When Eric Thames took the plunge and signed a contract with the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization in December 2013, he was a 27-year-old, well-traveled fourth outfielder with mediocre numbers and flagging job prospects.
Three years and one compelling international adventure later, Thames returns to Major League Baseball as a walking testament to open-mindedness and the concept of rebranding.
The Milwaukee Brewers threw a wrinkle into the hot stove season Tuesday when they agreed to a three-year, guaranteed $16 million deal with Thames, who has spent the past three seasons crushing baseballs and captivating crowds at Masan Baseball Stadium in the south Korea city of Changwon.
If Brewers fans, team management and the industry in general are intrigued to see how Thames adapts to higher-velocity fastballs and more spacious ballparks as Milwaukee’s new first baseman, they’re not alone.
"I think any player who goes overseas, whether they admit it or not, wants to come back here," said Adam Karon, Thames' agent. "I hope this leads the way for other guys to do this. When guys go over there, the first question we’re asked is, 'What are my chances of coming back?' I guess now I can say, 'Go win a couple of MVPs, and that will help your chances.'"
The Thames acquisition caps an interesting couple of days for the Brewers, who cleared an opening at first base by designating Chris Carter for assignment Tuesday. Carter launched a career-high 41 home runs and slugged .499 this season, but he has surpassed 200 strikeouts twice in the past four seasons and could earn a salary in the $8-10 million range through arbitration in 2017.
The Brewers also were intent on balancing out their lineup after ranking 24th in the majors with a .716 team OPS against right-handed pitching this season. With Ryan Braun and Carter leading the way from the right side, Milwaukee was fifth among MLB clubs with a .764 OPS vs. lefties.
"As we came into the offseason, we noted our desire to pursue a left-handed presence in our lineup -- a presence that could help balance out our current roster construction," Brewers GM David Stearns said during a news conference Tuesday.
Thames signed with Milwaukee after taking part in three-pronged negotiations with the Dinos, assorted Japanese clubs and several teams in the U.S. The Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays both kicked the tires on him before he signed with the Brewers.
Given the surplus of lefty corner options on the market, Thames’ three-year deal with a club option for 2020 qualifies as a bit of a surprise. Mitch Moreland, Brandon Moss, Pedro Alvarez, Adam Lind and Michael Saunders are among the left-handed first base or outfield bats still available, so interested teams have enough leverage to wait things out and play them against one another throughout the winter.
If Thames’ Korean experience was any indication, the crowds at Miller Park should quickly warm to him provided he can hit with any degree of proficiency. Scouts who followed Thames in Changwon took note of how he interacted with teammates and made time for fans who lined the Masan Stadium rails in search of autographs and selfies. Thames embraced the language, learned to love the food and immersed himself in the Korean culture on his way to hitting 124 home runs, posting a .720 slugging percentage and winning two MVP awards as a Dino.
As a 6-1, 220-pound African-American with a surplus of tattoos, Thames grew accustomed to being mobbed by fans whenever he went to dinner or walked the streets in Korea. He reflected on his unexpected fame during a recent email exchange with ESPN.com.
"I always wondered what it would be like if I shaved my beard (haha)," Thames said. "The fans would probably lose their minds and not recognize me. I can't imagine being a superstar like Justin Bieber, Brad Pitt or Lionel Messi -- people that are recognized all over the globe and have no privacy whatsoever."
In his return to the States, Thames can take comfort in blending in as a ballplayer amid a more tolerable degree of celebrity. But the next chapter in his career has the potential to be just as entertaining as the last one. After making history with his wildly successful foray to the Far East, Thames will try to blaze a different kind of trail in Milwaukee.