well but spent a notable chunk of time on the injured list.
The prospect of a guaranteed seven-figure salary lured Altherr to the Dinos, and he’s taken home more than $2.3MM during his time in South Korea. He’ll likely have interest from the Dinos and other KBO clubs in free agency, but opportunities in Japan and certainly back in the Majors could be more lucrative.
Overall, Altherr has a .219/.308/.402 batting line in 1,156 Major League plate appearances, but his .275/.356/.528 slash in the KBO at least offers the promise that he could do more with a larger opportunity than he received during his stop-and-start Phillies tenure. We’ve seen a handful of former big league bats make successful returns after starring in South Korea, including Eric Thames and Darin Ruf.
Altherr is two years younger than Ruf was at the time of his return, and given that he’s a viable center field option in an offseason where there are few available options at the position (particularly now that Starling Marte has signed), Altherr could be viewed as an interesting roll of the dice for a team seeking relatively affordable outfield help. The looming lockout surely complicates matters — teams in Japan and South Korea likely don’t care to wait on free-agent decisions while MLB is under a transaction freeze — but Altherr ought to at least have a few days to gauge interest before that wrench is thrown into the market.