Analysis

The Jim Thome Dilemma

(AP)

At 41, Jim Thome may not have received more than a handful of offers before the 2012 season started. After all, most National League teams would not have a spot for a player the Twins used as a part-time DH last year and would choose to not insult one of of the top 50 hitters of all-time by offering him a bench role with no guarantee of playing time. Yet, Thome and the Phillies seemed like a serendipitous match: the Phillies, needing a left-handed power threat off the bench and possibly a left-handed platoon option at first, signed Thome to a modest 1 year, $1.25 million deal.

The early results were rough. Thome started the year 2 for 18 in a part-time role while lefty Laynce Nix surprised many by hitting .326/.392/.587. Thome left the team in late April with a lower back strain and, when he returned, Nix was no longer there. Thome produced in a big way on the Phils recent 9 game road trip, hitting .333 with 4 HRs and 14 RBIs. It was reported last night that Thome will return to a bench role when the team returns home tonight.

Part of me tells me that is the wrong move. And I can’t tell if its logos, pathos, or ethos that is effecting me.

Logically, starting a 41-year old at first base with a recent lower back injury isn’t the smartest move. With the mobility needed to be even a decent defender at the Major League level, Thome risks injury but also poor performance. But would it be any worse than what they have had at first base?

Knowing that defensive numbers take sometime to stabilize, Ty Wigginton‘s defensive performance at first has been dreadful (-19.5 UZR/150), costing the Phillies approximately 6.6 runs according to FanGraphs. In 72+ innings at first, Nix was equally bad (-21.2 UZR/150) at first. Thome has been just under league average at first (-1.7 UZR/150) albeit in a much smaller and much more volatile sample. Adjusted for 72 innings like Nix, Thome isn’t quite as bad, but the difference of 45 innings leaves a lot of variability for Thome to have missteps.

Emotionally, this season has already left me drained. One of the strongest connections I have to this team emotionally is Big Jim. Thome was the first big free agent signing of my lifetime in 2003. (Side note: Signing six-time Gold Glover Dwayne Murphy in 1989 does not count and Ron Gant in 1999 is close, but wasn’t the impact player Thome was). Thome wasn’t the reason Citizen’s Bank Park was built but CBP felt like it was built for him – Thome was and is an old-time slugger playing in a park modeled after parks of years past. If the Phillies continue to struggle, seeing Thome in the game makes it easier to watch. The Phillies may not get Thome a ring, but something feels right about Thome as a Phillie.

And that may be because character-wise, there is no finer player than Gentleman Jim. Did you catch the shot of Thome in the dugout on Saturday against the Jays? He watches the game with the wonder and amazement of a Little Leaguer. Did you see the shot of Thome on Sunday, or really any game day, talking baseball? Did you feel his passion? Growing up, Thome was the first player I remember wearing his socks high, playing third base for the Indians. He is a throw back in many literal and figurative ways.

The Phillies face a tough decision now: do you start and continue to start a 41-year old at first base now that Interleague Play is over until the wheels fall off? Thome has been one of their best hitters in recent days, something I’m sure isn’t lost on Charlie Manuel. The three major appeals are there: logic, emotion, and character. If you are the Phillies what do you do?

If I’m the Phillies, Thome is the best option right now at first base. He is the one player on the team who, even at age 41, feels like he can and will change the game with one swing. Either way, Thome is making it a little easier to watch the 2012 Phillies play.

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