Now that all first-day hunky-dory feelings are out of the way and we've all waxed poetic about the potential narrative the Phillies put in play by bringing back Jim Thome for his swan song, can we put feeling aside for a few minutes and take a look at reality? As a writer, I always root for a good story, so I'd love to see Thome cap his career by winning a World Series with the manager he always loved most in the city he helped change most.
But are the Phillies in a better position to reach that World Series with Thome occupying a spot on the roster and $1.25 million on the payroll than they would with whatever player/salary would have taken his place?
As is always the case in the offseason, you can't really say.
In 2009, the Dodgers acquired Thome just before the Aug. 31 waiver-trade deadline. It was a no-risk proposition akin to the Phillies' acquisition of Matt Stairs the year before. Joe Torre wanted some left-handed power off the bench for the stretch run and the playoffs, and Thome was as good an option as was available.
In his month-and-a-half with the Dodgers, Thome played in 22 games, all as a pinch-hitter. He was 5-for-18 with no extra base hits, three RBI and seven strikeouts against one walk. Over the last three seasons, Thome appeared as a pinch hitter in 72 games for the Dodgers, Twins and White Sox. In those appearances, he hit .227 with one home run, five doubles, 30 strikeouts and eight walks in 63 at-bats and 72 plate appearances.
Here is how those numbers compare with Ross Gload's performance as a pinch-hitter last season:
In other words, Thome struck out more often than he reached base, doing the former once every 2.7 plate appearances and the latter once every 2.9. In 2011, he hit .216 with a .356 on base percentage and .774 slugging percentage with 35 strikeouts in 74 at-bats when he was facing a reliever for the first time in a game.
These are just numbers, obviously, but they are worth pointing out because the Phillies have hired Thome to do those two thing: pinch-hit, and face relievers, usually in the same plate appearance.
Thome struck out more often than he reached base, doing the former once every 2.7 plate appearances and the latter once every 2.9. In 2011, he hit .216 with a .356 on base percentage and .774 slugging percentage with 35 strikeouts in 74 at-bats when he was facing a reliever for the first time in a game.
This is worth pointing out because the Phillies have hired Thome to do those two things: pinch-hit, and face relievers, usually in the same plate appearance.
Numbers never tell the whole story. Aside from that final month-and-a-half of 2009, Thome has never performed the role he will perform in 2012.
The last two seasons show that the 41-year-old Thome still has plenty of pop in his bat, even when playing less-than-full-time. In 2010 and 2011 he hit .269/.387/.552 with 40 home runs, 174 strikeouts, 109 RBI and 80 runs while averaging 332 plate appearances per season.
If Thome were still able to play the field on a semi-regular basis, the Phillies' ability to convince him to re-sign in Philadelphia would qualify as an unquestioned cost-benefit coup. But at the press conference introducing his signing yesterday, there was no indication that Thome will fill any role other than pinch-hitter. He has not played a single inning in the field since 2007. He has not played more than 20 innings in the field since he left Philadelphia in 2005. There is talk that maybe, just maybe, Thome will be able to knock off enough physical and technical rust to start one game at first per week. But even that is an uncertain proposition.
Which means there are two questions: Will he be able to maintain his usual production even when his action is limited to one plate appearance? Will he be able to log enough plate appearances to make that production worth the cost of $1.25 million and, most significantly, a spot on a 25-man roster?
A lot depends on how the Phillies decide to fill out the rest of that 25-man roster. Keep in mind that they usually carry five bench players, and that they need to fill one of those spot with a back-up catcher, and that they usually carry at least one utility man (Eric Bruntlett in 2008 and 2009, Wilson Valdez in 2010, and Wilson Valdez and Michael Martinez in 2011).
If they maintain that philosophy, three of their five bench spots will be filled by one-dimensional players: two players that are rarely used as weapons on offense (the back-up catcher and the utility man), and one player who is not even an option on defense.
Some key points that will affect the viability of Thome's presence:
1) Allocation of personnel
The Phillies could decide to keep an extra bench player at the expense of a reliever. They did this at times last season, when their deep rotation limited the opportunities for bullpen work. The Phillies used seven relievers in only three of their 162 games last season. They used six in only one game. But they also saw their top three starters pitch at least 215 innings. If they are comfortable with the type of workload Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels each saw last season, then keeping an extra bench player makes more sense.
Some would argue that the Phillies should not be comfortable with such a rotation-heavy approach. Rich Hofmann spelled out this belief in a column a couple of weeks ago. I've mentioned it several times here. Halladay and Lee are both signed through 2013, and potentially 2014. At some point over the next year, the Phillies will have to decide whether to sign Hamels to a long-term deal. From a long-term perspective, they cannot afford to have one or more of these starters deteriorate. From a short-term perspective, they cannot afford to have one or more of these starters wear down before the postseason. We saw a lot of workhorse pitchers struggle in the postseason this year. Halladay was an exception. It could be coincidence.
In terms of pure manpower, carrying one fewer reliever can only increase the likelihood that Charlie Manuel sticks with Halladay or Lee or Hamels for that extra inning in a tight game.
But running out of bodies is not the biggest concern when it comes to a bullpen of six instead of a bullpen of seven.
2) Diversity of personnel
The only thing that will make Manuel comfortable taking his starter out of a tight game after a modest workload is a bullpen that inspires confidence. The only two relievers who did this throughout 2011 were Antonio Bastardo and Ryan Madson. Mike Stutes was a go-to-option for the first half of his rookie campaign. Jose Contreras was a go-to-option until late April, when he hit the disabled list. If both of those players can last an entire season at peak performance, the Phillies are well on their way to bullpen heavy on both quality and depth.
But Contreras is coming off elbow surgery, and thus remains a huge question mark. J.C. Romero was never the same after his elbow problems. Same goes for Brad Lidge. Stutes struggled with his command down the stretch last season. That is not uncommon for a young reliever. But heading into the year with him as the clear No. 3 option is a risk. I expect the Phillies to sign Ryan Madson to a significant contract extension at some point. I think Madson wants to be here, and I think the Phillies will only be comfortable giving out big money to him. But retaining their closer only keeps the bullpen where it was last season, which by September was extremely top-heavy. Behind Madson, Bastardo and an inconsistent Stutes were Kyle Kendrick and David Herndon, two players with similar skill sets, and Brad Lidge and Michael Schwimer, neither of whom inspired a ton of confidence in Manuel.
In a perfect world, Triple-A relievers Justin De Fratus and Phillippe Aumont are ready to make instant impacts and get the call to the majors at some point in 2012 and Joe Savery or Jacob Diekman establishes himself as a reliable left-handed option. But those are all huge question marks.
Entering the season without a veteran swing-and-miss pitcher to complement Madson and Bastardo will constitute a significant risk if the Phillies hope to rein in their starters. Assuming the Phillies do not have unlimited payroll flexibility, the $1.25 million they are paying to Thome is $1.25 million they cannot pay to somebody else. And if they carry six bench players, it leaves them with three open spots behind Madson, Bastardo and a long man, and decreases Manuel's ability to mix-and-match his way through the late innings.
3) Allocation of payroll
It is one of the fundamental rules of economics. Every purchase includes two costs: the actual cost, or the dollars spent ($1.25 million on Thome), and the opportunity cost, or the dollars that cannot be spent somewhere else ($1.25 million in salary for another player). For instance, last offseason, $1.25 million was the difference between Octavio Dotel ($3.25 million) and Aaron Helmian ($2.0 million). Or it was roughly the difference between J.C. Romero ($1.35 million) and Randy Choate ($2.5 million).
Below is a look at the position players who signed one-year deals worth $1.5 million and under last season, in order of their salary.
|Tony Gwynn Jr.
Just eye-balling it, you would probably say that at least seven teams got their money's worth. Ten got at least 166 plate appearances out of the deal, which is one of the big questions with Thome. How many plate appearances will he actually get? Manuel used a left-handed pinch hitter, not including switch-hitters, in 150 total plate appearances last season. He used a left-handed designated hitter in 12 plate appearances, not including four plate appearances by Jimmy Rollins.
So that is 162 plate appearances total in which a left-handed hitter was used without playing the field. Ross Gload got 80 of those plate appearances. In 2010, Gload again led the way with 74 plate appearances. In 2009, Matt Stairs had 86 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter or DH. In 2008 and 2007, it was Greg Dobbs leading the way with 74 and 58.
Thome's role will likely be similar to the one Stairs held in '09, when he went 15-for-69 with 5 home runs, 2 doubles, 19 strikeouts, 16 walks, 15 RBI and 17 runs as a pinch-hitter or designated hitter. The 41-year-old Stairs played 15 games in the field, finished with 129 plate appearances and was paid $1.6 million.
Compared to Stairs, Thome is a bargain. He is a more accomplished hitter and brings some non-tangible benefits with regards to his familiarity with the clubhouse and his appeal with the fan base.
But is that worth whatever the Phillies will sacrifice in terms of the flexibility of their roster and payroll?
If they keep their usual bench players, does the personality and power potential that Thome brings increase their chances of winning more than a guy like Eric Hinske, who can play first base and the outfield? If the Phillies felt they needed a left-handed slugger to be on call for pinch-hit duty, Thome might have been the best option. It is hard to convince a designated-hitter-type to sign with a National League team because any DH-type worth signing is almost certain to have options for more playing time in the American League. The biggest question is whether the Phillies need that DH-type, and whether it is wise to sacrifice a more versatile bench player or an extra reliever to accomodate him. If Thome is replacing another bench player, will he increase their odds of winning more than a guy like Mark Kotsay or Nick Punto or Jerry Hairston or even Willie Harris? The Phillies can still sign at least one of those versatile types. If they are intent on pursuing the Twins Michael Cuddyer, as a report by CSNPhilly.com suggested, he or John Mayberry Jr. would likely fill a bench spot on any given night.
If Thome's roster spot replaces that of a seventh reliever, is a lefty power specialist off the bench worth more than an extra specialist out of the bullpen?
Below is a list of reliever who signed for $1.5 million or less last offseason, along with their subsequent 2011 stats:
Again, going by the eyeball test, when you get down to the bottom of the market, your money seems to get you a lot more bang for your buck when you spend it on the bullpen than when you spend it on the bench. Pretend this is a year ago. Would the Phillies be better off with 125 plate appearances of Thome's production, or 67 2/3 innings of Joel Peralta's production?
4) What all of it means in actual game play
Looking at the postseason, you might say that Thome would have increased the Phillies chances of beating the Cardinals more than a reliever like Peralta. After all, the Hall of Fame slugger is 7-for-24 with four doubles, two home runs and four walks in his career against Chris Carpenter and he is 8-for-13 with a double, two home runs and six walks against Edwin Jackson. On the other hand, Thome is 2-for-28 with 15 strikeouts, two walks and one extra base hit in his career against Arthur Rhodes, Octavio Dotel and Jason Motte.
So let's look at the actual situations where Thome could have been used. We'll assume Gload is not on the roster and we'll start with Game 5 and working backwards:
- Game 5, Bottom 8th, 2 out, None on, Trailing 1-0: Halladay's spot in the order is up. Really, this is the only place in the game Manuel could have, and should have, used a guy like Thome. Maybe he pinch-hits for Ibanez with two out and none on in the bottom of the seventh, but that forces him to use John Mayberry Jr. to replace Ibanez in the field. Or, if Thome reaches base, it forces him to use a pinch-runner. In all likelihood, Thome's moment comes in the 8th with two out and none on, which is where Manuel used Gload. At that point, Tony La Russa has a decision to make: go with Carpenter's current performance, which is lights out, or err on the side of his career performance against Thome and go get Dotel (He would not get Rhodes because Manuel would likely pull Thome back and have Mayberry face the lefty, which is the least ideal situation). Clearly, you would rather have Thome than Gload facing Carpenter or Dotel. But on the roughly 90 percent chance that Thome does not hit a home run, you are still left with Jimmy Rollins facing Carpenter with a man on base, which is what ended up happening after Gload reached on an error. Rollins made an out to end the inning.
- Game 4, Top 5th, 1 out, 1 on, Trailing 3-2: Oswalt's spot is up with a runner on first base. Manuel could go to Thome here to face Jackson, but even if he ties the game or hits a go-ahead home run, the Phillies now have five innings to kill with a bullpen that is not designed to do so. Maybe Manuel does indeed make the change, and maybe it ends up working out. Maybe Thome ties the game and or gives the Phillies the lead. Oswalt then is not in the game to allow a two-run home run to David Freese in sixth. Maybe Ryan Madson pitches two innings and Antonio Bastardo pitches one, but that still leaves the fifth and the sixth to some combination of Stutes, Lidge, Kendrick and Blanton.
- Game 4, Top 8, None out, None on, Trailing 5-2: The pitcher's spot leads off the frame. Doesn't make sense to use Thome here, You need somebody to reach base and start a rally. Gload batted here and reached via single and the Phillies ended up scoring a run. But it isn't until one out in the top of the ninth when another opportunity would come to even think about using Thome. Even Manuel did use Thome, it would be to pinch-hit for Ibanez or Polanco against Jason Motte with a two-run deficit.
- Game 2, Bottom 7, 1 out, None on, Trailing 5-4: Dotel is on the mound and the pitcher's spot is up. Do you pinch-hit Thome here? Manuel pinch-hit Gload, which prompted La Russa to bring in the lefty Rzepczynski, which prompted Manuel to replace Gload with Ben Francisco, who flied out to deep center field.
- Game 2, Bottom 9, None out, None on, Trailing 5-4: Motte is looking to close out the game. Ibanez, Polanco and Ruiz are due up. Manuel brings in Thome to face Motte. Fastball pitcher against fastball hitter. We finally have the match-up the Phillies have in mind.
As you probably already realized, the presence of Thome doesn't mean Manuel is going to get to unleash him against a right-handed reliever once a game when he needs a big hit. On the other hand, a manager can unleash a relief specialist once a game when he needs a big out, as La Russa showed with brilliance throughout the postseason. Take Game 2, for example. Lee allowed three runs in the fourth, then pitched a perfect fifth, then allowed a two-out double in the sixth. Maybe, if the Phillies have a deep enough bullpen, Manuel calls on a trustworthy reliever to face John Jay instead of leaving Lee in to allow a game-tying single. Or maybe he brings that reliever in the seventh to face Allen Craig and Albert Pujols, who ended up combining for the go-ahead run against Lee. In all likelihood, Manuel plays it the same way he did, putting his faith in his $120 million starter instead of a $1.25 million reliever. The point is, you can only have 25 players on a roster, and, theoretically, you can only spend X amount of dollars on payroll. Every acquisition affects every other acquisition.
5) In conclusion...
From this vantage point, the Thome move only makes sense in the following scenarios:
- The Phillies keep their usual five bench players, but upgrade the utility position so that it features a hitter who is a more reliable hitter than Michael Martinez or Wilson Valdez (Jamey Carroll, Jerry Hairston, Punto, or perhaps Polanco, if the Phillies upgrade at third base). OR the Phillies keep an extra bench player but upgrade the front of the bullpen so that it more resembles the 2008 unit, which featured veterans like Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero and Scott Eyre in front of Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge.
- The Phillies add a second left-handed bat who is more versatile than Thome, both offensively (hitting for contact) and defensively (the ability to play the field).
- The Phillies do not allow the spending of $1.25 million on 125 or 150 plate appearances to become inefficient by allowing it to affect the amount of money they spend on the bullpen and the rest of the bench.
- Thome is comfortable and effective in his new role as pinch-hitter.
- Thome remains healthy all season.
If all of those five criteria are met -- Nos. 4 and 5 are true of any signing, obviously -- Thome will end up being a smart investment. Even if he does not swing the bat, his mere presence could change an opposing manager's late-game strategy, and at times result in some game-changing righty-vs.-lefty specialist match-ups.
And, of course, the Phillies will have their left-handed designated hitter come World Series time.Which, if this is really going to provide a compelling chapter in Thome's career and the story of the Phillies' rise from Vet-laden losers to civic prominence, is where they are going to end up, right?