Who: Eric Thames, No. 14. Batter, and since tradition dictates, also sorta an outfielder. Hits left, throws right. 6’1, 205 LBS. 25 years old.
Provenance: Santa Clara, California. Drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 amateur draft by Toronto out of Pepperdine University.
Contract Status: Thames has 0.115 seasons of MLB service, which means that he’s here for a long time, and he’s quite inexpensive.
2011 Stats: .262 AVG, .313 OBP, .456 SLG, .769 OPS in 95 games and 362 ABs. 24 doubles, 12 homers, 58 runs scored. Isolated power number of .193. 0.9 WAR (Fangraph-ically speaking.)
Looking Back: The battle for the left field job started in earnest in March. March of last year, that is.
Eric Thames came to Jays camp in 2011 as a depth player who had put up decent numbers in New Hampshire in the previous year (27 homers, 104 RBI, 896 OPS). There were asterisks attached to that, given that Thames was old for the level, and the ballpark apparently favours left-handed hitters. Nevertheless, the Jays gave Thames plenty of opportunity to get at bats with the big club in Florida, with a notion that he might be able to step in. Maybe. In a pinch.
Thames made the most of the opportunity last year, earning raves from the organization, and earning himself an unexpected call-up in May of last season. The initial reaction to him seemed to focus more on his follicular achievements than on his play of the field, and while he didn’t exactly blow the doors off their hinges in his first weeks with the team (9-for-42 with two doubles and 13 strikeouts, mostly in DH duty), he was squaring up balls and hitting them hard, even when they went for outs. Which is more than anyone was saying about Travis Snider at that point.
When the Jays eventually allowed Thames out of the batter’s box to play the field on a regular basis, it wasn’t a particularly pretty sight to behold. Though partial seasons of Ultimate Zone Rating are difficult to parse – especially for left fielders, for some reason – Thames sat in the bottom five of that metric among LFs with more than 400 innings played, posting a -6.6. It’s not that Thames is bereft of athleticism, as he made a few highlight reel grabs when running in for balls. But his ability to judge fly balls or to track down anything hit behind him is not nearly up to snuff.
To play that sort of a weak glove in the field every day, one would hope for a bat that posts something more than a .313 OBP with a lot of loud outs as a consolation prize.
Looking Forward: We get asked the “Thames vs. Snider” question often enough that we’ve gone through several iterations of our answers. (We’re workshopping it. Go with us on this one.)
Our sympathies generally rest with Snider because he is younger, a better fielder, a better baserunner, more familiar and because we suspect that his progress has been delayed by his early call-up to the majors. Ultimately, we figure that if either one of the two plays well enough to earn their way onto the opening day roster, we’ll be satisfied with the process.
But our suspicion at this point – based on tea leaf analysis and not much else -- is that the Jays are inclined to move forward with Thames’ bat in the lineup and that they’ll park Snider back in Las Vegas to earn his way back onto the roster. (As for Ben Francisco’s presence in this whole equation? We’re stumped as well.) Thames remains the more controllable of the two players, in spite of being 15 months older than Snider, and thus far, he’s been the better of the two players offensively. If we let our eyes get coldly analytical about this, it makes sense that Thames get the nod.
Our preference might have been that the Jays find a suitor for Thames’ services, and if that were in any way the intention, it would make sense to give him his reps in MLB so as to maximize the return. But somehow, seeing Thames’ bulging biceps and affected glower staring out at us from the Blue Jays’ website, we’re guessing that this team is banking on him being around.
2012 Expectations: Thames is going to have to lose the job in order not to come north with the team. Keeping the job will be a whole other task, but we could see Thames building on last year’s power numbers, and hitting more than 20 homers, and posting an OPS in the high .700’s or low .800’s.
Strikeouts will be an issue, and if he does manage to win the job in left, we hope the Jays’ brain trust is smart enough not to put all of those whiffs directly in front of José Bautista in the lineup. And as much as we’ve heard all of the dandy things about his arm strength, Thames will still need to track balls down in the outfield rather than waiting for the ball to stop rolling so that he can pick it up.
If Thames is going to be our everyday outfielder, we certainly hope he’s worthy of the role.