Where fantasy meets MLB reality: Hot starts to invest in

A huge start from Eric Thames is exciting enough for Brewers fans, but will he deliver on it the rest of the year -- and in your fantasy league? John Fisher/Cal Sport Media/AP Images

We’re almost three full weeks into the season, and whether you follow real-world baseball, just play fantasy baseball or do both, there are several names you need to know now, perhaps many more than you did back on Opening Day. Who are they, and how important could they be on the diamond -- or in your league?

1. 1B/OF Eric Thames, Milwaukee Brewers: He has been the biggest story of the 2017 major league season so far. The last time Thames played in the major leagues was five years ago, splitting his combined slash line of .250/.296/.431 between time spent with the Blue Jays and Mariners. He floundered in the Orioles’ farm system in 2013 before departing to play in South Korea, where he belted a whopping 124 home runs while also hitting for average and stealing bases. Now that Thames has returned to the U.S. at age 30, he has brought back memories of Cecil Fielder, who went to play in Japan for a year after spending parts of four seasons with the Blue Jays, ripped 38 homers for the Hanshin Tigers, and came back as a free agent to the Detroit Tigers and led the league in home runs in each of the next two seasons, including hitting 51 his first year back.

Thames could always hit a fastball out over the plate, but in his three years playing for the NC Dinos in the Korea Baseball Organization he learned how to hit breaking balls, changeups and inside fastballs, while he also learned to cover the entire plate both vertically and horizontally. Normally, with such a small sample size it would be easy to ignore his numbers and question how long it’s going to last. In this case, he’s giving us every reason to believe that it’s real. He’s slashing .415/.500/.981 with eight home runs after Thursday night’s latest bomb.

Reality take: Thames gives the Brewers a legitimate threat in the middle of their lineup sandwiched between Jonathan Villar and Ryan Braun, while giving their fans hope that if they can get enough quality starting pitching they could surprise people and finish around .500.

Fantasy take: If you drafted Thames in your fantasy draft it’s OK to take a bow and trash-talk. He won’t deliver Ruthian numbers all year, but it’s realistic to expect a 25- to 30-homer season, and was almost certainly a bargain on draft day. In terms of trade value, I’d put him in the range of Adam Jones, Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez for value, which would be equivalent to a fifth- or sixth-round value in a 12-team rotisserie league.