Why Thome must play the field

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Jim Thome's best weapon is his bat, but to get his at-bats he'll need to play the field. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Shortly after 1 p.m. Monday, Jim Thome will stand at first base in a game for the first time in five years. The setting will be a Phillies intrasquad minor-league game at the Carpenter Complex, and the 41-year-old Thome will play with prospects almost half his age.

There is little significance whether Thome can handle the position for four or five innings on March 12. The plan is for Thome to spend a good deal of time at minor-league camp this spring to acclimate his bad back and aging knees to the position.

Ideally, Thome can demonstrate he will not be a liability there.

But the Phillies signed Thome to be a power threat off the bench in later innings, not to play first base in Ryan Howard's absence. Still, those two ideas are related.

Poll

Is Jim Thome a good alternative at first base until Ryan Howard returns from his Achilles tendon injury?

Charlie Manuel thinks Thome can net 200 at-bats in 2012. Thome has never been a full-time pinch-hitter in his career (with the exception of three weeks spent in Los Angeles during 2009 season). He's always had the benefit of the designated hitter, which allowed him to have four at-bats regularly.

Now? Thome can serve as DH for nine straight road Interleague games in June. That should produce approximately 30 at-bats.

If he is only a pinch-hitter who cannot play the field, we could expect him to receive no more than 83 at-bats. Why? Well, since 1974 when pinch-hitting stats were kept, no player has ever batted more than 83 times as a pinch-hitter.

Player Year PH ABs
L. Harris 2001 83
R. Staub 1983 81
O. Palmeiro 2006 80
M. Franco 2003 78
J. Morales 1976 78
Ma. Sweeney 2008 78
J. Cruz 2005 76
Ma. Sweeney 2007 76
Gload 2011 74
5 tied N/A 72

Thome has batted no fewer than 276 times in the past six years. His best weapon is his bat, but can the 41-year-old still be a threat while he sees less live pitching?

That's why the ability to play first is more important than just having Thome's bat in the lineup. Let's say he can play there once every two weeks. There are 26 weeks in the season. That's 13 starts and approximately four at-bats every start, meaning 52 more at-bats for Thome.

Now he's up to 165 at-bats with the pinch-hit appearances, DH time and first base time. Still, that's short of Manuel's expectation.

If Thome can start once a week, 200 at-bats is a more realistic number. The Phillies don't need Thome to play first base, but Thome may need first base to keep his bat sharp.

That makes four or five innings at an intrasquad minor-league game worth watching.


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