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.
We're three weeks from baseball season. Almost there, readers! This Saturday, you're going to have to settle for another division preview, though. After doing the entire National League over the past three weeks (if you missed them, they're further down on the blog), I flip over to the Junior Circuit American League, beginning today with a very competitive AL East.
1. Boston Red Sox -- 2015 Record: 78-84; Projection: 90-72
In the second half of the 2015 season, the Red Sox finally saw the production they were hoping for from their young players. From August 1 through the rest of the season, Boston went 32-26 and almost finished .500 even though they were 12 games under coming. An exciting breath of youth for Sox fans was seen at the end of last season, and this offseason, a new regime in the front office supplemented to their promising roster in hopes to make a playoff run.
Perhaps the most intriguing player for the Red Sox in 2016 is Mookie Betts, who looks to build off of a fantastic age-22 campaign. He hit for an .820 OPS (118 OPS+) in his first full season in the Majors, solidifying himself in Boston's outfield for years to come. Joining him in the 2016 lineup will be a good mix of up-and-comers as well as seasoned veterans, including designated hitter David Ortiz, who is planning on retiring after the season, his 20th.
In the pitching staff, the Red Sox get a huge boost with the additions of David Price via free agency and Craig Kimbrel in a trade. The rotation still has some questions, especially surrounding Rick Porcello and Clay Buchholz, but a true ace will definitely help this team, as Price is exactly what the Sox lacked in 2015. Kimbrel, on the other hand, will step in as closer and should be able to fix other woes Boston has had in years past.
David Price, Craig Kimbrel, and the young talents will lead the Red Sox to the 2016 AL East crown. Maybe even Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez will chip in too!
2. New York Yankees -- 2015 Record: 87-75; Projection: 88-74
The Yankees can win this division. They could've won the division last year too, but settled for a Wild Card spot. The Bronx Bombers lost the one-game playoff to Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros, ending their season abruptly. But a pair of offseason moves should help the Yanks make a run deep into the 2016 season as well, operating with the best bullpen in baseball.
Yankees relief pitching posted the third-highest FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) as a group in 2015, and then they went out and traded for Aroldis Chapman, the game's best relief pitcher, this offseason. However, Chapman will miss the season's first 30 games due to a suspension after a domestic violence incident that did not result in an arrest. Albeit the suspension, the Yankees still boast Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller in the back of the 'pen, and they should be more than capable of shutting down opposing lineups at the end of games.
The rotation is this team's only question, as just like in 2015, they do not have a true No. 1 starter. Masahiro Tanaka does appear at the top of their rotation, but he did not have an ace-like season last year. The Yankees do have one of my personal favorites, Nathan Eovaldi, in their rotation. His stuff is fantastic (100+ MPH fastball), and he had a 3.2 fWAR season in 2015.
As for the lineup, the Yankees are returning most of their veterans and add the likes of Starlin Castro. They will score runs. And lots of them. But will it be enough to win the American League East? I just don't see the team on top at the end of the year.
3. Toronto Blue Jays -- 2015 Record: 93-69; Projection: 86-76
The Blue Jays made the playoffs for the for the first time since 1993 in 2015, and they concluded their season with their fans wanting more, losing the American League Championship Series to the Kansas City Royals. Despite this, the Blue Jays proved that their offensive-minded team can win but only after they acquired David Price at the trade deadline were they able to run away with the division. The Blue Jays' record before July 31 was 53-51. Their record after July 31 was 40-18.
While this rapid improvement cannot all be credited to Price (they also got Troy Tulowitzki at the deadline, you know), he did provide something they lacked during the first part of the season: an anchor at the top of the rotation. Price is no longer in Toronto this season, and this means that someone else will have to step it up in order for the team to repeat their successes. It could be Marcus Stroman, who allowed just five earned runs in 27 innings after coming back from injury. But even if he does pitch well, the depth they have just isn't the same. Mark Buehrle is also gone. Besides Stroman, their pitching staff consists of: R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ (new addition), and Aaron Sanchez. I'm not a fan.
However, there are no holes in this lineup. They've got AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin all in one lineup. There's no way to pitch to this team, who scored 891 runs last season (5.5 R/G), the best in baseball by almost 130. There's no doubt in my mind that their offense will have issues in 2016, but the Blue Jays' downfall comes in the form of their rotation. And I'll let you in on a little secret: There aren't any David Prices that are likely to be available at this season's trade deadline.
4. Tampa Bay Rays -- 2015 Record: 80-82; Projection: 84-78
The 2015 Rays were average. They finished just two games under .500, scored 644 runs, and allowed 642 runs. Their season had its ups and downs, from leading the division by as many as a pair of games and being as far behind as 15 1/2. At the end, the Rays finished 13 out of the Blue Jays and missed the playoffs for the second straight season. This offseason, the club acquired Corey Dickerson from the Rockies for Jake McGee and brought in Logan Morrison and Brad Miller via Seattle.
If the Rays want to win in 2016, they'll need some bounce back seasons from Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, who each missed a good portion of the 2015 season due to injury. Moore is just three years removed from an All-Star season, and Smyly had a 3.24 ERA in 153 innings in 2014. Those two will fall behind the anchors in the Rays rotation: Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, both of whom had stellar years. In the bullpen, the Rays lost McGee, a back-end reliever, to Colorado, but still retain Brad Boxberger and Alex Colome to shut down opposing lineups at the end of games.
As for their lineup, the Rays don't really have a big bat. Despite this, every player in their lineup has the ability to be productive. Even Evan Longoria, who led the team with 21 homers, posted a 110 OPS+ in 2015 (10% above league average). This could come back to bite the team, as they'll have to go up against some of the toughest lineups in baseball in their very division.
I still wouldn't rule out the possibility of the Rays making a wild run in the American League, but going into the season, they just appear to be a bit behind most of their fellow AL East members.
5. Baltimore Orioles -- 2015 Record: 81-81; Projection: 77-85
The Orioles are going to be haunted by their lack of pitching in 2016. Even last year, Orioles' starters posted the sixth-highest ERA in baseball. Now, they get Yovani Gallardo on a free agent deal but lose Wei-Yin Chen to the Marlins. The loss of Chen may not seem like a big deal, but to Baltimore, it could mean everything. He was their best starter, posting a 3.34 ERA in 31 outings.
The rest of their staff isn't deep. Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Kevin Gausman round out the O's rotation, with Tillman and Gonzalez posting ERAs above 4.90. Even Gallardo, who registered a 3.42 ERA last year and is supposed to help anchor the starters, is showing signs of age with diminished velocity and a relatively average FIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015. As for the bullpen, the Orioles are set. Darren O'Day re-signed with the club this offseason, and Zach Britton was named an All-Star with a 1.92 ERA (2.01 FIP) last season. As for the innings between their starters and back-end relievers, there is a lot of unknown in Baltimore. Vance Worley, T.J. McFarland, and even Dylan Bundy could be used as middle relievers.
I don't have a problem with the Orioles' offense, and I may even prefer it to the Rays'. Chris Davis is back with the team, complementing Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and two new additions, Mark Trumbo and Korean signee Hyun-soo Kim. Their offense will have to step it up to win high-scoring games if they want to beat their projection this season. And even if this does occur, the Orioles may still only have the third- or fourth-best offense in the AL East. This could be a rough year for O's fans.
Next up: AL Central
Using Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds, you should be able to tell who has the best chance of doing just that. Teams really should take those odds to determine whether they should be buyers and sellers because more often than not, they are right.
After games being played on July 6 last year, five of the ten eventual postseason teams had a 80 percent chance of making the playoffs or better. Every team that did have an 80 percent or greater chance of making the playoffs on this date last year did.
The team with the highest percent chance to make the playoffs on July 6 that ultimately didn't was the Milwaukee Brewers, who had a 71 percent chance to punch their ticket, but collapsed down the stretch and failed to make it.
Only three (Orioles, Royals, and Pirates) had less than a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs following action on July 6. By July 31, the Orioles were up to a 71 percent chance, the Royals were at a 17 percent chance, and the Pirates were at a 46 percent chance.
Knowing this, I will use Baseball Prospectus' current postseason predictions to determine who should buy and who should sell at the 2015 Trade Deadline.
All In (85% or greater)
St. Louis Cardinals (99.3%)
There's no reason why the Cardinals, who own MLB's best record at 54-28, should consider selling. In fact, Baseball Prospectus says that they have a 99.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, leaving just a very small chance for an extreme collapse. If the Cardinals play just .500 ball the rest of the way, that would put them on pace for 94 wins, which would definitely put them in prime position to punch their ticket to the postseason. The Cardinals have no reason to do anything but buy.
Los Angeles Dodgers (92.9%)
The Dodgers have the second-highest playoff percentage in the league, and nothing suggests that this team won't buy at the trade deadline. I predicted them to go out and get Johnny Cueto, perhaps the best pitcher available not named Cole Hamels. The Dodgers are always willing to spend money and prospects to make their team better and can easily justify doing so at the deadline.
Washington Nationals (85.6%)
The Nationals have arguably not played their best baseball yet, but still have an 85.6 percent chance to make the playoffs. They could use some reinforcements in their bullpen, but most of the additions the Nationals will be getting will be players coming back from injury, such as Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Stephen Strasburg. They may not need to make a ton of moves in July, but if they do, they have good reason to do so.
Houston Astros (84.7%)
The Astros have already shown interest in some of the top pitchers that will be available, and Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds completely backs that up. Houston's playoff percentage, at 84.7 percent, is so close to 85 percent that I had to shove them into this category. The Astros have showed that while they are a bit of a surprise, they still can win ballgames and do it over a period of time. The Astros by no means are "pretenders," as they have been able to hold a comfortable AL West lead since late April.
Should be buyers (70-85%)
Pittsburgh Pirates (81.3%), Chicago Cubs (73.1%)
The Pirates and Cubs have a case of some serious bad luck. They are playing in the National League's toughest division and would be either leading or close to leading any other division in the league. The only reason I'm wary of either of these teams buying at the deadline is because they are not division leaders and have more of a chance to collapse and fall out of the playoff race altogether. Unless they believe they have a real shot at the Cardinals (which it appears they don't), they shouldn't completely unload their farm systems to go out and get the best guy on the market.
Kansas City Royals (75.3%)
Of the three teams in this category, I am most comfortable with the Royals buying at the trade deadline due to the fact that they lead their division by a comfortable margin and need just one or two pieces to really put the pressure on the rest of the division. All signs point to the Royals making the playoffs again this year, so I would go ahead and pencil them in as buyers at the deadline.
Los Angeles Angels (64.8%)
The Angels are in a good position right now. They are playing good baseball and have shown the need for an upgrade in left field. Of the teams listed in this section, I truly believe they are the best and most complete team, so therefore they should be buyers at the deadline. The Angels could use some rotation help as well, but if they patch up a few spots, they will get into the postseason. My verdict? They should be buyers.
AL East: New York Yankees (59.4%), Toronto Blue Jays (39.6%), Tampa Bay Rays (34.9%)
The American League East division is lumped together because the division is so muddled and close that really anyone could win it. Baseball Prospectus' simulations give the Yankees the best chance to go to the playoffs out of that division, but with some rotation help, the Blue Jays are the division's best team. The Yankees and Rays should stand pat or make small moves at the deadline, while the Blue Jays should go out and make a splash for a rotation piece.
Detroit Tigers (36.7%)
With Miguel Cabrera being sidelined with his hamstring injury, I'm going to pencil the Tigers in as should be sellers, but as this team continues to try and make a run once again, they will find themselves trying to buy. The Tigers are heading towards a Phillies-esque fall, and if they don't realize that soon, it could only get worse if they decide to buy at the trade deadline in hopes for one last run at the World Series.
Maybe/Stand Pat (20-30%)
New York Mets (28.9%)
Even if the Mets added an offensive piece, I don't think that would be enough to get them to the playoffs this season. With that said, however, I could see them dealing for a guy with more than one season of control, as their young and talented pitching staff comes into their own. The Mets couldn't justify buying for a rental player, but a guy who is at least signed through 2016 could make sense.
Baltimore Orioles (28.7%)
The Baltimore Orioles have a ton of free agents at the end of the season that they probably should move. The Orioles could be one of those teams that tries to get 25-man roster guys with more years of team control in return. The Orioles could be a team that buys and sells at the trade deadline, and I would be fine with that.
San Francisco Giants (22.9%)
It's an odd year. The Giants aren't good enough to win the NL West, and considering that they have to deal with the Cubs and Pirates for the Wild Card, it will be tough for them to really make a run into the postseason. However, they still have a good core group of guys and the team has proved me wrong before. They probably should stand pat.
Shouldn't buy (Less than 20%)
Minnesota Twins (18.2%)
The Twins just aren't that good. Sure, they had a good run earlier this season, but all the numbers suggest that they were going to fall out of first in the AL Central. The Twins should really try and go for 2016, when some of their rookies will be more polished.
Texas Rangers (15.0%)
While the Rangers shouldn't buy, they probably will, as I consider them to be in a similar boat as the Tigers are in. The Rangers could legitimately contend, but they would more than a couple of upgrades, to the point where they probably shouldn't go for it this season.
Cleveland Indians (13.5%)
The Indians were a popular postseason pick prior to this season, but Baseball Prospectus' simulations show that they would need some serious luck to actually get there. The Indians shouldn't sell any pieces other than the impending free agents because my gut says that they will be back in the postseason sooner than later.
Boston Red Sox (11.8%)
The Red Sox are in a tough position right now. It might not be time for a fire sale quite yet, but it's definitely not time to go out and try and contend this season.
Seattle Mariners (7.0%)
The Mariners have had some issues staying in the race this season, and while they shouldn't sell off their entire team, they really shouldn't be buyers either.
Oakland Athletics (6.8%)
The Athletics are already shopping their pieces and it looks like they will be sellers.
Arizona Diamondbacks (6.4%)
The Diamondbacks are a team that should stand pat. They still have pieces to contend in the near future and as their pitching improves with guys coming back from injury, they could be a legitimate contender coming 2016.
Atlanta Braves (3.8%)
The Braves, especially in the offseason, have committed to becoming a selling team. They don't have any exciting pieces, but even though they have kind of surprised, they should by no means buy.
Chicago White Sox (3.2%)
The White Sox are in a tough position. They reportedly won't have a fire sale, which makes sense considering how much money they spent in free agency, but they need to get rid of Jeff Samardzija and still be planning to try again in 2016.
San Diego Padres (2.7%)
The Padres could buy at the deadline, but in all reality, they shouldn't. They've got some important games coming up that they need to win if people start seriously seeing them as contenders. Once again, they are proving that the winners of the offseason don't necessarily win during the season.
Miami Marlins (1.6%)
The Marlins shouldn't go into a fire sale, but Mat Latos, Dan Haren, Brad Hand, and other free agents at the end of the season should be gone.
Cincinnati Reds (1.1%)
The Reds have Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and possibly Aroldis Chapman available, and while they won't sell until after they host the All-Star Game, I expect it to come, as it should.
Colorado Rockies (0.2%)
I'd pull the trigger and deal Troy Tulowitzki. It's time for a real change in Colorado if they want to be relevant down the road.
Milwaukee Brewers (0.2%)
The Brewers should enter into a fire sale.
Philadelphia Phillies (0.0%)
Now, these rankings and categories don't mean that each of these teams will do as I advise. Their postseason percentages could change and perhaps an addition is all they need to do that. However, Baseball Prospectus' odds are very accurate and should not be taken lightly. Teams really should use them to determine whether they could justify buying at the deadline.
The Baltimore Orioles look like they're in no position to begin selling pieces off their roster.
At 34-32, the Orioles are right in the heat of the AL East division rate, sitting just three games out of first place. With a +36 run differential, the Orioles could be looking to get on a tear soon, perhaps catapulting them up in the division or the Wild Card races.
Despite all this, the Orioles need to move slugging first baseman Chris Davis at some point during the season.
Davis, 29, would be an attractive piece due to his power, as he's hitting for a .224/.314/.461 line this season with 14 homers and 38 runs batted in over 264 plate appearances. He's just a season removed from a 53 home run performance.
Teams like the Cardinals and Rays could have need for the first baseman Davis. St. Louis has had to deal with a season-ending injury to starter Matt Adams. The Rays would be a good fit for Davis due to the injury and under-performance to James Loney, but the Orioles may be reluctant to move Davis to a division rival.
With free agency impending following this season, it seems nearly impossible that the Orioles will have Chris Davis following the 2015 season. Scott Boras, who is known for commanding big deals for his clients, represents Davis.
The Orioles may just not be willing to pay Davis like a primer slugger when he has trouble hitting for a good average and getting on base. This makes him a perfect to candidate to be dealt.
It's also a possibility that the Orioles decide to offer Davis a qualifying offer after the season and collect their draft pick. So, a trade is by no means a given.
However, a trade is an interesting thing to think about for the front office staff and GM Dan Duquette, who is known for being extremely creative with his roster. Perhaps the Orioles could get a Major League starter for Davis, as their rotation is among the worst in baseball. It is definitely a possibility.
As for the Orioles at first base, Steve Pearce could get a look, as he is suffering from an extremely low BABIP and is still hitting plenty of line drives. It's possible that he could rebound and make Davis seem like he was never gone.
With the trade deadline just a month away, it is finally time to be talking about possible "out of nowhere" moves. The Orioles could and probably should move Chris Davis in the next month.
Major League Baseball has recently been investigating an interesting case, one that includes the Cubs possibly tampering with a manager who was still technically under contract in the Rays' Joe Maddon.
The Cubs hired Maddon at the beginning of last offseason after he used a special opt-out clause in his deal with Tampa. The opt-out became active when former general manager Andrew Friedman left to become the Dodgers' president of baseball operations.
Maddon was quickly hired by the Cubs after opting-out on October 23 on a five-year, $25 million deal. MLB rules state that a team can not have contract discussions with team personal, whether it would be a player, coach, or front office person, while they are under contract with another team.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said yesterday that a verdict on the case should come "fairly quickly," according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.
The whole situation in Chicago was a bit uneasy. The Cubs had to fire manager Rick Renteria, who signed a three-year deal, after just one year, even though the Cubs showed signs of improvement in wins and competitiveness.
If the Cubs are found guilty, they may have to provide some compensation to the Rays, which may include cash or a player.
I can't make a fair judgement on whether the Cubs truly "tampered" with Maddon, but at the time of his opt-out, just the Twins had a managerial opening. Maddon or his agent Alan Nero likely had some knowledge that the Cubs would show interest in hiring him, but will there be enough evidence to prove that?
Maddon did say publicly that he was happy in his position with the Rays and wanted to stay there longterm. Then how did something just spur within him that he would quickly want to opt-out, especially without someone telling him he should have?
The business side of this deal may not be the cleanest, and when Major League Baseball makes its decision soon, the Cubs may have to pay the price. It definitely looks like they could have tampered, but without concrete evidence, I really don't know either way. All I know, however, is that Maddon is looking to take the Cubs back to the World Series for the first time since 1908.