Since the long-ago end of the Prince Fielder era in Milwaukee, first base has been a revolving door for the Brewers. We’ve seen a multitude of players try their hand at the position, but never for longer than one season at a time; Corey Hart manned first in 2012, then Juan Francisco and a slew of former shortstops in 2013, the Lyle Overbay/Mark Reynolds platoon of 2014, Adam Lind in 2015, and finally Chris Carter last season. After somewhat surprisingly non-tendering Carter in the wake of his 41 home run season (which looked wise in hindsight, given the tepid market that greeted Carter in free agency), David Stearns and the Brewers hope they have found a multi-year solution at first in Eric Thames.
Thames took an unconventional route to Milwaukee, beginning his career as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays and debuting in the big leagues back in 2011. He appeared in 181 games with the Blue Jays and Mariners, mostly as an outfielder, from 2011-12 and slashed .250/.296/.431 with 21 home runs. Thames didn’t make it back to the big leagues in 2013 after bouncing around the waiver wire with a few organizations, eventually getting released by the Astros. It was then that he seized an opportunity to join the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization and changed the trajectory of his career.
Thames immediately became a star overseas, hitting a cumulative .348/.450/.720 in 1,634 plate appearances during his three seasons in Korea from 2014-16. He swatted 124 home runs and stole 64 bases during that time, including becoming the first 40-40 man in the KBO’s history (47 HR, 40 SB) during his MVP season of 2015. Even considering for the offensive-friendly environment of the league, Thames’ video-game like numbers were impressive. The Brewers began to scout Thames through video shortly after hiring Slingin’ Stearns in 2015, and when Eric hit the free agent market this winter, Milwaukee’s 3-year, $16 mil contract offer (with a 4th year team option) was enough to convince the 30 year old to return to America.
The projection systems are split on how well the left-handed hitting Thames will translate his Korean success back to the big leagues. Steamer is the highest on him, forecasting an .864 OPS with 29 home runs and 13 steals. ZiPS sees him as more of a platoon option with an .815 OPS and 26 home runs in 120 games. PECOTA, meanwhile, projects Thames for just 17 home runs and a sub-.700 OPS, pegging for to be a below-replacement level contributor.
Thames will only draw a $4 mil salary in 2017 and it won’t take a ton of production in order to justify that salary. He’s hitless in eight at-bats thus far during the spring, though that’s obviously not enough of a sample to draw any sort of meaningful conclusion from. Thames’ biggest adjustments will be getting used to the velocity of MLB hurlers once again (KBO pitcher’s generally work in the 80’s with their fastballs), but as Beyond the Box Score explored earlier this winter, he’s already made significant changes to his swing mechanics during his years in Korea that should lead to success now that he’s back in the majors. Thames was roughly a league-average hitter during his last stint in the MLB, and even if he only is able to improve slightly over that level of production, his contract should be a good value for Milwaukee.
Should Thames battle unforeseen struggles, the Brewers have another option in camp in Jesus Aguilar. Claimed on waivers from Cleveland shortly before spring training began, Aguilar lead the AAA International League with 30 home runs last season while batting .247/.319/.472. He’s struggled mightily during his brief exposure to MLB pitching, however, striking out 21 times in 64 plate appearances in parts of three seasons with the Indians. The 26 year old is looking to prove he’s more than just your run-of-the-mill quad-A slugger, and should he make the team (he’s out of minor league options) he could serve as a potential platoon partner with Thames at first and a source of right-handed power off the bench. He also has some limited experience at the outfield corners and third base, though he’s not really suited to those positions with any sort of regularity. Utiltyman Hernan Perez also made a few appearances at first last season and has spent a little time there this spring, providing further depth at the position.
On the Farm
Garrett Cooper is in camp as an NRI and posted a .767 OPS between AA and AAA last year, but he’s 26 and lacks the prototypical power for the position...Dustin DeMuth has played all over the field (2B, 3B, LF, RF) and made most of his appearances at first base last year, posting a .741 OPS between A+ and AA. Like Cooper, he doesn’t have much power...Juan Ortiz was impressive at rookie-level Helena last year but struggled upon a promotion to A Wisconsin...2016 draftee Ronnie Gideon crushed the Pioneer league (1.010 OPS, 17 HR in 59 games) but was old for the level...2016 draftee Gabriel Garcia enjoyed an impressive debut (.893 OPS) in the rookie-level Arizona League.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference