Jim Thome is a great addition for Twins, but they need to give him a bigger role than pinch-hitting

Jim Thome
REUTERS/Tim Shaffer
Jim Thome’s move here from the Dodgers is good news for the Twins.

As the legendary Ron Burgundy once said: “Boy, that escalated quickly.”

Just days after rumors started swirling about the Twins’ interest in Jim Thome, the two sides agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million in guaranteed money and another $750,000 in potential incentives. At that price, the signing is an absolute no-brainer move for the Twins and should end any debate about whether he’s a worthwhile addition. Now the biggest question revolves around Thome’s role, which the Twins insisted Tuesday will be fairly minimal.

Bill Smith, Ron Gardenhire and company really like the notion of having Thome available off the bench as pinch-hitter in the late innings. And they ought to, because the guy topped an .840 OPS last year for the 16th time in 17 seasons. Of course, as long as they’re shifting players into unnecessarily limited roles, Joe Mauer would probably be an even better pinch-hitter, Denard Span would likely be a fantastic pinch-runner, and Scott Baker would surely fare well as a long reliever.

All of which is a long way of saying that Thome is still far too dangerous offensively to limit him strictly to pinch-hitting duties. Against right-handed pitching, he hit .262/.383/.498 last season and .274/.402/.551 over the past three years, which is basically the same as Justin Morneau‘s production versus righties during that span. Seriously. Morneau hit .272/.379/.526 against righties last season and .293/.385/.529 from 2007-2009, which is at most marginally better than Thome’s numbers.

Now, he’s 39 years old and has certainly declined from his MVP-caliber peak as a 1.000-OPS monster, so some further slippage can be expected from Thome in 2010, but the notion that he’s just another in the line of washed-up veterans to join the Twins via free agency is silly. He’s only an emergency option at first base and has always struggled with lefties, but remains a legit middle-of-the-order bat versus righties. So why are the Twins indicating that he’ll be used merely as a bench bat? Delmon Young.

By trading Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy the Twins committed to Young as their starting left fielder. Certainly giving a 24-year-old everyday playing time is a good idea for his development, but the problem is that Young has done nothing to warrant that many at-bats and has been vastly inferior to Thome against right-handed pitching. In fact, Thome’s mediocre-for-him 2009 numbers beat Young’s career line versus righties by 66 points of on-base percentage and 102 points of slugging percentage.

That’s an awful lot of production to forfeit in the name of aiding the development of a guy who’s been an absolutely terrible all-around player through 1,851 plate appearances in the majors, so my hope is that Gardenhire eventually sees the benefit of getting Thome into the lineup regularly against righties, using him at DH while Jason Kubel shifts to left field and Young goes to the bench. That would significantly upgrade the lineup, and Young is a horrible defensive left fielder anyway, so there’s no big dropoff there.

One of the criticisms that I’ve seen lobbed at the Thome signing is that he does nothing to address the infield, where right now Nick Punto and Brendan Harris are the projected starters at second and third base. While true, those are separate issues, and paying Thome about $1 million beyond the minimum salary can’t possibly change their plans that much. If they were going to make a run at Orlando Hudson or Felipe Lopez, they still can and if they weren’t, then at least adding Thome improves them elsewhere.

Another criticism is that Thome adds to what was already an overly left-handed offense. There’s some truth to that, yet for all their lefty bats last season, the Twins had a higher OPS against lefties (.785) than righties (.768) and even I’m not advising Thome take starts away from Young versus southpaws. Plus, with as few as four lefty starters and zero lefty closers on the AL Central’s other four teams, the division is a place where a lineup stacked with Denard Span, Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, and Thome can thrive.

Even if they stick to the stated plan of using Thome off the bench, he’s worth the modest investment, in part because he can still do plenty of damage in a couple hundred at-bats and in part because should Morneau, Kubel or Michael Cuddyer get hurt, the Twins now have a viable replacement. However, the potential is there for Thome to make a much bigger impact if the Twins are willing to give him a sizable chunk of Young’s starts versus righties. Give him 350 plate appearances and this can be a great move.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 01/27/2010 - 11:56 am.

    Sorry, but to me Thome is just another over-the-hill veteran the Twins have signed in the past (Ruben Sierra and Tony Batista most recently), in order build a team on the cheap. Most did not last through July. It is a reversion to the failed old policies of the past.

    The Twins have a fine team which needs only a few (vital) tweaks to improve and get further into the playoffs, and adding an aged DH is not one of them. What is needed are two or three excellent players still in their prime, at third and on their pitching staff. Sure $1.5 million is not huge today, but that could have been put to better use, if for no other purpose to resign Mauer, or get one of the last remaining top free agents.

  2. Submitted by Michael Hunt on 01/27/2010 - 12:58 pm.

    Miles, I think you’re making the mistake that it’s an either/or proposition.

    Leave the 2nd and 3rd bases out of the equation. why wouldn’t you add Thome’s bench/DH abilities for a paltry 1.5 mil? That amount should have no effect on whether the Twins choose to fill either void

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 01/27/2010 - 04:04 pm.

    Why? Because I have seen a bus load of these tired, cheap veterans come and go (several last season alone). Chicago did not want Thome back — and they know him best. Also, Mauer is very closely observing how the Twins are building, and his signing will largely depend on him playing with a winner. Thome does not “add” much, he mostly replicates what we have now. Having said all that, I love watching the Twins, and hope I am wrong

  4. Submitted by tom moore on 01/29/2010 - 12:17 pm.

    i love this move. there are so many scenarios where having thome on the bench (should the starters stay healthy and should delmon young revert to his slap-hitting ways) will be more of a plus to the twins than just one at-bat.

    if thome pinch-hits before, say, the ninth inning, then the opposing manager has to decide if he’s going to use his only lefty reliever at that point (and possibly pulling a starter he’d hoped to go another inning, thus getting to the bullpen earlier) as opposed to saving him for mauer or morneau an inning or two later (who then might face a righty or a less imposing lefty).

    and with injuries and slumps and such, this move could look like the steal of the year by late summer.

    and thome seems like someone who should gel well with the players most likely to be on the twins roster. the more i think about it, the more i’m surprised that thome came at such a low price – maybe he just want to compete and be on a team he respects at this point over making a few million more. i don’t know; but i like it.

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