Nothing has piqued my interest this offseason quite like free-agent outfielder Eric Thames.
Thames is 30 years old, and if he returns to playing in the Majors next season, it will be his first time suiting up in a MLB uniform in half a decade.
In 2008, Thames was a 7th round pick in the MLB Draft of the Toronto Blue Jays. He worked his way up through the minor leagues, showing good pop and a keen ability to get on base.
Thames was a big leaguer by the 2011 season, and he was decent, swatting 12 home runs and posting a .769 OPS (105 OPS+) over 394 plate appearances with Toronto.
Selected off waivers by the Mariners in 2012, Thames wrapped up that season with a total of 21 career big league homers, a .727 OPS (96 OPS+) and defense so poor that he did not even provide any real value (-0.1 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement).
What is shocking, though, is what has happened since Thames fell into relative obscurity within baseball circles, especially since he was never a top prospect and was never considered to ever become a superstar at any level.
Over the past three years, Thames has been one of the best baseball players in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO).
From 2014 through 2016, Thames has a combined 124 home runs (41.3 HR/year average) and 379 RBI (126.3 RBI/year average) over 388 games.
He was named KBO MVP in 2015 when he posted a .381/.497/.790 line with 47 home runs, 140 RBI, 40 stolen bases and a 103-91 BB/K ratio in 595 plate appearances.
Now that Thames is a free agent once again, he's generating interest from Major League franchises, who not only seemed inclined to give him a Major League contract but a multi-year deal, according to some executives.
"Look at some of the money that Cuban players have gotten," one executive told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN. "What’s the difference here? I think somebody is going to bite, and he’ll get a contract for two years and $12 million, or three years and $15-18 million."
According to Crasnick, the San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics, and Tampa Bay Rays have all shown interest in Thames.
Can Thames make a true big league impact?
Certainly, teams think so. Results, on the other hand, give us mixed messages.
Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang went from Korea in 2014 to the big leagues from in 2015, and phenomenal results were almost immediate. He went from posting a 1.198 OPS in the KBO to an .816 OPS (123 OPS+) in the Major Leagues. That's a success story.
Hyun Soo Kim went from posting a .979 OPS in Korea in 2015 to a .801 OPS (113 OPS+) in the Majors in 2016. He was good with the Orioles but only in a limited role.
Like Thames, Twins designated hitter and first baseman Byung Ho Park is a former KBO MVP. He posted a 1.150 OPS in Korea in 2015 and then a .684 OPS in America in 2016. Park spent a big chunk of last season in Triple-A and remains a huge question mark.
One thing among all three of these examples is certain: when moving from Korea to America, the OPS will fall, and it might be only due to a transition period and getting used to Major League pitching. Though, I wouldn't say that is for certain, as the KBO is a notorious hitter's league.
For Kang, the OPS fell 32% (though it did go higher in 2016). For Kim, the OPS fell 18%. And for Park, the OPS fell 41%.
If we assume that Thames' OPS falls approximately 30% from 2016 to 2017 when making the likely transition to the Majors, he would post approximately a .770 OPS next season, which falls awfully close to what is in line with his MLB career OPS (.727).
Sure, my calculations are based on a mere three examples, but I think my point still stands. Thames isn't as good as he is in Korea, and it might not even be close.
Does this mean that a team does not deserve to give him a job? Absolutely not. It is on the teams to exploit every possible opportunity to gain value, and Thames could conceivably provide a lot of value if he even 80 or 90 percent of the guy he was in Korea.
But for me, I just don't see that happening.