The Phillies wasted little time in making its first move of the offseason, signing Jim Thome to a one-year deal worth $1.25 million. With just those details, and no specifics about his potential playing time or role, it’s still a fantastic move. Even with added details it’s difficult to find any flaws in a minimal commitment to an offensive force.
He may be 41 years old, but his numbers are still impressive. Since 2008, he has posted the following wOBAs: .370, .367, .437, .362. The man can still rake, and he gives the Phillies a legitimate bench power threat. While it’s tough to fault an 102-win team that played all five games of the Division Series, the 2011 squad was certainly lacking power off the bench. Ross Gload had the hips of a 70-year old man and redundancy was abound with Michael Martinez and Wilson Valdez. Thome can now serve as the left-handed power pinch-hitter as well as the designated hitter in interleague games. And given the Phillies championship aspirations, some smidgen of the rationale for making this move involves his potential role in the World Series.
The move also satisfies fans from a nostalgic point of view.
Thome is an important figure in Philadelphia. His 2003 signing marked the turning point of the organization, coming on the heels of Scott Rolen’s and Curt Schilling’s departures. Both players sought trades essentially due to ownership’s unwillingness to spend or do what it took to build a winner.
Free agents weren’t enthralled to play in Philadelphia, but it was clear the team had some very promising pieces in the majors and on their way to the majors. Plus, a new stadium was around the corner. It was the perfect time to make a splash.
He was that splash. The most sought after free agent that offseason, Thome signed a lucrative six-year deal to join the Phillies.
The beleaguered Phillies fanbase was instantly rejuvenated. This was a legitimate star choosing to play for a team that was recently forced to trade away its stars. Then Thome hit 89 home runs over 2003-04, including his 400th homer, challenged Mike Schmidt’s then single-season home run record — which Ryan Howard subsequently demolished — and became one of the most beloved players in franchise history.
The marriage was short-lived, as Howard was knocking on the door and Thome’s elbow injury proved serious. Thome hit the DL on July 1, 2005 and underwent season-ending elbow surgery in mid-August. The Phillies traded him to the White Sox for Aaron Rowand that offseason and that was that.
Thome would hit his 500th and 600th homers in the American League and have another nostalgia party with the Cleveland Indians last season. But throughout it all, it remained clear that mutual interest existed between he and the Phillies. Even in 2010, five years after he was traded away, Thome received a thunderous standing ovation at Citizens Bank Park as he circled the bases following a home run against the Phillies.
He was on the Phillies radar last season but the perfect storm of preventative issues kept him away from mentor Charlie Manuel. Thome needed consistent PAs to get to 600 homers, but injuries prevented him from achieving the milestone until after the trade deadline. At that point, the Phillies were at the bottom of the waiver wire and unable to work out a deal. When Thome announced his intentions to play in 2012, it seemed that, as long as the Phillies had interest, a reunion with Charlie Manuel was inevitable.
Now that he’s back in the fold, how will the Phillies use him?
Clearly, Thome is going to pinch-hit for the team and serve them in a capacity similar to Jason Giambi’s role with the Rockies. Thome is no longer an everyday starter in a league lacking a designated hitter, but it’s hard to believe he never plays first base for the Phils, especially if Ryan Howard misses significant time. Don’t expect Thome to start 85 percent of the games Howard misses but he could certainly spot-start here and there. He wasn’t a defensive maven back in 2003, but was adept at scooping the ball and was fairly sure-handed despite limited range. Some offseason practice and what’s to say he couldn’t play a passable first base for 10 of the, say, 50 games Howard misses?
The move wasn’t predicated on Howard’s injury. Even if Howard was the picture of health, Thome still re-signs with the Phillies. It’s just that his signing could have the added bonus of his ironic filling in for an injured Howard — ironic since the opposite happened back in 2005 — every so often.
But the move is still great even if Thome literally does nothing but pinch-hit and DH in interleague games. He plays another season where he wants to play, and the Phillies solve a problem with the player the entire fanbase wanted to solve that problem.