PITTSBURGH – As the Milwaukee Brewers enter the final week of the regular season pushing to clinch their first playoff spot since 2011, Eric Thames has been relegated to the role of, for all intents and purposes, spectator.
Sure, he gets the occasional call to pinch-hit. But his time as an even somewhat regular contributor came to an end on Aug. 31 when the team acquired veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Thames had been pushed to the outfield from what had been his normal spot at first base, which he initially lost to injury when he underwent thumb surgery in late April and later to Jesús Aguilar, who took his opportunity and ran with it.
It’s been a trying month-plus to say the least for the 31-year-old.
“There’s some days where you want to take a bat to the wall or just flip out,” Thames said. “But you have to count your blessings. The team’s winning; we’re not in last place. It’s not like this is a bad clubhouse and guys are grinding. We’re doing really well as a team.
“So you kind of look past yourself and see what’s best for the team. This the best situation for the team, so I’m all for it.”
It appeared as though the Brewers had found their first baseman through at least 2019 when they signed Thames to a three-year, $16 million free-agent deal on Nov. 29, 2016.
Coming off three monster seasons in the KBO League in South Korea after a subpar first go-round in the major leagues with Toronto and Seattle, Thames set baseball on fire in his initial days with Milwaukee in 2017.
He hit a franchise-record 11 home runs, drove in 19 runs and posted a 1.276 OPS in April but came crashing back to earth after that. By the time all was said and done he’d hit .247 with 31 homers and 63 runs batted in – numbers that were strong enough in the final analysis.
He was hitting .250 with seven homers and 13 RBI with a .976 OPS through 22 games (16 starts) this season when he tore a ligament in his left thumb making a play in the field.
He missed 41 games recovering from thumb surgery, and in his absence Aguilar established himself as an all-star at first base. Thames returned and his versatility earned him playing time in the outfield on a platoon basis with Ryan Braun, but his lack of range and experience out there eventually worked against him.
And when his offense began to slip as well, his role began to diminish. Thames hit just .098 with two homers and five RBI in 19 games in August, leading to the acquisition of Granderson.
The second of those homers was a signature moment, however – a walkoff, three-run homer against Colorado’s Wade Davis that beat the Rockies on Aug. 3.
Since Granderson came aboard, Thames has made just two starts and hit .214 with one double and no RBI in 14 at-bats. His role now is usually left-handed power bat off the bench, meaning one at-bat maybe a couple times a series.
For a player like Thames, who is obsessive about his preparation and accomplished some big things previously, trying to remain productive while at the same time fading into the background in the overall picture is challenging to say the least.
“It’s just one of those things where it’s life,” said Thames, who’s hitting .219 with 16 homers and 37 RBI overall. “There’s really no way you can fight it.
“For a while I was trying to do too much, trying to hit a home run every time I went up to the plate. It’s tough. Look at Eric Sogard earlier this year. It’s tough when you don’t play much and you pinch-hit and try to do well but you’re fouling balls off and your timing is always off – no matter how much you hit in the cage, how much you hit off the machine.
“It’s tough. You talk to any major-league player that’s pinch-hit or had that role, and it’s tough to do that. But it is what it is. It’s fun to watch these guys go out there and do what they’re doing right now. I’m excited to see where we end up at the end of the season, and obviously beyond.”
Thames has earned high marks from manager Craig Counsell for his professionalism following his reduction in playing time on a talent-rich team.
“Look, Eric is one of the players who we’ve asked to make a sacrifice with playing time. There’s been other guys like that, too,” he said. “I think you get to this point in the year and everybody wants to be out there.
“We’ve got depth to put a lot of different guys out there. And so Eric’s got a different role right now. It’s a smaller role, but I think we know there’s still big at-bats in that role. You just get a smaller slice.
“You’ve just got to take that as a challenge, that this is my slice, my role, and that’s what I’m going to get. And you also know that things change really fast with an injury or something going on. It’s not easy. It’s different than what we’ve asked him to do largely in the past, and there haven’t been many starts this past month.
“But that’s why I’m glad we have all these guys here – if one thing happens, then things change dramatically.”
While Counsell pointed to the home-run threat Thames presents off the bench, it’s tough to see where he fits on a 25-man roster if and when the Brewers do clinch a playoff spot with Granderson’s postseason experience, defense and left-handed bat all seemingly giving him a leg up.
Then there’s next season and beyond. Thames has a club option for 2020 as well but with Aguilar now the man at first base and various other options in the corner outfield spots, the fit with the Brewers isn’t as apparent.
For his part, Thames said his focus remains on the here and now.
“You start looking at the future, that’s when things start to go bad and eat at you,” said Thames. “Me, I’m just living one day one day at a time and living where my feet are.”