There is no player over whom we've agonized more this offseason than Eric Thames. In fact, we've likely pondered the sophomore outfielder more than all other Jays combined since the season's end. It's somewhat maddening.
We've actually begun writing this piece and set it aside a half-dozen times, because we never felt like it was that worthy of being written in the first place. Or we had never quite sold ourselves on the notion that we were expressing ourselves correctly when trying to figure out why we're so fixated on him.
It's taken some time, but we ascribe our exceeding interest in Thames to four things:
1) His position relative in the pileup of players who might get playing time in left field this season: The Blue Jays are going to have to find room for Thames, Edwin Encarnacion, Travis Snider, and Rajai Davis to get at bats this season between the DH and LF. Were we to come into this equation after a year's coma, sorting out who slots in where would be fairly simple, with EE getting the DH at bats, Rajai getting pinch running duty, Thames taking the everyday at bats and Snider plying his trade in Las Vegas or elsewhere.
Of course, we've a five-year history with Travis, and we keep finding the reasons why he makes sense for the future of the franchise. Add to that the fact that Rajai has probably produced more than either of the youngsters, and our dubious view of Thames' defense, and somehow, it still seems muddled.
2) The discrepancy between the general perception and our perception of him: This has more to do with the casual manner in which Thames has been dismissed as a lousy outfielder with a poor OBP who doesn't merit a slot in the lineup of a team that fancies itself as a contender for a Wild Card spot in 2012. (More on that below.) We hope we're not creating a straw man to scorch, but our sense is that Thames doesn't have a widespread base of support amongst the Blue Jays blogging cognoscenti. But when we watch that quick bat go screaming through the hitting zone, and when we see Thames square up the ball and hit it as hard as anyone outside of Bautista, it seems to us though he has the most important tool in his arsenal, and some remaining headroom before he reaches his ceiling.
Thames' .333 weighted on base average was the fourth best among Jays with more than 200 at bats last year, trailing José Bautista by nautical miles, but also trailing Yunel Escobar (.345) and Edwin Encarnacion (.344) by a somewhat slim margin. His isolated power of .193 was third-best, behind Bautista and J.P. Arencibia, and ahead of Escobar, Encarnacion and Lind.
In fact, it is hardly a stretch to state that Thames is the fourth best bat on this team as it stands today. The .313 OBP is not great by any means, but it bears mentioning that Texas corner outfielder Nelson Cruz actually posted a .312 OBP, and we're pretty certain that there would be joy throughout the land if he were to suddenly find his way into the Jays' lineup next season.
3) The Blue Jays no longer have the luxury of lollygagging around waiting to see if some of this potential turns into something tangibly valuable: Further to what we stated above, the Eternal Building Process seems to have been cut short in the minds of many fans over the past few weeks, and there is a greater urgency for 2012 to be a year in which the Jays move to the next level. So to go through a season of bumps and feeling out contenders for a regular spot in the lineup seems antithetical to those ambitions. Taking several months to figure out who fits where and how is not on the agenda for most fans this spring.
4) What about Travis? To chose to go forward with Eric Thames seems like a repudiation of the rosy-cheeked carnivore. If they both break camp with the big club, the Jays will be left to choose between the two left-handed bats on a daily basis. And while injuries will happen and a five-man outfield would still result in 300-plus plate appearances for each, it still seems as though a choice will have to be made between them.
Snider is better base-stealer and a better defensive option, is almost two years younger and his 82-game 2010 campaign (.255/.304/.463, .331 wOBA, 14 HR, 1.2 fWAR in 319 PAs) compares pretty favourably to Thames' 2011 (.262/.313/.456, .333 wOBA, 12 HRs, 0.9 fWAR in 394 PAs). The big distinction between the two at this point, we suppose, is their strikeout rates. Thames posted a not-great 22.3% K-rate to go with a subpar 5.8% walk rate last season, while Snider put up a team-worst (200 PA minimum) 27.7% K-rate and a 5.4% walk rate.
Though we think there are few who can claim to be bigger fans of Travis Snider than us - we spent years giving him nicknames and praising him in spite of his output - it seems to us that if you were to take your affections out of the equation, the choice for the starting left field job seems pretty evident. We're just not sure that we're comfortable with the answer.