Thames could be key for Brewers in 2017

First baseman motivated to prove himself in return to MLB

Thames could be key for Brewers in 2017

With Spring Training fast approaching, will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Brewers squad each day this week. Today's topic: What's the difference?

MILWAUKEE -- The statistical models are bullish on first baseman Eric Thames, the Brewers' most out-of-the-box acquisition this winter.

Steamer, one of the three widely cited models, projects 30 home runs and an .864 OPS, which would be the best OPS for a Brewers first baseman since Prince Fielder's .981 in 2011, when Fielder's departure sent the Brewers on a search for his long-term replacement that continues today. ZiPS has slightly lesser expectations, but still pegs Thames for a .346 weighted on-base average and 116 weighted runs created plus, second on the team in both categories to Ryan Braun. Another model, PECOTA, is due out Tuesday from Baseball Prospectus.

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Those are bold projections for a player who spent the past three seasons facing lesser pitching in the Korea Baseball Organization. But if Thames can hit those marks, or even approach them, he could be a difference-maker.

That is precisely the type of player GM David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell are looking for as they usher the Brewers through a rebuild.

"The best thing about Eric is where he's at in his career," Counsell said. "I think he's in a really good spot, I think he's at that sweet spot of experience and kind of where his talent match up. I think the reason that he [went] to Korea and is now coming back, I think is a great source of motivation for him. … He's got something to prove."

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Counsell inspired by Thames

The Brewers signed Thames to a three-year contract that guarantees $16 million and could pay up to $24.5 million if the Brewers exercise an option for a fourth year and Thames hits $500,000 in annual performance incentives.

It was an unexpected move, and not just because Thames just turned 30 and has not played in the Major Leagues since he slashed .232/.273/.399 for the Blue Jays and Mariners in 2012 before signing in South Korea. To clear first base for Thames and his left-handed bat, the Brewers made the unprecedented decision to non-tender a reigning league home run champion, Chris Carter, who matched Nolan Arenado for the National League lead by hitting 41 homers in 2016.

It was the first time in history that a big league team cut loose a home run champ. Carter would have earned at least $8 million and as much as $11 million in arbitration, club officials believed, and had only two years remaining of club control.

That might not have gotten Carter through Milwaukee's rebuilding project. In Thames, the Brewers have a player who, if his performance matches those models, could see the other side.

"I'm not going to say what my goals are, but I have my approach and work ethic, and we'll see what happens," Thames said. "I'm working very hard for this. I'm honored to come back. I'm very excited."

Eric Thames on joining Brewers

Other Brewers newcomers include closer Neftali Feliz, who signed a one-year free-agent contract after a solid season in Pittsburgh, and third baseman Travis Shaw, acquired in a trade from Boston. The Brewers hope Shaw proves productive enough to play every day.

But no newcomer comes with as many questions as Thames, who is trying to make the jump back to MLB.

"I'm very thankful to them for putting themselves out there on the line like that," he said. "I'm taking this very seriously. It's not like, 'OK, I got paid. Now I'm just going to hang out.' I want to win."

Pitchers and catchers have their first spring workout on Feb. 15 and the first full-squad workout at Maryvale Baseball Park is Feb. 18.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.