Return from the KBO: Eric Thames
This past week, the Milwaukee Brewers performed two transactions that intrigued people for different reasons. First, they designated Chris Carter for assignment, and are looking to trade him. Yes, that Chris Carter, the monster of a man who hit 41 home runs last year. To replace their presumed starting first baseman, the Brewers signed Eric Thames, a 30-year-old who has spent the last three seasons playing in the Korean Baseball Organization for the NC Dinos. There have been a lot of hot takes on what has gone on here, with people analyzing the contract implications being the most prominent. Personally, I think there are two things to take away: one, we need more American teams named the Dinos, and two, Eric Thames is a lot more intriguing than your average player who couldn’t cut it in Major League Baseball.
Eric Thames was drafted by the Blue Jays out of Pepperdine University in 2008, and made his debut in their organization in 2009. As an advanced college hitter, he moved quickly up the ladder, putting up a 27 HR season in AA in 2010, and hitting .352 in 2011 at AAA before being called up to the big leagues that same year. Thames hit 12 HR with an OPS of .769 in his first exposure to the show in 2011, but he struggled mightily in a 2012 season that included a midseason trade to the Mariners. All of 2013 was spent in the Orioles minor league system, not getting one big league at bat, and following that season, he decided to go to Korea and revive his career. He sure revived it.
The NC Dinos and the KBO were exactly the career revival Thames was looking for. His three year home run totals were 37, 47, and 40. His three year average totals were .343, .381, and .317. His three year OPS totals were 1.111, 1.288, and 1.101. Thames even stole 40 bases in 2015, with double digit totals his other two years there. I’m not even sure I could put those numbers up with Eric Thames in a video game.
The elephant in the room is obvious: the KBO. In a far away land where fastball velocity has refused to trend closer to triple digits, Thames was not putting up his numbers in the major leagues. However, recent imports have proven to be somewhat successful, with Jung-Ho Kang, Byung-Ho Park, and Dae-Ho Lee (Lee came from Japan but had played in the KBO prior) all exhibiting some ability to hit big league pitching. Many reading this might look at Park and see a cautionary tale, but Park’s batting average in the KBO was usually not up to Thames’ level, and he also struck out more while walking less, showing signs of him being just a power hitter, not as well-rounded as Eric Thames.
Our closest comparison, although not positionally, is Kang. Kang’s last year in Korea featured a .356/.459/.739 triple-slash, less impressive than Thames’ 2015 and a little better than Thames’ other two seasons. That was a peak for Kang, however, as none of his other seasons approached what Thames did consistently for three years. In two seasons since coming to MLB, Kang has hit .273 with an .838 OPS. Although this is probably his ceiling in terms of average, the OPS is certainly possible for Thames, though his past struggles stateside do temper expectations some.
You’re probably hoping I tell you what to do in your favorite dynasty league. Do you really need to pick up this first baseman filled with uncertainty? One, since he played in MLB as an outfielder, he is still in most systems as an outfielder, so unless your league has weird eligibility rules, he should qualify at outfield at least for a year. First base isn’t as strong as it once was, with a strong top but a lot less depth, and a guy like Thames could be huge value off your waiver wire. The Brewers have pretty much committed to playing him full time next year, and Miller Park has a well above league average park factor for lefthanded bats, affecting left handers’ home runs 14% above league average in 2015, according to Fangraphs (2016 data has yet to be released). I’d say you can count on 25 home runs from Thames with a full season’s worth of at bats.
I would argue that Thames is more of a sure thing than any of Kang, Park, or Lee. He knows the culture of the United States and of MLB better than any of those three did, an underrated factor when we consider that these are real people with real emotions. He also comes over with arguably as good a resume of any of them. I’d jump on Eric Thames now, in the early offseason with the winter meetings about to do a lot of distracting. The worst thing that happens is you waste a waiver claim, and the best? You get your starting first baseman for at least the next three years.