In a mildly surprising move, the Brewers declined to pick up Eric Thames’ 2020 club option. Thames would have earned $7.5 million had Milwaukee exercised it, but owed him a $1 million buyout, which really made it a $6.5 million decision. It’s a peculiar decision for a team that traded away its other first baseman a few months ago (Jesús Aguilar), but we here are pleased because signing Thames was part of our offseason plan.
Thames, 33 on Sunday, was actually drafted by the Yankees in 2007. The Yanks grabbed him in the 39th round, but Thames elected to return to Pepperdine for his senior season. A year later, Toronto drafted him in the 7th round. This time, Thames went pro.
After a nice major league debut with Toronto in 2011, Thames bounced around quite a bit. He was traded twice in two seasons, from the Jays to the Mariners to the Orioles. Baltimore waived him the same season they acquired him and Houston picked him up, though he never played in the majors for either team. The Astros released him in the winter of 2013 to pursue an opportunity to play in South Korea for the NC Dinos.
As you may know already, Thames broke out in the KBO. He was a superstar for three seasons there and once again became an option to play at the highest level in the United States. The Brewers signed him to a three year, $16 million deal before 2017. Sung Min Kim wrote a nice piece about him for the Hardball Times prior to Thames’s stateside return.
In his rookie campaign with the Blue Jays, the left-handed hitter had a nice offensive campaign: he recorded a 107 wRC+ in 394 plate appearances. However, Thames’s suffered a sophomore slump and was traded to the Mariners for Steve Delabar a day before the 2012 trade deadline. His strikeout rate spiked to 30 percent and his wRC+ fell to 82.
After that rough season, Thames began 2013 in the minors and raked. In spite of a .295/.382/.479 (129 wRC+) line in Triple-A Tacoma, the Mariners never gave him another chance. Instead, they designated him for assignment and dealt him to Baltimore for Ty Kelly. Baltimore waived him in September, before they ever got a look at him in the majors. Houston snatched him up, but he never played for them either. The Astros released him in the winter for an opportunity to play for the NC Dinos of the KBO.
Thames spent three year in South Korea and was a superstar. He hit an incredible .349/.451/.721 in 1,638 plate appearances and launched 124 dingers in the process. He went 40/40 for the Dinos in 2015 and won the league’s MVP award. Also of note during his time there: he moved over to the first base primarily.
With newfound power, Thames returned to the states for another shot in the MLB. Though not as prolific as he was in South Korea, Thames brought his power stroke to the Brew Crew. He hit 72 homers in 1,288 plate appearances after returning to the US. Overall, Thames had a 119 wRC+ behind a .241/.343/.504 batting line. Power and on-base skills are the name of Thames’s game.
Now, Thames has a couple of downsides. One, he strikes out quite a bit (31.1 percent with Milwaukee). Additionally, left-handed pitchers can retire him with ease. Since returning to the MLB, Thames has a .188/.287/.375 (74 wRC+) line against southpaws compared to .251/.354/.529 (126 wRC+) against righties. But! With 2020 rule changes, don’t expect opponents to have lefty specialists to use against guys like Thames. Relievers will have to face a three batter minimum unless they record the third out of the inning.
There’s not much here to worry about. Thames hit the then disabled list twice in 2018, but has been pretty durable otherwise. He missed nearly two months, from April 25th to June 11th, with a torn UCL in his left thumb. Thames hurt it when making a diving defensive play at first base. Later that year, he dealt with right hamstring tightness that kept him out the 10-day minimum in mid-July.
No salary estimates are available from the usual suspects (i.e. Fangraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, Bowden, etc.) at this time. Our offseason plan pays Thames $5 million for one season. That’s less than the $7.5 million salary the Brewers decided not to pay to keep him (which, as noted, was really a $6.5 million decision). Our guess doesn’t seem unreasonable, though it certainly is pretty team friendly.
Does he make sense for the Yankees?
For sure. As Steven wrote this morning, the Yankees need left-handed power and Thames offers plenty of that.
You might say that Thames is redundant with Mike Ford (and Greg Bird, or is it Craig Byrd?) on the roster. But, we *know* that Thames is a capable big league hitter who should thrive at Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, we may *think* that Ford is good (and I’m a believer myself), but he doesn’t offer Thames’s certainty. In any event, having Ford is extra depth in the minors is a good thing. He’s more than suitable for an up-and-down role with Scranton.
Additionally, I like that Thames can play the outfield. I’m not saying Thames is a defensive wiz, but he can at least fake it out there. Milwaukee cut his outfield play significantly last season, but it’s still ostensibly an option. Barring another catastrophic year of injuries, Thames likely wouldn’t see outfield time in pinstripes, but at least it’s an option.