It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’s become one of our most beloved Twins in less than a year. Truthfully, we loved him long before that. We loved him as he was making Rick Reed look forward to retirement. We love him when he was popping souvenir after souvenir above the baggy. We loved Jim even when we hated Jim.
And now that Jim Thome has crushed 22 homers, got on base at a .400 clip, and saved a season jeopardized by the absence of Justin Morneau? Yeah, we still love him. But we’re probably going to need to get over that.
The knee-jerk reaction will be that it’s about money, and while fans want to believe there is more to things than money – well, they're absolutely right. And that’s why the Twins and Thome are destined to separate.
One of the bigger myths in baseball is that it is easy to find a productive designated hitter. The stats don’t support that. This year, the combined OPS of all designated hitters in the American League is 754. That’s lower than left fielders (763) and a lot lower than right-fielders (792) or first basemen (also 797). Full time effective DHs seem like they would be easy to find, but if they are, where are they?
Meanwhile, Jim Thome’s OPS is 1042. Now that is unquestionably because he ISN'T a full time DH. He's being given favorable matchups, and he's being given enough rest to keep him healthy for a full season. And to Thome's credit, he seems to recognize this. According to Buster Olney this weekend (sorry, you need a subscription to read the whole thing):
"What Thome has learned is that it's better for him not to play every day at age 40. He signed with the Minnesota Twins to be a part-time player this year, and he tries not to do too much when it's his off day; the rest that he gives his body is part of the preparation for when he does play."
Of course, it isn't clear that Thome really had the option to play every day last year. The DH market tightened in a hurry, leaving guys like Thome and Jermaine Dye standing without a chair when the music stopped.
It's hard to believe that would be the case this next year. Clubs will still remain cautious given his injury history and age, but do we really think another contending club - the White Sox, Rays and Angels immediately spring to mind - won't offer Thome 500 at-bats as their designated hitter, and money to match it? And do we really think Thome would turn that down, even with his new "don't play every day" philosophy?
Those at-bats are not something the Twins can match, and it doesn't have much to do with money. And, frankly, given what we have seen this year, I would argue that they Twins shouldn't match it - that Thome really can't be expected to be productive through a whole year with those demands place on him and his body. Even with the injury to Morneau, Thome still has just 241 at-bats this year, and he'll finish with less than 300.
It's nice to think that Thome could come back next year, because this year has been such a great fit. But neither the rest of the league or Thome are going to be able to help themselves. The Twins and their fans will need to look for someone else to love in 2011.