I was shocked this morning to learn that the Los Angeles Dodgers had acquired Chicago White Sox designated hitter Jim Thome. I was even more shocked when I read the following nuggets:
“I think it’s made us stronger,” Dodgers manager Joe Torre said after a 5-3 loss to the Diamondbacks. “We have a threat off the bench now, and in Garland we certainly have someone who knows how to pitch.”
. . .
Dodgers general manager Ned Colleti envisions Thome playing a role similar to the one Matt Stairs filled for the World Series champion Phillies last year — he hit a key home run against the Dodgers in the NLCS.
“We’re not bringing him over here to play first base,” Colleti said. “We’re bring him here to come off the bench and be a great influence in the clubhouse. He’s one of the true great guys in the game.
“In fact, the night before the deadline he called me. … He just said: ‘I just want to be honest with you. I’d love to come. I want to help you guys any way I can. But playing first base is not something I’m going to be able to do — maybe in an emergency situation, perhaps.'”
As usual, ESPN’s Rob Neyer has beaten me to the punch here. The main issue, obviously, is that Thome apparently refused to play first base for the Dodgers. This doesn’t upset me so much, because it’s better than the alternatives – Thome saying he would man the position and then refusing to do it after his arrival, or the issue going undiscussed altogether. What is a little disconcerting is Colleti’s willingness to let a player dictate when and where he’ll play. Colleti hasn’t always made the most confidence-inspiring moves in his tenure as the team’s general manager, but the one thing that any front office executive cannot afford to do is allow the inmates to run the asylum. Even if that inmate is a possible Hall of Famer. Instead, Colleti should have said “thanks Jim, but no thanks” and continued to search for other ways to improve the team.
I say this because acquiring Thome makes no sense unless the plan is to play him at first base at least some of the time. Thome is by no means washed up. He’s hitting .249/.372/.493, which makes him roughly the fourth-best hitter on his new team. More importantly, he’s a significant offensive upgrade over incumbent first baseman James Loney, who’s hitting .274/.350/.387. Loney is clearly the better defender and baserunner, but his punchless bat makes Thome the better choice to play first base (even if he hasn’t played there since 2007). The Dodgers could even find a nice middle ground and play Thome at first when Clayton Kershaw (a strikeout pitcher) and Randy Wolf (a fly ball pitcher) are on the mound, and use him as a pinch-hitter otherwise. Anything is better than using him exclusively off the bench.
There is certainly an opportunity cost to playing Thome in the field. James Loney – who is only 25 years old – loses some time to develop and perhaps suffers a bruised ego. But the Dodgers are clearly and rightfully in “win now” mode, which means those sorts of concerns are to be dealt with later. And giving Thome three or four plate appearances a game gives the Dodgers the best chance of thriving in October.