For the first 32 years of its existence, the Korean Baseball Organization sat as an aside to the fabled MLB. No player had ever started their career in the KBO and made their way to the West, making millions while playing at the highest stages of baseball.
That is, until Jung Ho Kang signed a four-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates for $11 million. His signing marked an avalanche of players leaving the KBO for the MLB, as scouts began to respect the league for its projectable talent to the North American game. Byung Ho Park signed with the Minnesota Twins, Hyun Soo Kim signed with the Baltimore Orioles and Dae-ho Lee signed with the Seattle Mariners to speak of the offensive impact that the KBO had on the MLB. All three were born in South Korea; but could the KBO's newest American star in Eric Thames be ready for a return to Major League Baseball?
If you're a seasoned Blue Jays fan, the name rings a familiar tune. Thames was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 7th round of the 2008 amateur draft before playing parts of two seasons in a MLB uniform with the Jays and the Mariners. His performance was largely underwhelming, hitting .250/.296/.431 while trying to make up for his defensive misgivings as a below average outfielder. After stumbling through the minor leagues with the Baltimore Orioles, Thames elected to take his talents overseas and play in the foreign, unpredictable, KBO, not knowing if he would ever earn the chance to make it back to the ‘bigs.'
In his first season in a different country, Thames turned himself around hitting .343/.422/.688, smashing 37 home runs while swiping 11 bags. He followed that season with an even better performance, hitting 47 home runs, stealing 40 bases while leading the league in batting average at .381 and slugging percentage at .497. Never had a player in the KBO post a 40-40 season (home runs and stolen bases) before Thames. To ice the cake, Thames hit .321/.427/.679 with 40 home runs—tied for first in the league—in 2016 leaving several MLB teams kicking the tires on the possibility of bringing Thames back to North America for the 2017 season.
Although we don't expressly know this as fact, the Toronto Blue Jays could be one of those teams as well. First off, the move makes sense as Thames has remade himself as a first baseman and while his history isn't exceptional at the position, he could slot in at left-field if a team needed him there in a pinch. Both of those positions on the Jays roster sit vacant at the moment.
The question becomes whether Thames' KBO success warrants him a shot in a MLB uniform. Looking at similar statistics of final seasons of past KBO stars, there's at least some evidence to support that Thames may be ready for another chance.
Jung- Ho Kang KBO- .356/.459/.739
MLB (two seasons average) .273/.355/.483
Byung Ho Park KBO- .343/.436/.714
Hyun Soo Kim KBO- .326/.438/.541
Dae-ho Lee KBO (2011)- .357/.433/.578
While virtually all four South Koreans saw their numbers decline when making the journey to the MLB, three of four were productive players in their first season. With the exception of Park, none of the aforementioned journeymen had the consistent power in terms of home runs that Thames has demonstrated in his three seasons in the KBO either, so it becomes a little more difficult to project whether Thames will be able to translate that back to the American game.
Further adding a difference to the other quadrant of Korean sluggers is the fact that Thames is an American who grew up playing an American style, transferring to Korea and would be making his way back to his roots. No player has made a similar transition in terms of the KBO but we can remember when Cecil Fielder self-exiled in Japan for a season before returning to Detroit to become one of the premier hitters in the game. Whether or not this would make a difference for Thames remains to be seen but it's his former Americanization would play a positive role over other South Koreans who have had to not only adapt to the American game but the culture and English language as well.
Ultimately with such a small sample size of former KBO stars making their way to the major leagues, it's hard to know what to expect, if anything, from Thames if he decides to make his way across the pacific. After having left as a fringe level outfielder in 2013, he hasn't done anything to reduce his value so the assumption is that he would be able to secure himself a two-year deal making at least what his 2016 salary of $1.25 million was in the KBO.
At that price and those terms, it might be in the Blue Jays best interest to take a second shot at Thames and see what he has, providing just the right amount of seasoning for rising prospect Rowdy Tellez to become the first baseman for the Jays of the future.
If Thames is able to produce similarly to Kim, Lee and Kang, great, the Jays have a cost-effective option at a premium position with more money to spend now and in the future (looking at you Josh Donaldson). If not, by the end of his tryout, Mr. Tellez may be knocking heavily on the Jays door.
It might not be the front office's first option, but it is one nonetheless.