Jim Thome once stole home. Now he could be a steal for contender
Jim Thome was better known for the force of a swing via which he clouted 612 homers than for his foot speed, but 16 years ago on Tuesday, he stole home for the only time in his 22-year major league career. Lest you imagine some Jackie Robinson-esque feat of basepath derring-do — just try to visualize that for a moment, I’ll wait — Thome’s swipe came at the back end of a double steal.
In the bottom of the fourth inning of the May 21, 1997 game between the Indians and Royals, Thome and Matt Williams opened by collecting singles off Kansas City’s Kevin Appier. Williams was erased via a forceout groundball hit by Julio Franco, and on the fourth pitch to the next batter, Brian Giles, Franco swiped second, with Thome scampering home once Royals catcher Tim Spehr threw down to second base. As it happened, those were the only two hits the Indians collected all day, and they produced the game’s only run; Orel Hershiser and three relievers combined to shut out the Royals.
It was the only time in his major league career that Thome stole any base besides second. Of his 19 career steals, three others came at the back end of a double steal where a presumably more fleet-footed runner swiped third, and three occurred on busted hit-and-run plays where the batter struck out but Thome advanced nonetheless. By the time he swiped home, most of his fancy footwork was behind him; he stole safely just four more times in the next 15 seasons. He was just getting started in the power department, however; though he had hit 38 homers the year before, 1997 marked the first of six seasons in which Thome would clout at least 40 homers. He hit exctly that many while batting .286/.423/.579, leading the league with 120 walks and helping the Indians win their second pennant in three years.
Now 42 years old, Thome is jobless, though he’s not officially retired. In late April, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who managed the slugger in both Cleveland and Philadelphia, told the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Matt Gelb, “He still thinks he can play… He misses the game. Baseball is his identity. That’s all he’s done for 20-some years or so. He’s kind of having a hard time adjusting.”
After stellar part-time showings in 2010 (.283/.412/.627 with 25 homers in 340 PA) and 2011 (.256/.361/.477 with 15 homers in 324 PA), Thome slipped to .252/.344/.442 with eight homers in 186 PA split between the Phillies and Orioles last year, spending roughly half the season on the disabled list due to lower back and neck woes. A herniated disc muted his impact after being acquired by the Orioles on July 1, costing him all of August and the first three weeks of September.
Combined with a pair of DL stints in 2011 for oblique and quad strains, that increasing fragility is the likely reason he can’t find work. Still, it’s not difficult to point to a few teams who ought to consider his services; four of them have received OPSes below 700 from their designated hitters, which is supposed to be an offense-producing position, and three of them are likely to stay in contention all summer long:
• The Orioles are getting the league’s worst production from their DHs, with Nolan Reimold, Steven Pearce and others combining to “hit” .164/.249/.270 with just three homers.
• The Tigers (.226/.290/.323 with two homers) have failed to reap the anticipated reward from Victor Martinez’s return after missing last season, though they’re paying handsomely for the privilege.
• The Rays (.185/.319/.341 with six homers) look like a potential fit, though lefty Luke Scott has put up a 937 OPS from that spot while everyone else they’ve tried has been abysmal.
• The Astros (.206/.285/.319 with two homers) won’t be contending for anything other than the worst record in modern major league history, and it’s difficult to see Thome being desperate enough to sign on with them. Still, Houston could certainly use another bat.
Admittedly, that’s not a long list of teams who might inquire as to Thome’s availability; it may take an injury to a DH somewhere in order to enhance his employment chances. Even so, there’s little excuse for complacency, especially among contenders, to fill a position that requires no defensive responsibilities. Three of the aforementioned four teams are fighting for playoff spots but only one (the Tigers) are currently occupying a wild-card spot. Even the most inept GM should be able to come up with a guy who can hit, if nothing else, and who won’t cost much money; Thome has averaged less than $2 million per year in the last three years. While it may be a longshot, he deserves to take a few more hacks to see if he can help someone.