Eric Thames had a stellar 2014 campaign.
In 114 games, he batted .341, hit 32 home runs, drove in 113, and posted a 1.090 OBP, 159 points better than Jose Bautista. The only problem is, the majority of the baseball world probably had no idea Thames was capable of numbers like this.
Thames spent the 2014 season with the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball League, and he finally put up the numbers expected of him.
Since playing his first game in 2009, Thames has had these “expectations” surrounding him. Injuries derailed his draft stock, and the injuries continued to hamper him for the majority of his minor league career.
He wasn’t necessarily a top prospect, but one that could project at 20 home runs a year, more than likely an average between .270 and .280. His breakout season came in 2010 at Double A New Hampshire when he hit 28 big flies, knocked in 104 and hit .288. Thames made his Major League debut with the Toronto Blue Jays in May of 2011 and put together a decent season, despite limited playing time. He started 92 games and everything looked to be on the up and up.
Come 2012 and the battle for the starting position between him and Travis Snider might have been the worst thing for both players. Both were talented enough, but seemingly kept each other off the field. Neither player could own the position. Thames did a good job for part of the season, and Snider performed admirably for the rest. Both were traded at the 2012 deadline, and the whispers of what could’ve been were all too familiar.
The curse of the AAAA player is a tag you never want attached to you. Every team has them, including the Jays. Hundreds of players are in each system, and some fail, some don’t, unfortunately minor league baseball is littered with players that can dominate at each level, but when they get that promotion to the majors, the success that has been reproduced year after year can’t be replicated.
Remember Eddie Zosky? He was tagged as the Blue Jays shortstop of the future. He was selected as a first-round pick in the 1989 draft and was all but handed the starting position in the early 90’s. Back then, shortstops weren’t the shortstops we’re used to seeing today-all glove, no bat. He was 6’0” 175 and was one of the best fielders around. He had respectable numbers in the minors, but could not flip the switch. His main competition, Manny Lee, another slick fielding shortstop, was only supposed to be window dressing until Zosky was ready. Unfortunately, Zosky toiled in the minors until 1994 playing a total of only 16 games with the Blue Jays from 1991-92, batting .167 with two RBIs.
Thames’ competition in left, Snider, is another struggling with the AAAA tag. A first-round draft pick of the Jays in 2006 amateur draft (14th overall), was ranked as high as five by Baseball America in prospect rankings (pre-2009). With the Jays, Snider bounced between the minors and the pro circuit on multiple occasions. He would thoroughly dominate Triple A pitching, consistently batting between .320 and .340.
When he would get the call-up, the numbers were never quite the same. Inconsistency at the plate, and a lack of patience, was a recurring theme. Snider was shipped off to Pittsburgh in 2012, and I’m sure, as a relief to many, it finally looks like Snider has corrected his flaws. In a part-time role, Snider put together the best numbers of his career. His .264 batting average and 34 RBI were all career highs. He struck out 67 times (a career low considering the amount of at-bats) and walked a career high 34 times.
Thames, who turns 28, is still relatively young and could still help a team that wants him. Prior to signing overseas, he bounced from the Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles, and Houston Astros organizations. After being released by the Astros, it might have appeared that playing elsewhere was his only option. Hindsight is 20/20, but looks like it was the best move he ever made. There is no doubt that his incredible season got attention. It had to. He played a whole season without the “what ifs” and incessant expectations. It’s unclear if Thames will ever get another shot at the Major Leagues. At the very least, he’s proven that he will do whatever is takes to succeed.