He has yet to own an everyday role for a full season, but Leyland has found ways to get him in the lineup, including adding first base to his workload last year. Now, even with Jacque Jones, Carlos Guillen and others holding down spots, Leyland is looking for ways to make sure Thames' power bat can have an impact.
"He'll play first base some. He'll play right field some. He'll play left field some. That's how I'm going to get him at-bats," Leyland said.
In other words, he won't just be a straight platoon player in left field alongside Jones, facing left-handed pitchers only.
"I think there's room for him against right-handers and left-handers," Leyland said. "I think it's just a matter of getting a feel for it, seeing how Guillen's doing physically. Hopefully he'll be able to play a lot over there, obviously. But I think a day game after a night game, wind blowing out, [we] might give Guillen a blow, or Jacque or [Magglio] Ordonez."
"So he's a real important, usable part for our team, in my opinion. But I'm not worried about getting at-bats."
Neither is Thames at this point. As much as his role has changed around him over the last few years, Thames has changed around his role.
Thames was a high-powered, high-strikeout prospect turned Minor League free agent when the Tigers signed him for Triple-A Toledo prior to the 2004 season. His callups to the big leagues for the first two years followed the same plot: Hot start early while playing every day, then a cooldown once he tried to adjust to a bench role. He'd eventually end up in some sort of spot role trying to come off the bench and face tough lefty pitching.
How tough was Thames' work early on? He still owns more career plate appearances against Johan Santana (36) and C.C. Sabathia (30) combined than he does against all but five Major League teams. And he's a .118 career hitter against Santana.
He actually hit right-handers better than lefties when he broke through with 348 at-bats in 2006, the first year in which he spent the entire season on the big league roster. That flipped last year, when he was a .310 hitter against southpaws and 100 points lower against right-handers. When Craig Monroe lost playing time last summer, Thames became more of a regular, playing against both.
Now, no matter what the mix, he wants to be ready.
"I know my role now," Thames said. "I've just got to prepare myself like I'm going to play every day. I talked to a lot of veteran guys. Like they said, it's not easy, but you know your role, so you've just go to work hard at it and try to do the best you can when you get out there.
"Coming up in the Minor Leagues, I played every day. And then I get a spot start here and there. But now, I'm getting comfortable with it."
What might separate this year from the others is the company he keeps in left field. By trading for Jones last November, the Tigers ensured they'll have two prominent left-handed bats in their outfield for the first time since the days of Bobby Higginson and Luis Gonzalez.
Jones consistently hurts right-handed pitching (.294 career hitter), but not quite with lefties (.233), though the difference was much smaller last year. However Leyland works out the mix, the left-field combination statistically has a chance to be more effective than the mix the Tigers have trotted out there for the last few years.
Thames isn't sweating it. He's just taking his at-bats now to be ready.
"I know he's going to get me in there," Thames said of Leyland. "But he knows I'm not afraid of anybody. He's been doing a good job matching me up with people. I come in and he'll let me know when I'm playing. I'm good with it. I'm working my butt off and just trying to do something to help this ballclub. It's a good ballclub, and I just want to be able to chip in whenever I can."