Look, you don’t have to try to sell me on Eric Thames. From his ability to sing to his future job in the sports entertainment industry, there’s plenty to love about the guy. Plus, just look at that facial hair. But as the 2019 season approaches, it’s difficult to find where Thames fits on this Milwaukee Brewers team. Maybe he gets traded before the season begins, but that’s even more difficult to envision at this point. That said, we’re not going to pretend to know what David Stearns is up to. Last time we thought we had all the answers, he went out and signed Yasmani Grandal.
So that brings us to the present, where we’re trying to figure out what to expect from Thames in 2019. By all accounts he’s a tremendous person to have in the clubhouse, and that should count for something. Especially when you consider how much fun this team had in 2018. It’s just that for all of the fun moments, including but certainly not limited to his homages to Stone Cold Steve Austin and Ric Flair, his overall 2018 production just didn’t measure up.
Let us not forget that Thames went scorched-Earth to begin the 2017 campaign, slashing an otherworldly .345/.466/.810 while crushing 11 home runs and racking up a ridiculous 1.276 OPS across 24 April games. Naturally, his numbers would fall. How could they not? Not even Jon Dowd of MVP Baseball lore was that unstoppable. Yet while the regression monster was sure to come for Thames, it didn’t all crumble at once. Following his April power surge, the slugging lefty hit three home runs in only seven fewer May at-bats. His plate discipline remained, however, as shown by his 16-22 walk to strikeout ratio and .375 on-base percentage.
That discipline fell off sharply for much of the rest of the season however, with Thames ultimately slashing his way to a line of .227/.324/.464 with 17 dingers from June 1 through October 1. Still, his above average second-half OPS (.794) and promising September (.328/.431/.574) provided plenty of encouragement as Milwaukee’s season came to a close. His 125 wRC+ saw him rank 13th among all first basemen that year. Not to mention, a 2.1 fWAR during his first season in the majors since 2012 was nothing to scoff at.
Then when the 2018 season finally did begin, Thames once again did plenty of mashing. Across 22 games between March and April (76 plate appearances), he slashed .250/.351/.625 with seven home runs en route to an excellent .976 OPS. But the breakout of fellow first baseman Jesús Aguilar coupled with a thumb injury that required surgery severely cut into his playing time the rest of the way.
Thames earned just 204 plate appearances for the remainder of the season, hitting just .208/.289/.426 (.715 OPS) with nine home runs across them. He was ultimately left off Milwaukee’s postseason roster. Meanwhile Aguilar burst on to the scene in a major way, slashing .274/.352/.539 with 35 dingers en route to 3.1 fWAR and 134 wRC+ – the latter ranking him fourth among all first basemen. He even earned himself some MVP consideration, finishing 16th in the voting while teammate Christian Yelich claimed the top honor. Needless to say, Aguilar is Milwaukee’s starting first baseman going forward. And that puts Thames in a difficult spot.
But it’s not just because of Aguilar’s breakout season that will likely lead to a decrease in playing time for the lefty in 2019.
One could point to the departures of outfielders Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton this offseason and figure that Thames will get more playing time there in 2019, yet with Ben Gamel now in town it’s difficult to see that being the case. So instead, would the Brewers consider a platoon at first base? Well that’s probably off the table as well, as Aguilar hit an impressive .271/.341/.535 with 26 of his 35 home runs coming off right-handed pitching. Other than your odd day off, it’s his job to lose. Barring injury or a serious dip in production, it’s going to be tough for Thames to take at-bats away from Aguilar.
Plus, Thames doesn’t carry much value defensively either. In 137 games at first base for the Brewers over these last two years, Baseball Reference has him at -7 defensive runs saved. In 132 games at first baseman last season, Aguilar finished with a mark of +6 defensive runs saved. Looking at his 66 outfield appearances over the past two seasons, Thames finished with a mark of -3 defensive runs saved. Again, barring injury or significant dips in production from elsewhere, it’s tough to envision where his at-bats will come from.
Thames, who turned 32 years old in November, carries with him a price tag of $6 million in 2019. While that’s not a whole lot, it might be a big enough figure to prevent Milwaukee from making one more addition this offseason. But to repeat, there’s no use in trying to guess what Slingin’ Stearns is up to. We’re just not going to play that game in this space.
From a baseball and roster flexibility standpoint though, something tells me the Brewers would move him if they could. Something also tells me that a simple look at his 2018 campaign is a pretty good indicator that his market probably isn’t too robust at the moment. And that’s fine too. The Brewers don’t need to move him. After all, the departures of Santana and Broxton make this clubhouse a little less fun in 2019. Thankfully, Thames has plenty of personality to spare.
If his past two Aprils are any indication, he is going to give Milwaukee plenty to cheer about when the season begins – assuming he gets a chance to, that is. Hopefully what follows in the months after that is a reversal of fortune from his two prior seasons.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs