Yesterday, the Twins signed Jim Thome to a one-year deal for $1.5 million guaranteed, with the potential of earning up to $2.2 million. It’s a modest deal for a player who really is limited at this point to drawing walks and slugging the ball against RHP. A couple days ago, Friend of the Blog and The Common Man’s boyhood chum Bill at The Daily Something, expressed great reservation over a potential deal, writing “bringing a full-time DH…to get a Kubel/Young platoon that has to play in the field seems like an enormous waste in every possible way.” Last night, we discussed this further and, while The Common Man has reservations about the deal, he's conditionally optimistic.
First, provided his production doesn’t slip precipitously, Thome’s bat presents an upgrade for the Twins against RHP over what Delmon Young would provide. Young has hit .283/.317/.396 against RHP in his career, well below average for any position, let alone LF. What’s more, he’s shown no improvement in that ability in the last four years. Thome, meanwhile, crushes righties, hitting .262/.383/.498 against them last year as a 38-year old. Thome would have to utterly collapse to actually fare worse against RHP in 2010 than Young will.
What’s more, using Thome against RHP gets Young out of the field. Young roams LF like he’s wearing ice skates to run across hot coals. The numbers say he’s bad, but they really don’t give a strong enough indication of just how horrible he looks out there. Young plays LF is like watching a whale do ballet: at once fascinating, ugly, and utterly ineffective. It’s true that Young’s just going to be replaced by Jason Kubel, whose track record in the outfield (back when he used to play regularly) was not good. Kubel actually started 53 games in LF and RF last year, and acquitted himself relatively well, and perhaps has recovered enough from the devastating knee injury that debilitated him in 2005, 2006, and possibly 2007 to make him an acceptable defender in the corner. Or he might not have. Either way, he’s probably better than Young at this point, so that’s an upgrade as well.
Fig. 1 Somebody feels left out.
Bill may very well be right when he suggests that the Twins would have been better served by signing an Endy Chavez or Randy Winn and upgrading a very questionable OF defense. Denard Span is stretched as a CF and, again, Young and Kubel in LF is not ideal. Michael Cuddyer also has been pretty bad in RF since 2006. But it’s also undeniable that the Twins are better today than they were two days ago.
There is a big “but” however, in this scenario. If the Twins do not deploy Thome optimally, it’s hard to see this move as a win for them. It has been rumored that Thome will primarily serve as a backup DH and pinch-hitter, a role that he did not excel at for the Dodgers last year. Such a scenario would force Young back into the field and to the plate against RHP and would severely cripple the team offensively, defensively, and on the bench. If Thome is only viewed as a back-up, then in any given game, the Twins (as currently constructed) figure to go with Jose Morales as the backup C, Thome sitting out, Alexi Casilla or Matt Tolbert backing up at 2B (with Punto as the backup SS, presumably). They still need a backup CF (unless that’s Jason Pridie or Rene Tosoni, /shudder). Having Thome primarily as a bench player severely limits the team’s flexibility, especially if they’re committed to carrying 12 pitchers (as they have been these past few years). The Twins would be left with one backup IF, one OF, one C, and one PH. Such a roster construction would make shuffling players around to keep everyone fresh and reduce day-to-day injuries difficult.
Fig. 2 The Twins' new outfield/DH/bench solution.
Also, and this is something The Common Man didn’t think of until just now, the Thome signing may eliminate one of the Twins’ truly innovative lineup decisions from last year, DHing Joe Mauer when he’s not catching, a decision that likely allowed the Twins to eke out a win in their division. Late last season, when Mauer sat against RHP, Kubel typically moved into the outfield, while Morales caught, because Young was so hopeless. Now, however, with a legitimate DH on the roster, the usually unimaginative Ron Gardenhire might sit Mauer more often, reducing his superhuman contribution to the lineup. This too, would be disastrous, as Mauer is virtually guaranteed to out-produce Thome.
So count The Common Man as cautiously optimistic about Jim Thome, Minnesota Twin. He hopes to bump into the burly DH at Twinsfest this weekend. But that doesn’t eliminate the team’s need for additional help in the infield, or his desperate wish the team would carry just 11 pitchers.