Phillies Bring Back Jim Thome

The Phillies, as seems to be a common theme these days, shocked the baseball world yesterday when they announced the signing of Jim Thome on a one-year, $1.25 million deal. Since he was traded from the Phillies after the 2005 season, Thome has spent most of his time in the American League as a designated hitter. In his very brief stint in the National League with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009, he served as a pinch-hitter.

The Thome signing is believed to be a response to Ryan Howard‘s injured Achilles. Thome, of course, hasn’t played in the field regularly since 2005, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented that the Phillies would ask him to make the switch — all Thome has to do is look across the diamond at Placido Polanco, who the Phillies acquired after the 2009 season. In his time since leaving the Phillies in 2005, Polanco hadn’t played a single inning at third base, but he moved to the hot corner anyway. Of course, Polanco played superb defense at second base and has since proven to be one of the best defensive third basemen as well. Moving from DH to first base is an entirely different animal and, at the age of 41, it is questionable if Thome can handle playing the field even on a platoon basis.

When he will be in the lineup, though, Thome will be a force. Despite his age, he posted a .362 wOBA during the 2011 regular season. Although that is his lowest mark of the past six years, it is well above the league average (between .310 and .315) and rare to find in a player of his age. His .362 wOBA would have been second-best on the Phillies among players with 300 or more plate appearances.  More impressively, Thome was one of only 17 Major Leaguers in history (min. 300 PA) age 40 or older to post an OPS 30 percent or higher compared to the league average. The list is littered with Hall of Famers:

 

Rk Player OPS+ PA Year Age Tm
1 Ted Williams 190 390 1960 41 BOS
2 Barry Bonds 169 477 2007 42 SFG
3 Willie Mays 158 537 1971 40 SFG
4 Barry Bonds 156 493 2006 41 SFG
5 Edgar Martinez 141 603 2003 40 SEA
6 Brian Downing 138 391 1992 41 TEX
7 Moises Alou 137 360 2007 40 NYM
8 Dave Winfield 137 670 1992 40 TOR
9 Stan Musial 137 505 1962 41 STL
10 Carlton Fisk 136 419 1989 41 CHW
11 Harold Baines 135 486 1999 40 TOT
12 Darrell Evans 135 609 1987 40 DET
13 Carlton Fisk 134 521 1990 42 CHW
14 Ty Cobb 134 574 1927 40 PHA
15 Brian Downing 132 476 1991 40 TEX
16 Jim Thome 131 324 2011 40 TOT
17 Willie Mays 131 309 1972 41 TOT
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/5/2011.

Thome has traditionally been better against right-handed pitching compared to left-handers, but that wasn’t the case last year. It was the first time he posted a platoon split that favored southpaws. In terms of wOBA, he hit lefties at a .385 clip; right-handers only .353. If Thome is to fit into a platoon at first base or serve as a pinch-hitter, when he will be used almost exclusively against right-handers, he needs to be a lot better against them. Looking at the data, there wasn’t any large shift in performance although Thome’s isolated power vs. RHP was at a career-low, excluding his injury-plagued 2005.

Naturally, there are concerns about Thome’s defense. Thome hasn’t played regularly in the field since leaving the Phillies. While it’s hard to imagine he completely forgot how to play defense in the last six years, there are a lot of little things at first base that are mastered only through repetition (e.g. footwork). Thome will have ample time to get reacquainted with the position during the off-season and spring training, so we will simply have to wait to see how that part of the issue is addressed.

The other concern is that he is simply not physically able to play the position, in terms of stamina and range. If the Phillies happen to face ten right-handed starters in a row, as they did between May 5-15 during the 2011 regular season, can they count on Thome to be in the lineup every day without a significant decline in performance? Will the gradual wear-and-tear of first base — for example, holding a runner on first base and dashing back as the pitcher delivers — erode his durability as the season progresses? These are questions that, simply put, nobody knows the answers to and will not until the season is under way. Nevertheless, they are legitimate concerns, especially considering it is rather unprecedented that a 41-year-old DH six years running is asked to move back into a defensive position.

On the other hand, if Thome is instead asked to serve in more of a bench role, is he one of those players whose offensive contributions decline without regular at-bats? Some pinch-hitters complain of “getting cold” if they are not given the opportunity to take their hacks every so often. When Thome gets on base as a pinch-hitter late in the game, will the Phillies always lift him for a pinch-runner? This may necessitate carrying only an 11-man pitching staff. All of these concerns should have been addressed as the Phillies contemplated signing him.

On the surface, the Thome signing is very savvy. At the cost of just $1.25 million, Thome need only be a 0.3-WAR (FanGraphs) player, something he has been every year between 1994-2011 excluding 2005. With Thome now in the fold, it will be interesting to see how the Phillies round out the rest of the roster. MLB Trade Rumors reports that the Phillies are very interested in Michael Cuddyer, noting that he could play at both corners in the infield and outfield. A Thome/Cuddyer platoon at first base would undoubtedly be more offensively productive than Ryan Howard would have been.

Regardless of what happens, it will be great to see Thome back in Phillies red. His tenure in Philadelphia ended rather abruptly and, given his reputation as a person and a player as well as his relationship with Charlie Manuel, Philadelphia and Thome are a natural fit.

On Targeting Players

On Twitter, I get asked the question “What do you think about getting [Player X]?” question frequently. I feel bad because I always give a hem-and-haw answer, which seems unhelpful. In the case of free agent targets, I tend to respond, “if the price is right and the contract isn’t too long” and go from there. For trade targets, it usually starts with, “If the Phillies don’t have to give up too many premier prospects and/or money”.

I wanted to go a bit more in depth as to why my replies on that are so non-descript. When you brainstorm potential player acquisitions, you should always take economics into account. I would love it if the Phillies signed Albert Pujols. All Phillies fans would, probably. However, it would be even more awesome if he signed a five-year, $30 million contract as opposed to a ten-year, $475 million contract.

So the two players I was asked about today were free agents Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan, both long-time teammates on the Minnesota Twins. Reports have the Phillies as very interested in acquiring Cuddyer’s services, chiefly because of his ability to play both corners in the infield and outfield. In discussions involving Cuddyer and the Phillies, I see a lot of absolute statements, but rarely are contract details taken into account. Cuddyer would be a great get for the Phillies on a cheap one-year deal or perhaps something similar to what the Colorado Rockies gave Ty Wigginton (a similarly-versatile, but slightly less-talented and less-revered version of Cuddyer): two years, $8 million. Instead, if Cuddyer is chasing a contract similar to what the Phillies gave Raul Ibanez (three years, $31.5 million), then it is not so good.

As for Nathan, who pitched 44.2 innings last year after missing the entire 2010 season due to Tommy John surgery, it is more of the same. If the contract is low-risk, the Phillies have little to lose in going after him. If the contract is similar to what they gave Brad Lidge (three years, $37.5 million), then it makes little sense.

When you think of player targets, use a sliding scale. The fewer dollars and fewer guaranteed years, the better (and the less production you require to live up to it); the more dollars and more guaranteed years, the worse (and the more production required to live up to it). All of this is relative to market value, of course.

I enjoy providing insight to you on this blog, via email, and on Twitter, so I wanted to use this space to clarify why my replies may seem unhelpful at first glance. Generally speaking, anyone who tells you that a team definitely should or should not acquire a player without taking the market into account is giving you bad feedback. And that’s why I try not to make absolute statements about players the Phillies are targeting.