Mix of old, new schools brought Thames home

First baseman played 3 seasons in Korea before Stearns' offseason call

April 10th, 2017

MILWAUKEE -- The most out-of-the-box free-agent pursuit in Brewers history began as a collection of numbers on a computer screen and ended over a steak dinner.

So if any player best represents the blending of new school and old school in baseball, is that player.

"I thought I was going to be playing in Japan," Thames said at the start of Spring Training. "I was, 'OK, I'll go to Japan, probably get a multiyear deal, good money.' Then the Brewers called my agent, met with him and it was done.

"Man, it's good to be back home."

Thames came home to Major League Baseball on a three-year deal with Milwaukee, which was willing to take a chance that some of the video game numbers he put up over three seasons in the Korea Baseball Organization would show up in the box scores here. So confident was Brewers general manager David Stearns that he cleared a spot at first base by doing something no other Major League team had ever done: He released a reigning league home run champion, Chris Carter.

Carter hit 41 home runs last season, but he also struck out a lot and batted right-handed, two characteristics Milwaukee had in abundance. As Stearns entered the offseason seeking more balance, he eyed first base as a position of potential change.

Stearns would find his solution on the other side of the world.

"We first started talking about Eric Thames more than a year ago," Stearns said in November after striking the deal. "In fact, we checked with his representation at that time and we were told he was going to be in Korea for another year. We had interest.

"Really, from that point on, we were tracking him very closely."

Stearns already had some familiarity. He was Houston's assistant GM when the Astros acquired Thames via the waiver wire in September 2013. To that point in his career, Thames had been a fringe Major Leaguer for the Blue Jays and Mariners. He will visit one of those former clubs on Tuesday, when Milwaukee plays in Toronto's home opener at Rogers Centre.

Thames' Astros tenure was brief. He was playing winter ball in Venezuela three months later when he learned he'd been released by Houston. It was at that time when Thames' agent, Adam Karon, began to field interest from the Far East.

Thames' fresh start came with the NC Dinos of the KBO, who gave him big money -- relative to the league-minimum salaries he had earned in the U.S. -- and were rewarded with big production.

In three seasons, Thames hit .348 while averaging 41 home runs and 126 RBIs. He even ran a little, stealing 64 bases. In 2015, he was the league MVP and won Korea's version of the Gold Glove Award.

"We were able to identify some of the adjustments he has made in his game that give us confidence his success is going to translate to Major League Baseball," Stearns said. "Honestly, whenever a player performs in a league that is not Major League Baseball, whether that's Japan or Korea or Triple-A, there's a greater degree of uncertainty. But we're certainly comfortable in our process, that we were able to account for all variables: performance, track record, swing and approach and adjustments, who he is as a person and how seriously he takes his craft.

"We were willing to make a bet like that."

The Brewers made many of those evaluations from a distance via video, because at the time, they did not have a full-time Asia scout. That has since changed with the hiring of former Major League pitcher Bryan Bullington.

Once club officials became confident in their new-school evaluation of Thames' skills, it was time for an old-school sit-down.

"To be a part of that process, it was a big deal for me," Thames said.

The week of Thanksgiving, Thames spent two days meeting in Milwaukee with Stearns and other club officials, including manager Craig Counsell and hitting coach Darnell Coles.

They toured Miller Park and the surrounding area, then went to dinner at Carnevor, a downtown steakhouse popular with Brewers players.

"It's a two-way street," Stearns said. "He was making a major commitment, and he needed to know the organization. He cares deeply about winning. So it was an opportunity for him to learn about us and what we have here and what we're building here, as we were learning about him as a person and what drove him to come back. By the end of our visit, he was very motivated to be a part of this."

Thames remembers asking a lot of questions about routine and process. Of course, he sought assurances about playing time with Milwaukee.

Thames said he was not aware of the degree to which technology was behind the Brewers' pursuit.

"For me, it was easy," Thames said, "I'm a ballplayer. I know I'm pretty much a mercenary. It's not often a player gets to choose where he wants to go, so to be in that situation, I was truly blessed.

"It's a lot of money. I know I have to play hard, because there's a lot of faith in me. It's a good feeling to know your organization believes in you. That's a big thing."