Korean League MVP Eric Thames Could Be Surprise MLB Offseason Steal

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterDecember 2, 2016

FILE - In this March 12, 2013, file photo, Seattle Mariners' Eric Thames hits against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the fourth inning in an exhibition spring training baseball game in Peoria, Ariz. The Milwaukee Brewers have signed free agent Eric Thames, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, who spent the last three seasons in Korea, and designated slugging first baseman Chris Carter for assignment. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
Rick Wood-USA TODAY Sports

There's a video you can find on the internet showing Eric Thames wearing a crown made of flowers, just after he was named Most Valuable Player last year in South Korea.

Good luck finding anything like that from Kris Bryant or Mike Trout.

It's a nice ceremony and a nice award, but it's also a pleasant reminder of how different professional baseball is in South Korea, where the NC Dinos play in a ballpark with a center field fence just 381 feet from home plate and where the pitchers rarely throw upper-90s fastballs.

Baseball in South Korea is different, which is why it's so tough to know what to make of Thames' new three-year, $16 million contract to be the Milwaukee Brewers' first baseman. It's either the biggest bargain deal for an MVP or the worst shot in the dark on a guy who hit .220 with six home runs in his last major league season.

But maybe, just maybe, Eric Thames can be Cecil Fielder.

Thames with the Mariners during his first MLB stint.
Thames with the Mariners during his first MLB stint.Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images

Not Prince Fielder, the one-time Brewers first baseman whose career progressed the usual way, from first-round draft pick to major league All-Star. Cecil, Prince's dad, went from a part-time player with the Toronto Blue Jays to a starring role with the Detroit Tigers, with a great season in Japan in the middle.

That sounds just a little like Thames, a part-time player with the Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners who went to South Korea and became a star. His numbers were almost hard to believe, with a .348 batting average and 124 home runs in 388 games over three seasons, including the first 40-homer/40-steal season in KBO League history.

"Cecil Fielder went to Japan and learned an approach that worked for him," one longtime American League scout said. "What you're betting on with Thames is he's learned how to be a hitter."

The AL scout saw Thames play in Korea and thinks it's possible he has. He said the player he saw with the Dinos did a much better job recognizing breaking balls than the guy he watched with the Blue Jays.

"No one can deny that," he said. "He's got a plan now. Do I think he can play in the big leagues? No doubt. He can definitely play in the big leagues."

But can the 30-year-old Thames be anything like the star he was in Korea? That question is so much harder to answer, and it's why a low-budget team like the Brewers could sign him for what amounts to a $16 million lottery ticket.

It's worth remembering many of the same questions were asked about Fielder when the Tigers signed him to a two-year, $3 million contract in January 1990. Fielder hit 38 home runs in just 106 games in his one year in Japan, but what did that mean when you translated it to Major League Baseball?

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 9:  Detroit Tigers Cecil Fielder watches the flight of his eleventh homerun and 999th career hit in the second inning 09 May against the New York Yankees. Fielder hit his twelfth homerun in the sixth inning to reach 1,000 career hits.
MARK D. PHILLIPS/Getty Images

In his case, it meant 51 home runs in his first year back, the most homers any major league player had hit in 13 years. It meant back-to-back second-place finishes in American League MVP voting.

Fielder went to Japan at a time when there were no Japanese-born players in the major leagues. Thames comes back from South Korea at a time when nine South Korean-born players were active in the majors this past year alone. Players such as Jung Ho Kang and Hyun Soo Kim have been good enough to earn the KBO League some respect.

Kang and Kim were stars in South Korea, but neither put up numbers to match Thames' 2015 season, when he had a 1.288 OPS and 140 RBI in 142 games.

The comparisons are useful because they played in the same league in South Korea, facing similar pitchers under similar conditions. But Thames is different because he grew up in the U.S. and has played in the major leagues before. The real question is whether the time overseas turned him into a better player.

C.J. Nitkowski thinks that's possible.

Nitkowski works for Fox Sports and MLB Network Radio now, but in his previous life, he was a pitcher who left the major leagues to go to Japan and South Korea. He pitched four seasons in Asia toward the end of his career, and while it didn't help him get back to the big leagues, he saw benefits.

"Sometimes there, you can relax," Nitkowski said. "You've got guaranteed money, and you're not worried about the ups and downs as much. Talent has a chance to shine."

Nitkowski mentioned Colby Lewis, who was an up-and-down pitcher before going to Japan. After two good years there, he returned as a solid rotation piece for the Texas Rangers.

Lewis was 30 when he came back to the major leagues, the same age Thames is now.

There aren't that many other examples because there just aren't that many players who leave North America, become stars in Asia and then return to the majors. And there aren't that many position players who try it.

Dan Kurtz of MyKBO.net, an outstanding website that follows Korean baseball, compiled a list of 30 players who left the major leagues to go to Korea, then returned and played at least one more game in the majors. All but four of the 30 were pitchers, and none of the four position players had a career track that resembles Thames'.

Maybe that fits because Thames has always been a little eccentric. His Twitter bio lists him as the "Enforcer for the NC Dinos and Sosnick Cobbe Sports (his agents). Meathead, gamer, weirdo and proud representative of the Thames clan."

And he could add potential trailblazer. If his MLB-KBO-MLB path works as well as Fielder's Japan detour did two decades ago, maybe others will be emboldened to try it too.

     

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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