Dumping Thome Could Be Short-Sighted

The Phillies were fortunate to have Ryan Howard to fill in for Jim Thome at first base this season. Now, the Phillies have to decide how to handle the situation down the road as Thome potentially returns to the lineup and Howard looks for a new spot in the lineup.

There are a lot of people ready to dump Jim Thome. Not too long ago, the down-home, folksy lumberjack sort of a guy was the talk of the town. Fans simply loved him and couldn't get enough of him. Now, the internet, radio, newspapers and sports bars are filled with talk of wanting to dump Thome anyway, anyhow.

Let's face it, Thome's season was a disaster. He was barely ever a contributing factor to the club and was simply a negative part of their offense. The Phillies would have been better off had Thome missed the entire season and had Ryan Howard in the lineup from opening day on. Thome hit just 7 homeruns and finished with a .207 average. He struck out 59 times in 59 games. Crunch the numbers however you want, but Thome was awful.

The real issue though is whether we believe that Thome is done or that it was an anomaly. Were his numbers the beginning of the end or simply the result of a player who faced a long line of injuries and simply shouldn't have tried to play through them. This was one season, folks. It was Pat Burrell in 2003 (although Burrell still hit 21 homeruns that season). It was Mike Schmidt in 1978 (21-78-.251). It was Lenny Dykstra in 1989 (4-19-.222). All of these players hit the bottom of their careers only to bounce back and return to the type of numbers that we all expected from them. There is no reason to believe that Jim Thome can't and won't do the same thing. If nothing else, the guy is dedicated. You have to know that he was more upset with his season than any of us were. That's how Jim Thome is. He prides himself on being able to help his ball club. Whether he was toiling on struggling teams in Cleveland or trying to take the Phillies to the post-season, Thome demands the best from himself.

Let's not take anything away from Ryan Howard. The guy is a monster. Thank God that the Phillies didn't trade him or we could be talking about how the Phillies needed a sweep of the Nationals on the season's final weekend just to catch the Nats in the standings and not to catch the Astros for a playoff spot. Howard is the real deal and is part of a young group of players that should bring good things to the Phillies down the road. Before we start trading everybody and dumping everybody, let's take a look at other solutions.

The Phillies tried a year ago to teach Ryan Howard to play the outfield. It didn't work. Then again, there were reports that Howard was starting to come around at least a little. The experiment ended abruptly and perhaps, too soon. Let's run the experiment again. Only this time, let's work even harder at it. Let's bring in Garry Maddox or Bake McBride or anybody else that we believe can help Howard to learn the outfield. And, let's not just have him learn left field, let's bring right field into the mix, too. Teach him the nuances, teach him the techniques, work with him on the field, work with him in front of a video of other outfielders to show him how to move and what the proper techniques are. Hit fly balls to him from dusk to dawn and be sure that everything possible is being done to teach him how to play the outfield.

Then, next season, you can have Howard to spell Jim Thome, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu. That means at least three starts a week for the young power-hitter. After all, he still struggles some against lefties, so if you can pick and choose his spots, all the better. Heck, Abreu could even swing over to center and Howard could play right on occasion. There are any number of things that you can do to get him at bats. And, when he's not in the starting lineup, what's so wrong about having him come off the bench? If Jim Thome has officially worn down, then there will be more opportunities for Howard to get at bats. If not, then the Phillies have an insurance policy and a player who can step in and spell Thome, giving him more time off and helping to assure that he stays healthy.

If Jim Thome's career is over, he's not the kind of player who will hang on for every piece of glory. He's not Steve Carlton, who will drift desperately from team to team, looking for one final hurrah. Thome is much more the Mike Schmidt sort of player who will simply announce to the world that it's over and he's moving on. In that scenario, the Phillies are off the hook for Thome's contract. Keep in mind too, that Thome won't be easy to trade. It's possible to work around his no-trade clause and find a place that he'd agree to play - Cleveland and Chicago come to mind - but then there is the issue of what you get in return and how much of Thome's contract you're going to have to pay.

We're being rash. We're rushing to judgment. All that happened this season was that Thome's streak of nine straight seasons with 30 or more homeruns came to an end. This is likely a bump in the road and not a sinkhole. Let's not throw away a career full of awesome numbers for one season filled with horribly disappointing numbers. Instead, let's remember what kind of player Jim Thome is and hope that he can return to that form. We won't get equal value in a deal and could wind up paying a bunch of money while Thome hits homeruns elsewhere. Think of how the Colorado Rockies felt paying Mike Hampton's salary while he was pitching for Atlanta. Hampton broke down this season, but the Braves got two-and-a-half seasons out of Hampton with other clubs footing the bill. Over that time, Hampton went a combined 32-20 with a 3.96 ERA. Not bad for a guy the Braves didn't have to pay.

The bottom line is that there could very well be other options for the Phillies. Other ways to have Howard and Thome co-exist on this club while Thome's situation plays itself out. The two have been nothing but complimentary to each other and in fact, Thome served as somewhat of a mentor for Howard when the big guy first arrived in the majors. These things have a way of working themselves out and perhaps the best thing to do is nothing.

Columnist's note: Please direct any questions, comments and suggestions to Chuck Hixson at Phillies1964@att.net. Reader's thoughts are always welcome.

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