Even in the midst of a streak of erratic blogging I have found it impossible to ignore the growing speculation regarding the possible addition of Jim Thome to the Twins roster in 2010. This thing has been bubbling up for a few days now and it seemed appropriate that I get off my metaphorical keister (and onto my actual one — it’s awfully hard to type while standing) and post some thoughts on the possibility.
First, from a purely clubhouse standpoint, I love this idea. Thome is the kind of guy who by all accounts any clubhouse would be lucky to have – a veteran who has always worked hard and (barring a huge disconnect between appearances and reality) is a solid, likable teammate. One of the reasons I scoff a bit at the notion that you can quantify everything that happens on a baseball field is because I do believe that chemistry and the presence of strong leaders in the clubhouse can affect a team’s fortunes. Thome is a plus player in that department, and in some respects his addition would make up for the loss of Mike Redmond from the clubhouse (although he’d presumably be a quieter, much less naked version of a clubhouse leader than Redmond purportedly was).
Of course, clubhouse leadership is nice — but hardly the reason guys are generally brought in. Certainly, if the Twins fork out the cash to bring in Thome, it will be with the expectation that he would contribute significantly off the bench. In order to determine if bringing in Thome is a good idea, then, we need to look at a couple of things: what kind of production could we expect from Thome, and (2) who would he replacing on the roster.
It is, of course, impossible to easily answer the question of how effective Thome would be as a full time pinch hitter (and presumably, occasional DH) for the Twins. For one thing, Thome has never been a full time PH for an entire season. For another, even if he had been, PH’s accumulate significantly fewer AB’s than regular players, meaning luck (both bad and good) and randomness are going to play a more significant role in affecting the stats than would be the case for regular players. Nonetheless, there are some hard numbers we could look at. Last year, Thome was traded to the Dodgers essentially to perform as a pinch hitter. The numbers aren’t encouraging, but the sample size is small enough to be virtually meaningless — Thome went 4-for-17 with 4 singles and 3 RBI. Looking at all of 2009, Thome was a pinch hitter 26 times and picked up just 4 singles. He also struck out 10 times and walked just once. Starting to get a little concerned? Going back still further, you’d find that Thome went 1-for-7 with a double and 3 walks in 2008, 2-for-4 with 2 walks in 2007, and and 2-for-4 with 2 HR’s in 2006. In other words, the last time Thome hit a pinch hit homerun was in 2006 — a span of roughly 42 plate appearances.
What to make of these numbers? The numbers just aren’t in big enough bunches to draw a clear conclusion from, but I’d be concerned — as Thome is aging, his suitability to performing a pinch hitting role seems to be dropping. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because it’s significantly harder for a veteran player like Thome to stay loose and ready to hit when sitting on the bench for an entire game waiting for one late-inning chance to hit. Sadly, I’m afraid that if Thome is brought in to provide some pop off the bench, I don’t think he’ll deliver with anything like the frequency the Twins would hope for. Would it be nice to have a burly lefty ready and waiting for a vital 8th or 9th inning pinch hitting appearance when Nick Punto is otherwise stepping to the plate? Absolutely — but not if the burly lefty is just going to strike out or ground out to second 80% of the time.
This leads to the second question — what would the Twins have to give up to keep Thome on the roster? I don’t want to get into anything like an in depth roster breakdown at this point (plenty of time for that in Spring Training!), but it seems likely the roster will break down something like this: 12 pitchers (too many in contention to make 11 seem at all feasible); 2 catchers; 4 starting infielders; 3 starting outfielders; Jason Kubel as the DH; 2 backup infielders, and a backup outfielder. If the Twins decided to carry 3 catchers — which, of course, seems to be something Gardy is always interested in — you’re already talking about removing one of the few backups available. It should be readily apparent that it’s not possible to carry 12 pitchers, 3 catchers, AND Thome. Something would have to give. Even if the Twins go with 2 catchers (which they should), you still have to get rid of a backup infielder, a backup outfielder, or a pitcher to make Thome happen.
Who would it be? As I mentioned parenthetically above, I don’t think it would be a pitcher. Twelve man pitching staffs are now the norm, and the Twins are unlikely to depart from that formula this year unless the starters are regularly going deep into games. Even then, it’s nice to have a bigger bullpen for matchups and emergencies. That means the Twins would have to sacrifice either an infielder or an outfielder. I think it’s safe to say that neither Brendan Harris nor Nick Punto are going anywhere because of their versatility. If you slot one of them in as the starting 2B, the other will have to take up one of the backup infielder positions (unless Brendan Harris was named the regular starter at 3B — but I can’t see Punto AND Harris being starters in 2010). That leaves one spot for someone like Alexi Casilla or Matt Tolbert. This spot could actually be sacrificed to make room for Thome without too much difficulty, thanks largely to the versatility of Punto and Harris. It would make far less sense not to carry an extra outfielder, because someone has to be available to play CF if need be when Denard Span is unavailable — and I don’t want to see Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, or Jason Kubel out there. That makes carrying a CF-capable outfielder (such as Jason Pridie) a virtual necessity.
So that makes it fairly certain that Thome would be replacing someone like Matt Tolbert (or, if Tolbert and Harris were platooning at 3B, someone like Alexi Casilla). I would actually be just fine with that. Tolbert is a nice young player who gives the team some hustle — but how many middle infielders do you really need when you have versatile players like Punto and Harris? I would sacrifice the third such player for a guy with some pop off the bench. Nonetheless, I find myself saying no to this deal, but not because of any roster issue it would create. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s a good baseball move. By all means, go find a lefty who can mash it a bit — but don’t sign Jim Thome expecting him to be that guy.