It was December 6, 2002 and Phillies fans were in a state of euphoria as the Phillies announced the signing of Jim Thome. He was coming off of a season that saw him hit 52 home runs, drive in 118, hit .304 and post an American League leading .677 slugging percentage and 1.122 OPS. Phillies fans could only imaging what his signing would mean for their ball club that had finished the 2002 season third in the NL East at 80-81. Thome would be the savior. The huge power-filled bat that they needed in the middle of the lineup, Thome would make fans forget about the unfulfilled expectations of Travis Lee, who had come to Philly with a lot of hype that was never realized.
Only the most avid of fans gave much thought to whether Thome would wind up blocking the progress of some kid who had hit 19 home runs for Lakewood in 2002 and just happened to also play first base. After all, that kid was just 22 years old and was a fifth round draft pick. His season was unbelievable, but he was well off the radar, so fans thought about Thome and only Thome when the signing was announced. That kid at Lakewood - Ryan Howard - was just going to have to keep proving himself while fans in Philadelphia fell in love with Jim Thome.
As the 2003 season wound down, Thome had hit 47 home runs with 131 RBI for the Phillies. While his average, slugging and OPS numbers weren't what they were the previous year, fans heralded Thome. Even Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt figuratively passed the torch of power to a seemingly embarrassed Thome when Schmidt rose Thome's hand in victory in a ceremony at home plate, marking the end of baseball at Veterans Stadium.
Meanwhile, Ryan Howard hit 23-81-.304 at Clearwater with a .514 slugging percentage and .889 OPS and was starting to gather some serious fans who were starting to at least consider how Thome and Howard could be made to fit into the same lineup. The following season, Ryan Howard hit 46 home runs in 131 games between Reading and Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre. There was now no holding him back and the Phillies brought Howard to the majors for the month of September. In 42 plate appearances, Howard hit two home runs and posted a .282 average.
Slowly, but surely, Phillies fans were talking about Thome blocking Howard and what should be done to alleviate the logjam.
The Phillies scrambled to try to teach Howard to play left field, while his agent was talking about how the Phillies should trade his client to a team where he could play everyday. The left field experiment with Howard wasn't going very well and the Phillies started to look around for other possibilities. With Howard requesting a trade, teams came calling. The Pirates offered some young pitchers for Howard, but nothing to really make the Phillies seriously consider dealing him to the western part of the state.
Instead, Thome went down with an injury in 2005 and missed some time in early May before playing just another six weeks before going on the DL for the rest of the season. While he didn't have the trade value that he once had, the Phillies had their hand forced and wound up dealing Thome to the White Sox after the 2005 season, having to hang onto a good portion of his salary for the remainder of his contract. The trade netted Aaron Rowand and two pitching prospects who were supposed to help the Phillies down the road. Gio Gonzalez wound up being traded back to the White Sox a year later along with Gavin Floyd for pitcher Freddy Garcia. Daniel Haigwood didn't even last a full season before being dealt to Texas for Fabio Castro. Aaron Rowand played two seasons for the Phillies, with 2007 being a career-year for the center fielder when he was named to the National League All-Star Team and also won a Gold Glove, helping the Phillies to the division title. Following that season though, Rowand was allowed to exit as a free agent, signing with San Francisco.
There's no way of telling exactly what would have happened had the Phillies found a suitable return for Ryan Howard. Jim Thome's health isn't what it used to be and he's basically no more than a designated hitter and a big lefty bat to bring off the bench. Meanwhile, Howard has won a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP Award and has played in two all-star games. His broad shoulders and big swing have carried the Phillies and he has been especially tough in this postseason, collecting at least one RBI in each game that the Phillies have played.
Ironically, Jim Thome, who was happy with his situation in Chicago, has wound up with the Los Angeles Dodgers and is back in Philadelphia for the NLCS. Things have worked out pretty well for Thome, who is serving simply as a pinch-hitter with the Dodgers and Howard has certainly settled in during his time with the Phillies. It's sometimes funny how things work out, but Thome and Howard have each found success in their career and it turns out that the Phillies chose the right player to trade and did it at the right time.
Since the trade