There’s a recurring theme growing among those who have joined the Nationals this winter. All have played on winning teams before, so obviously they were drawn to sign with the team that just won the World Series.
But it goes a step beyond that. The Nationals didn’t just win last season. They had fun doing it, and they did it as a unified group. And for these newest members of the roster, that extra dynamic - sometimes rare in professional sports - really sealed the deal.
“This team, you could just tell they play as a unit, so naturally I love that,” said Eric Thames, who on Wednesday became the third free agent to sign with the Nationals in the last week and rave about his new organization. “I love playing in a clubhouse where guys care about each other, on top of winning. So it was a no-brainer for myself.”
Thames, who will take over the left-handed first base role Matt Adams held the last two seasons, signed a one-year deal that guarantees $4 million when a $1 million buyout on a 2021 mutual option is included. The 33-year-old slugger spent the last three seasons with the Brewers and saw firsthand in October what made the 2019 Nationals special.
Thames was all set to be the hero of the National League wild card game, having both homered and doubled off Max Scherzer to give Milwaukee an early lead. But then he watched in horror as Juan Soto drove a ball past him and into right field for the bases-clearing, eighth-inning hit that propelled the Nats not only to victory that night but ultimately sent them on their way to a championship.
“I’ll never forget that feeling of being heartbroken, of seeing Juan Soto’s base hit go over my head,” Thames said. “And it’s like: ‘Aw man, I thought we had this game.’ And then all of a sudden, they won the World Series. It’s just crazy to think about that. But it definitely shows how the team motto, how their team atmosphere was. Not a lot of teams have that.”
So when the Brewers declined his $7.5 million option and made him a free agent, Thames jumped at the opportunity to sign with the Nationals. He was particularly encouraged to consider coming to D.C. by Howie Kendrick; the two have become friends even though they’ve never previously been teammates.
Kendrick came to embody the Nats’ championship club, a veteran player who had a solid career but never won a title until now and was willing to take on a part-time role to have the opportunity. Thames, who hit 25 homers in 459 plate appearances as a semi-regular starter in Milwaukee last season, is perfectly willing to accept a lesser role with his new team.
“One thing I had to learn in the last three years was: There were times I played every day, and there were times I didn’t play for four or five days,” he said. “And then you have to pinch-hit with the bases loaded, big situation. Have fun. Are you prepared? ...
“Whatever the role is, I’m ready. The goal is to win. Whether it’s a pinch-hit role, or whatever it is, I want to win. That’s where I stand.”
Humility comes easily to Thames, who had to swallow a big piece of humble pie in 2014 when after struggling to catch on with the Blue Jays, Mariners, Orioles and Astros he decided to move to South Korea. He wound up spending three years playing for NC Dinos, and there he blossomed into a power-hitting star who averaged 41 homers, 127 RBIs and a 1.172 OPS per season.
He discovered that power stroke, it turns out, by ditching the uppercut swing he had used his entire career and leveling it out in an attempt to model himself after old-time greats like Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Lou Gehrig.
“It’s hard to change body mechanics that you’ve done your whole life,” he said. “I worked hard on it, and I was able to get flatter and flatter through the zone and increase my hard-hit rate. And then obviously home runs go up, average goes up, everything.”
The Brewers took notice and gave Thames a chance to return to North America in 2017, and he responded with a 31-homer season that cemented his place back in the major leagues.
“It’s crazy how life works,” he said. “We always think everything goes linear, but sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward.”
Now Thames hopes to continue personal success while also enjoying the ultimate team success for the first time. And just as Starlin Castro and Will Harris said after signing their contracts in the last week, Thames felt like there was no better place to do it than at Nationals Park as the newest member of a clubhouse that seems to have become the most desired home in baseball.
“I’m excited to be a part of the atmosphere,” he said. “I can’t even contain myself, that’s how excited I am.”