When he first arrived at West Palm Beach, FL’s FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches for the start of his 1-year/$4M deal with the Washington Nationals, (which includes a $4M mutual option for 2021), Eric Thames, 33, was part of a crowd at first base that included both Howie Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman (with Asdrúbal Cabrera as another backup option).
Four-ish months later, Kendrick is quarantined and Zimmerman has opted out of the 2020 MLB campaign, leaving Thames as the main first base option in Spring Training 2.0 as the Nationals prepare for a 60-game schedule. So, like, stay healthy, Eric.
“Staying healthy, whether it’s like an actual injury or getting sick, that’s the No. 1 priority,” Thames told reporters when he spoke on a Zoom call this afternoon.
“So I’m doing the most I can like staying away from people, staying inside as much as I can, but you know, then again, we are touching door handles and there are certain things out of our control.
“So, yeah, it is definitely different right now at first base, but Howie and the other guys can fill in at first.
“We still have 13, 14 days until Opening Day. So, for right now it’s good for me because I get a lot of reps in.
“The Spring Training or ‘Summer Training’ is like a crash course compared to like a six-week schedule. All I can focus on is just getting ready for Opening Day.”
Thames and the rest of the Nationals are adjusting to the protocols put in place to try to get everyone through ST 2.0 and the 2020 season, but the process thus far, Thames said, is not much fun.
“I think it’s terrible,” Thames said with a laugh. “Not so much the practices, but the rules we have to follow.
“We can’t eat protein bars on the bench. We can’t celebrate with our teammates.
“Even like on a ground ball, you usually throw the ball around the infield, but you can’t have more than two guys touch a ball or they get rid of it and clean it up.
“It’s little rules like that are annoying, but you have to do it to keep everybody safe and be able to play in a few weeks.”
If/when the season starts, how is he going to handle playing first base?
Like, how will he deal with runners at first base, as far as holding runners on while social distancing?
“I have no idea,” Thames admitted. “Because they can’t tell us like, ‘Hey, you can’t hold this runner on because it’s within six feet.’ I’m assuming it’s going to be the same, but umpires are going to have a mask on, I know coaches can’t get close to you to talk about situations or [say], ‘This play is on.’
“For guys at first base, I’m sure guys are going to still talk and joke around with each other, but if we’re going to have to wear a mask it’s going to be interesting to see what they’re going to say.
“I’m sure the first few weeks there’s going to be a lot of rules and changes and stuff like that.”
Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez talked recently about how well Thames is fitting in with his new club, and reiterated today that the first baseman has impressed a week-plus into Spring Training 2.0.
“He seems to fit in really well. From what I’m noticing, guys love him. He jumped right in, he’s a good teammate, and he wants to do everything he can to help us win ballgames.
“He’s got tremendous power, as we all know,” Martinez continued.
“I know he’s working diligently with [Third Base Coach] Chip [Hale] and [Bench Coach] Tim [Bogar] over at first base.
“He wants to be a really good defender, and he’s showing signs where he can stand out there and play a good first base. He made a good play today.
“Having him in that lineup, especially against left-handers, is going to be tremendous.
“He does some serious damage against righties. So he’d be a nice addition to the middle of our lineup.”
Thames finished the 2019 campaign with a .247/.346/.505 line, 23 doubles and 25 home runs over 149 games and 459 plate appearances in a 1.9 fWAR season with Milwaukee’s Brewers.
As Martinez noted, the focus in Spring Training 2.0 is on his work with the glove at first with Bogar and Hale.
“Those guys are really adamant about defense and everything,” Thames said.
“They’ve been all over me about getting work in. Extra fungoes. And everything, because you know in baseball, it could be the ninth inning, a big play, Trea [Turner] up the middle spins and throws it and in-between hop, you better dig it.
“So, I’m busting my butt over here.”
Will all the hard work everyone’s doing right now be worth it in the end? Does Thames think they’ll actually have a 60-game season?
“It will definitely work,” Thames said. “It’s going to suck not having fans, like the energy is not there, and even like just having fun with your teammates, that pretty much makes baseball fun. There are rules we have to follow, the social distancing is definitely going to be tough, but it will work.
“People want baseball, and players especially, we really want to play. So you have to find ways to make it work.”