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Eric Thames: Bargain Or Bust?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers’ Eric Thames is posting video game numbers this season, making his 3-year contract look like a steal already.

There is no denying it: Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Eric Thames is absolutely destroying baseball right now. Since his return to MLB from the KBO this offseason, Thames, 30, has hardly missed a step. He turned heads earlier in April with six homers in five straight games. After clubbing another two homers on Monday against the Reds, Thames now leads the majors with 10 homers and a .910 slugging, and his power has been the early talk of the season. 

Korean call (MBC Sports+) of Eric Thames’ 8th HR of the year. You know you wanna hear it. #Brewers pic.twitter.com/Qp4smMWKXo

— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) April 21, 2017

In his first MLB stint from 2011-13, Thames posted inconsequential offensive numbers while being a defensive liability in the outfield. After bouncing around several MLB teams in 2013, Thames essentially washed out of baseball and eventually requested to be released by the Astros that December. He promptly signed a contract with the NC Dinos of the KBO the very same day.

In three seasons in Korea, Thames posted Bonds-ish numbers and achieved widespread fame among his Korean fans. He became the KBO’s first-ever member of the 40-40 club in 2015 with 47 homers and 40 steals, while also earning Gold Glove and MVP honors the same year. Nicknamed ‘The God of Korea,’ Thames totaled 124 homers in his KBO career and averaged a 1.168 OPS

201437 HRs121 RBI.343 AVG.422 OBP.688 SLG
201547 HRs140 RBI.381 AVG.492 OBP.790 SLG
201640 HRs121 RBI.321 AVG.427 OBP.679 SLG

Even after revitalizing his career overseas, Thames thought his days in MLB were over. “When the season ended, I thought, ‘OK, MLB teams don’t want me, let me go to Japan,” Thames told USA Today. “Then, my agent called me and told me that Milwaukee was interested. I’m like, ‘On a major league contract?’ I think everybody in the world was surprised they were willing to give me that kind of money. I’m still shocked myself.”

Thames signed a three-year, $16 million contract with Milwaukee in November. He’s not the first player to attempt an MLB career revival after spending time overseas. Notably, RHP Colby Lewis spent two stellar seasons in Japan (he led Japan’s Central League in strikeouts for two straight years) before he returned to the Rangers with a resurgent 2010 season as a postseason standout for Texas’ World Series run. But perhaps no player has made quite an immediate splash in his stateside return as Thames has in the early weeks of the season—so much so that a couple of Cubs have made some less-than-subtle insinuations. If he continues putting up big numbers, Thames will undoubtedly be baseball’s feel-good story of the year. But is Thames also potentially the most underrated value signing of the offseason?

Sure, Thames’ offense should regress from the blazing start he’s off to this season. That said, he could still wind up with a .250+ average, 30+ homer season—a steal when looking at other contracts in the first base/designated hitter market. By contrast, the Indians signed 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion, 34, to a three-year contract for $60 million after three consecutive 30+ homer seasons in Toronto. With his $4 million salary this year, Thames is getting paid in the lower tier of first basemen with the likes of Justin Smoak and John Jaso. But for roughly $15 million less, the Brewers should get similar offensive production from Thames as the Indians will get from Encarnacion. The Brewers not only added certified muscle to their lineup on the cheap, but also Thames’ manageable contract makes him a valuable trade asset should Milwaukee consider moving him.

Contract Length, Value & Yearly Salary

It’s possible that Thames is an early-season boom who will bust through summer and the second half, but it’s unlikely. While in Korea, Thames had to adjust to KBO pitchers‘ heavy use of off-speed and breaking-ball pitches, something he admitted he struggled to do early on in his MLB career. Thames also said that seeing so many off-speed pitches helped improve his reaction to velocity. “The human body adapts. I’ve always had fast hands. It’s funny, even seeing 88 to 91 MPH in Korea, with split fingers, they throw so much off-speed, then 91 looks like 101,” he told MLB.com last week. And though Thames hasn’t seen big league pitching since 2012, he clearly has had no issues getting up to speed. Rather, it seems as if the league will have to re-acquaint itself with the more versatile and more dangerous hitter Thames has become. 


Edited by Jeremy Losak, Emily Greitzer.

SQuiz
What is the name of Korea's baseball league?
Created 4/25/17
  1. Korean Baseball Organization
  2. Korean Baseball League
  3. Seoul Central League
  4. National Baseball Federation of Korea

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