Jim Thome has been playing major league baseball longer than rookie superstars like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have been alive. He is one of the most prolific players in the history of Cleveland sports, and for good reason. In the past twenty-two years, he’s put together an impressive collection of honors and awards, racked up 612 home runs, and generally made fans everywhere like and admire him. He might be 42 years old, but as long as teams are willing to offer him contracts, why should he truly think about retiring?
Thome might be a hometown legend and certainly has earned the reverence given to him, but should the front office actually attempt to sign him as the designated hitter for the upcoming season? After witnessing the great teams of the 90s, it’s nearly impossible for Tribe fans to look at him through anything but rose-colored glasses. All of that home run power seems especially appealing after the struggles of the past few years, and Thome provides a nostalgic trip to the glory of the past. However, signing him would likely be the first big mistake made by the team this winter.
To analyze Thome’s current value, it makes more sense to look at only his most recent seasons rather than his entire career. Since 2008, he’s had a steady drop in playing time each season, including just 58 games in 2012—fewer games than the frequently injured Travis Hafner appeared in for the Indians. He hit .252/.344/.442 last year, including eight home runs. That’s a pretty decent home run percentage for fewer than 200 plate appearances, but it also isn’t worth giving up a spot on the 25-man roster.
Baseball Prospectus lists Thome as officially missing 85 games during two separate DL stints throughout the season. Although someone could be called up to replace him if he lands on the disabled list, he also missed playing time while hurt but still on the active roster. While there are no prospects (or available free agents) who can provide the kind of definite power that Thome can, it makes more sense to use a young player with moderate home run potential that can also field, or even one who can simply play for more than a third of the season.
Last year Thome was sidelined due to neck and back complications, which have been reoccurring issues in the latter portion of his career and will almost certainly crop up again in 2013 and beyond. The problem with those types of persistent injuries isn’t the time spent on the DL—it’s the games he would need to sit out in order to stay healthy while still taking up a spot on the active roster. Someone slightly less productive but consistently available would be a much better option.
When the Indians cut ties with Hafner and Grady Sizemore this winter, they took a step in the right direction. Like Thome, they are players that fans will always love, but hanging on to the past does the team no good. Thome’s career OPS+ is 147, which is much better than the 112 he earned last season. Even over the course of the past three seasons, he’s seen a decline: his strikeout rate jumped from 24 percent to nearly 33 percent, and his walk rate fell from almost 18 percent to just under 12 percent.
At 42 years old, he’s past the decline of his career and into the portion where general managers should be incredibly leary. Tribe fans shouldn’t forget last year, when Johnny Damon was viewed as a potential game-changer for the team. At the height of his career, he was one of the biggest stars in baseball, but eventually age catches up to everyone. His signing really had two purposes: to provide more offense and to draw higher attendence. Neither of those actually happened.
Although most Clevelanders didn’t have the connection to Damon that they have with Thome, it should still serve as a warning. Signing him might draw crowds who believe he’ll be the same player he was ten or fifteen years ago, but it won’t add wins to the team. The front office has done a good job so far of acquiring young, controllable talent rather than free agent veterans, and that is the direction they need to continue to move in.
Hafner has now signed with the Yanees, which will likely increase the market price for a left-handed, power-hitting DH. Hopefully the Indians will wisely walk away from the offer they’ve made to Thome and continue to explore the idea of using a rotational designated hitter. While signing him ultimately would not ruin the club’s chances at competing, it certainly isn’t the wisest use of that 25th roster spot. No matter how much of a nostalgic, feel-good story it would be, it simply is not in the best interest of the team.