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Free Agent Friday
On February 9th, 2022, the Oakland Athletics signed Eric Thames to a minor league free agent contract. The 35-year-old first baseman has had one of the more interesting career paths when it comes to a baseball player, having left the MLB for a better opportunity in Korea before coming back and dominating. It is hard to say how much of an impact that Thames will have for the A’s this season, even with the Matt Olson trade freeing up the 1B position. In order to understand his possible impact, we need to look back at his career as a whole.
Eric Thames was drafted originally by the New York Yankees in the 39th round of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft, but returned for another year of college ball at Pepperdine instead of going professional. It’s a good thing he did, as he would increase his draft position up to the 7th round in 2008 when he was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays. Being an older draftee at 22-years-old, Thames started his career in High-A in 2009, hitting a .313/.386/.487 and make the league All-Star team in his first professional season.
Following this performance, Thames was called up to Double-A for the 2010 season. He would perform just as well as he did in High-A, hitting a .288/.370/.526 slash and once again being named an All-Star, this time including the postseason, Topps Double-A, and MiLB.com Organization All-Star accolades. Like many first baseman nowadays, Eric would start his career in the corner outfield, with the near entirety of his appearances coming in LF.
After having a decent performance in the Arizona Fall League, Eric Thames was called up to Triple-A for the 2011 season. 2011 would be Thames’ breakout year, as he would hit an insane .352/.423/.610 slash in 241 plate appearances while spending half of the year divided between Triple-A and the MLB level. This isn’t to say that Thames was a slouch at the MLB level either, as he hit a solid .262/.313/.456 slash. His fielding though would not be very impressive, as he would have a -7.8 UZR while splitting time pretty equally between LF and RF.
Strangely enough for a future 1B, his better position seemed to be RF, as his poor range was not as much of a factor at that position, with only a -0.4 Range Runs Above Average in RF instead of a -2.8 in LF. However, that position was taken by certain Silver Slugger in Jose Bautista. Couldn’t really move him to DH either, because that was taken by Edwin Encarnacion. While 1B was theoretically open, with Adam Lind only hitting a 95 OPS+ in 2011 and being an equally bad fielder, he had hit a 141 OPS+ in 2009, so they were probably waiting for a bounce back season that would eventually happen in 2013.
At this point in time, Eric Thames was stuck as the odd man out in Toronto and it would show in 2012. Thames would disappoint in 2012, hitting a .243/.288/.365 slash in the MLB before being demoted to Triple-A at the end of May. While he would perform fantastically in Triple-A, hitting a .330/.407/.528 slash, he would be traded to the Mariners for solid MLB reliever, Steve Delabar. While Thames would be called up immediately to the MLB level, he again wouldn’t perform very well, hitting a .220/.256/.439 slash for Seattle in 2012.
Due to this poor performance, Thames would start off 2013 in Triple-A and once again dominate, hitting a .295/.382/.479 slash. The Mariners had signed Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay during the offseason, which prevented Eric from seeing MLB playing time over more established MLB talent. After being DFA’d following Franklin Gutierrez’s time on the IL, Thames was traded to the Orioles for 3B prospect, Ty Kelly. Eric wouldn’t perform well for the Orioles Triple-A affiliate and would be waived in September. After a brief stint with the Houston Astros, Thames would be released to pursue baseball in Korea.
On December 9th, 2013, the NC Dinos signed Eric Thames to play in the Korean Baseball Organization. Apparently, Thames would be nicknamed “God” during his time in the KBO. He would definitely live up to that nickname, hitting slashes of .343/.422/.689, .381/.498/.790, and .321/.427/.679 in his three seasons with the Dinos.
2015 would be the standout in these seasons, as he would be the 1st player to two cycles in one season in the KBO, the 1st 40-40 player in the KBO, and the 3rd foreign-born player to win league MVP. He would also spend all but 1 inning at 1B and win a Golden Glove (given for best player at the position), sealing it as his position for the future.
After his god-like performance in the KBO, Thames was picked up by the Milwaukee Brewers on a 3-year contract worth $16 million total. This somewhat cheap contract seemed to be a very good deal for the Brewers at the beginning, as Thames would hit a .247/.359/.518 slash in his comeback to the MLB. Also, it seems that his time away from America didn’t make him bitter in the slightest, as he won the Brewers Good Guy Award upon his return in 2017.
2018 would be a more difficult year for Eric Thames. He wouldn’t hit nearly as well, with a .219/.306/.478 slash, and his fielding was still a major problem, even while being hidden at 1B and the corner outfield. On top of this, his playing time was being hampered not only by injuries, but also by the emergence of Jesus Aguilar for his first, and so far only, All-Star appearance, the acquisition of MVP Christian Yelich, and the more established Brewers legend Ryan Braun in LF.
Thames was eventually able to regain the starting 1B job from Aguilar in 2019 after hitting another solid .247/.346/.505 slash, nearly identical to his comeback 2017. However, considering all the options that there were on a stacked Brewers team and Eric’s suspect fielding, the organization decided to decline his $7.5 million option for 2020 and let him walk in free agency. Though Thames would sign a 1-year $4 million deal with the Nationals for the 2020 season, he would massively underperform both at the plate, hitting a .203/.300/.317 slash, and in the field, with a -5.6 UZR/150 (normalized to 150 games). Following this, the Nationals let him walk in free agency.
Thames would start the 2021 season with the Yomiuri Giants of the NPB. However, following a ruptured Achilles tendon only a few games into the season, he would return to the US for surgery and wouldn’t play another game for the team. In August, the Giants released Thames from the team.
Currently the Athletics have signed Eric Thames to a 1-year minor league deal and he is currently playing in Spring Training. It is difficult to say if Thames will spend any time at the MLB level considering his last stint with the Nationals and his more recent Achilles injury. However, with the universal DH taking effect this season, the Athletics, as well as more potential trade partners, could hide Thames’ deficiencies in the field by playing him at DH. Eric has also made a career out of comebacks and, if he can return to the form that he had with the Brewers in 2017 and 2019, he can add one more comeback to the list.
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