Sunday, January 16, 2011

Twins Bring Back Jim Thome for 2011

Regardless of the lens through which you choose to view the game of baseball, or how you chose to evaluate performance, Jim Thome's production in 2010 was big. All by itself with no perspective given, a .283 average, with 25 home runs would be good - and if you're someone who prefers your baseball analysis as simple as possible, you're going to like that production. Indeed just 20 players other players posted an average as good with as many home runs.

Prefer your statistics to be more advanced? His 1.039 OPS would've been third to just Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera. His .437 wOBA third to Hamilton and Joey Votto.  How about player value? Thome's 3.6 WAR was the best of any designated hitter, while former Twin David Ortiz (3.3) came in second.

The kicker to all that of course is that the Twins were able to sign him for the heinous base salary of 1.6m - but don't worry, he earned another 200k in incentives for reaching 300 plate appearances - for a grand total of 1.8m

If the voices in your head are saying something along the lines of, "Hold on... what?" you're not alone.

How exactly did we get to a point where Thome, a near certain Hall Of Famer, and one of baseball's most beloved characters could barely get 1.5m guaranteed? I mean, the White Sox gave Mark Teahan (yeah, the Mark Teahan who was supposed to replace Thome) three years and 14m. But picking on the White Sox alone isn't fair. This isn't the case of one team making a bad decision, this is a situation where 29 other teams legitimately sat down and said, "no, we're not interested in Jim Thome even at just two million."

The Royals, who dug up 2.75m for Rick Ankiel and another 1.7m for Willie Bloomquist apparently couldn't dig enough change out of the couch for Thome. I guess paying Jose Guillen 12m to clog up the DH spot was a better play. Neither could the Indians, who instead signed Russell Branyan for 1.5m to be a left handed option off the bench before trading him to the Mariners where he replaced their other DH, perennial Citizen Of The Year Award Winner Milton Bradley.

He'd have been the best hitter on any of those teams - by a vast margin - and could've been had for the baseball equivalent of loose change. How the hell did this happen?

The most likely explanation is that executives saw his declining performance - his OPS in 2009 was JUST .847, combined it with his advancing age and thought he was done for. I guess that makes some sense. Not nearly enough sense mind you, but some. Even when you consider that his market was limited to the 14 AL teams where he could serve as a DH, there are a lot of teams (all of them) that could've used Thome's bat in a bench role - which is precisely the roll for which the Twins signed Thome.

I say all of that to say this: how the hell did we wind up back at the EXACT SAME PLACE????

It's now 2010 instead of 2009 and still no one could make an offer that topped the reported 4m the Rangers offered? Really? It would appear that Thome considered more things than just money - there is speculation he chose the Twins slightly smaller 3m + incentives deal to be closer to his family in Chiacgo, and obviously the Twins are a more competitive club than, say, the Mariners. But... seriously?

Perhaps the only thing more criminal than the Twins being able to sign Thome for 1.5m in 2010 off his .847 OPS in the year before is them signing him for 3.0m in 2011 off his 1.037 OPS.

But let's add some important perspective - I'm not by any means under the impression that Thome is going to repeat his 2010 season, not by a long shot. Other than Albert Pujols, I don't expect anyone to post back-to-back 1.000 OPS seasons. But as Thome showed in 2010 he can still demolish right-handed pitching, and while it's unlikely that he'll do so to the same extent in 2011, I'm guessing he'll still hit them plenty hard. Certainly projecting him to a .850 OPS isn't exactly going out on any kind of a limb.

Further, Thome doesn't fill an obvious hole. Jason Kubel came into 2010 as the Twins every-day designated hitter and he'll likely enter 2011 with the same role. What the Twins really could've used was a right-handed hitter to platoon with Kubel who, like Thome, struggles mightily with left-handed pitching. Personally, I think they'd have been better served by signing either Manny Ramirez or Vlad Guerrero who could platoon in the DH role and provide the Twins with some desperately needed pop from the right side. Clearly the Twins felt otherwise.

Beyond what Thome brings on the field, and beyond the immeasurable intangibles he brings to the clubhouse - he provides something else to the Twins - insurance on Justin Morneau's concussion.

Free agency is a mixed bag. Sometimes you know from the start that a deal is going to implode. Sometimes you know it'll work out. And yes, sometimes there are steals. But they should never be this obvious.

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