Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2016. Eric Thames signed a three-year contract with the Brewers on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.
Korea’s contributions to Major League Baseball have run the gamut in recent years. Jung Ho Kang, the crown jewel of transplants, is an .800 OPS anchor in the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ order. Seattle’s Dae-Ho Lee flashed some power this season, with 14 home runs in 104 games. Baltimore’s Hyun Soo Kim hit .302 without a lot of pop, and Byung Ho Park batted .191 in 62 games with Minnesota before a demotion to the minors and season-ending wrist surgery in August. That was hardly what the Twins had in mind when they signed him to a four-year, $12.85 million contract a year ago.
So who will be next on the list? The primary name on MLB’s Korea radar has California roots, an outsized personality and enough of a mystery factor to suggest he could be a wild card in this winter’s free-agent market.
His name is Eric Thames, and Toronto fans might recall him as a platoon outfielder with the Blue Jays in 2011 and 2012. After drifting from Seattle to Houston to the NC Dinos in the Korean Baseball Organization, he has lured a procession of scouts to the city of Changwon, on Korea’s southeastern coast. The San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays are among the clubs that have followed Thames in Korea and expressed varying degrees of interest in him, sources said.
Thames, 30, has spent the past three years putting up cartoon numbers that bring to mind the success enjoyed by Tuffy Rhodes and Wladimir Balentien in Japan. In 2015, Thames won the MVP award and a Gold Glove at first base, became the first KBO player to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season, logged a .391/.497/.790 slash line and became the first player in Korean baseball to hit for the cycle twice in the same season.
This year, Thames regressed slightly, but he still hit 40 homers and logged an OPS of 1.101 for the Dinos, who lost to the Doosan Bears in the KBO final, known as the Korean Series.
Now that Thames has reached the end of a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Dinos, options abound. He could return to the Dinos, although his success might have priced him out of the KBO. He could pursue a deal in Japan. Or he could plunge into the MLB free-agent market, where the left-handed power-hitting options include Michael Saunders, Colby Rasmus, Mitch Moreland, Adam Lind, Pedro Alvarez and Brandon Moss.
Is Thames an everyday option for a team in search of a power bat, or more of a platoon type? Interested major league teams aren’t the only ones asking that question. Four years since his last big league at-bat, Thames is curious what the future might bring.
“Yes, the thought has crossed my mind a few times,” Thames said in a recent email to ESPN.com. “I’m wondering about how my new mindset could transfer over. Next year feels like light years away! Who knows where I will end up.”
Thames has taken a roundabout route to this point. He played high school ball at Bellarmine Prep — a private Jesuit school in San Jose, California, that produced big leaguers Pat Burrell and Kevin Frandsen — and signed with Toronto as a seventh-round pick out of Pepperdine University in 2008. He was at the bottom of the 40-man roster for a 111-loss Houston team and playing winter ball in Venezuela in December 2013 when representatives for the Dinos squad approached his agents at Sosnick, Cobbe & Karon with interest.
As a bearded, muscular, 6-foot-1, 220-pounder with power and an abundance of tattoos, Thames had a certain appeal for the Dinos.
“They had done their homework,” said Adam Karon, Thames’ agent. “They told us they were interested because, ‘He’s a comic book hero with a prep school education.'”
Thames was initially skeptical about his long-term prospects in the Far East. He planned to go to Korea for a year, then return stateside. But his natural curiosity prompted him to keep an open mind. Shortly after signing with NC, Thames bought the Rosetta Stone Korean program and dove head-first into learning the language.
“When you look at this as just a paycheck, that’s when you struggle,” Thames said. “The key is to enjoy the ride. Fully embrace the experience. [The] Hangul [alphabet] is pretty easy to learn, so I was able to pick it up easily. I am not fluent by any means, but speaking like a baby is better than not knowing any at all.”
As Thames immersed himself in the Korean culture and began clearing fences with regularity, he developed an ardent following. He patiently signed autographs for long lines of fans at Masan Stadium, and he grew accustomed to having meals interrupted by fans in search of selfies.
“Going anywhere with him is insane in that country,” Karon said. “It’s like going out with the Beatles. Girls are crying and people are trying to touch him and get pictures. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Celebrity came with a price. In late September, Thames was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and suspended nine games. The legal limit for blood alcohol content in Korea is 0.050, considerably lower than in the U.S., and Thames registered a 0.056. He apologized and subsequently did community service as a penance.
A Far East scout for an MLB club said Thames showed a strong work ethic in Korea and was popular with his teammates. The natural question is how his skills will translate to the majors. Can he adjust to higher level of competition and bigger ballparks in the majors? Thames has more of a line-drive swing than loft power. Can he catch up to 94-95 mph fastballs after feasting on 89-91 mph heaters in the KBO?
“He’s very aggressive at the plate and on the field, too, for that matter,” the scout said. “He’s a first-ball fastball hacker, boy. He’s trying to hit the ball hard. Sometime you see guys who are happy to make contact and put the ball in play. That’s not him. He’s gonna hurt somebody someday.”
Thames’ defense in the outfield was considered below-average in Toronto. He moved to first base in Korea and will most likely be viewed by MLB teams as a combination first baseman-corner outfield-DH candidate. A National League front office man said he wouldn’t be surprised if teams were willing to give Thames a multiyear deal to return to the States.
“You have an element that’s going to be skeptical,” the executive said. “He’s already played over here, and he wasn’t a tremendous success the first time. But you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this guy a late bloomer?’
“Look at some of the money that Cuban players have gotten. 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.”
Thames, who majored in integrated marketing and communications at Pepperdine, is back on the open market as a more mature, worldly player than the one who first traveled to Korea in 2014. He has embraced meditation and is a fan of Shawn Green‘s book, “The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph.”
“I focus on the process rather than the results,” Thames said. “When I was younger, I just wanted to be liked by fans and wanted to be an All-Star, but there is a process to succeed at that high of a level. I believe meditation is very important. It helps keep your head above water. It helps you live in the present moment.”
The present finds Eric Thames open to offers and interested in seeing how much MLB teams value his achievements in Korea. After traveling roughly 6,000 miles to find himself, he’s about to discover how it feels to be wanted back in the states.