January 24, 2010

Twins "Have Real Interest" In Signing Jim Thome

Friday morning a rumor was circulating out of Chicago that the Twins were close to signing Jim Thome and when Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune did a bit of digging he surprisingly found that there was actually some fire behind the smoke:

I called a Twins official, expecting to hear that this is totally far-fetched, and turns out they do have real interest in Thome and haven't ruled out their chances of signing him. Probably not today, mind you, but it's getting late in the offseason and the prices for free agents are falling fast. The Twins are bargain hunting, and if Thome were to accept a bench role at a severely reduced price--he made $13 million last year--there could be a match.

Obviously that's a long way from "close to signing," but it's intriguing nonetheless. At first glance you'd think that the 39-year-old Thome would be just another name on the long list of over-the-hill veterans the Twins have brought in via free agency, but there's a big difference: Thome is still a very dangerous hitter. He batted .249/.366/.481 with 23 homers in 434 plate appearances last season, topping an .800 OPS for the 16th time in 17 seasons, and hit .265/.391/.542 during his four years with the White Sox.

Thome hasn't played first base regularly since 2005 and didn't see a single inning defensively in either of the past two seasons, but the fact that he's strictly a designated hitter at this point matters little with Justin Morneau around. His other big flaw is a career-long weakness against left-handed pitching, but while the Twins' lineup is certainly very heavy on lefty bats their OPS against righties (.768) was actually slightly worse than their OPS against lefties (.785) last season. They aren't that unbalanced.

Thome isn't going to help much versus lefties, but he crushed righties to the tune of .274/.402/.551 over the past three seasons, including .262/.383/.498 last year. To put that into some context, consider that Morneau hit .272/.379/.526 against righties last season and .293/.385/.529 from 2007-2009. So yes, he can't play defense or hit lefties, but when facing righties Thome has essentially been as productive as Morneau. If platooned at DH versus righties Thome would be a huge upgrade to the Twins' lineup.

However, that would mean shifting Jason Kubel from DH to left field while benching Delmon Young. Both moves would be just fine with me, because Kubel is no worse than Young defensively and Young platooning against lefties is about as much playing time as his performance has warranted so far, but my guess is that the Twins think differently. In fact, Christensen suggests that if signed Thome would serve merely in "a bench role."

He'd certainly beef up the bench and provide Ron Gardenhire with an interesting late-inning option, but then again so would Joe Mauer if for some odd reason the Twins ceased starting him. In other words, Thome hits right-handed pitching too well not to start against them, particularly when the alternative is Young with his career .317 on-base percentage and .396 slugging percentage versus righties. Thome is a decent bet to top those marks by at least 50 points of OBP and 100 points of SLG.

Right now the Twins will have Young in left field and Kubel at DH against righties, but having Thome at DH, Kubel in left field, and Young on the bench would make them a superior team for those 100 or so games. Whether or not Thome is willing to take a one-year contract for modest money and whether or not the Twins are able to recognize that he shouldn't be limited to a bench role are big questions, but if the answer to both is yes then there's no doubt that Thome would significantly improve the offense.

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