Thames’ poor year again leaves Nats with first base questions

Our offseason player review series continues today with Eric Thames, who was among the most disappointing players on the roster this season.

PLAYER REVIEW: ERIC THAMES

Age on opening day 2021: 34

How acquired: Signed as free agent, January 2020

MLB service time: 5 years, 63 days

2020 salary: $3 million (prorated $1,111,111)

Contract status: Has $4 million mutual option (or $1 million buyout) for 2021

2020 stats: 41 G, 140 PA, 123 AB, 10 R, 25 H, 5 2B, 0 3B, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 1 SB, 0 CS, 14 BB, 42 SO, .203 AVG, .300 OBP, .317 SLG, .617 OPS, 65 OPS+, -1 DRS, -0.7 fWAR, -0.6 bWAR

Quotable: “It’s definitely a grind. It’s a grind. That’s all I’m going to say. Holy cow. Oh, man.” - Thames, Sept. 20

Thumbnail image for Thames-Swings-White-Sidebar.jpg2020 analysis: For the last half-dozen years, the Nationals have made sure to sign a left-handed first baseman who can share the job with Ryan Zimmerman. It began with Clint Robinson in 2015-16, then Adam Lind in 2017, then Matt Adams in 2018-19. And it continued this year with Thames, who was viewed internally and externally as perhaps the most productive hitter of that entire group.

When Zimmerman elected to opt out of the delayed season shortly before opening day, Thames’ role suddenly became more prominent. Which made his subsequent struggles all the more damaging to the Nats’ chances all year long.

Thames never enjoyed any kind of sustained success at the plate. His OPS surpassed .700 for only one day during opening weekend, then remained below that the rest of the way. He posted a career-worst batting average and slugging percentage. This all happened despite the fact both his walk and strikeout rates remained almost identical to his 2019 numbers with the Brewers.

Why did Thames struggle so much? He couldn’t regularly make solid contact, especially on off-speed pitches. He hit a respectable .266 with a .406 slugging percentage off fastballs, but those numbers plummeted to .167 and .300 off sliders and curveballs and .103 and .138 off changeups. His groundball rate went up, his flyball rate went down and he “barreled up” only five of the 81 balls he put into play. Put all that together and you get a hugely disappointing season from someone who was expected to provide a power bat to a lineup that needed one.

2021 outlook: The terms of the Nationals’ original deal with Thames suggested they only intended to keep him for one year all along. Mutual options rarely are picked up by one side of the equation, and it seems unlikely the Nats will decide Thames is worth $4 million next season.

The club will need to make that decision shortly after the World Series, but they’ll also need to know what Zimmerman intends to do. If the longest-tenured member of the organization decides to return for another season, the Nationals again will be in the market for a left-handed first baseman who can complement him. But if Zimmerman decides to hang them up, the Nats will need a bona fide everyday first baseman, whether left-handed or right-handed.

Either way, the odds of Thames returning in 2021 appear slim.

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