Thome ready to pinch-hit, play first for Phils
Slugger prepared to arrive to camp early to work on his defense
PHILADELPHIA -- Predictably, humbly, Jim Thome downplayed his impact with the Phillies.
But nearly nine years ago -- has it been that long? -- Thome arrived in Philadelphia for the first time, signaling a rebirth of baseball in the city. He hit 89 home runs in his first two seasons, and although the Phillies never made the playoffs before they traded him to the Chicago White Sox following the 2005 season, they undeniably started their ascent toward the top of the National League upon his arrival.
He helped show them the way.
"No one guy does that," he insisted Saturday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.
Thome, 41, considers himself nothing more than a cog in a machine, which he will be in 2012. He has signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract to be a bench player in his quest for the one thing that has alluded him in his Hall of Fame career:
A championship ring.
"This deal was ... about getting an opportunity to win," he said. "If I'm a pinch-hitter, if I play first base, whatever [manager] Charlie [Manuel] decides. At 41 years old, you don't think you're going to play forever. To get that opportunity to come here, it was a no-brainer. I was excited. So here we are. I'm excited. It's definitely deja vu coming back."
The Phillies contacted Thome almost as soon as the World Series ended, expressing their desire to bring him back in a reserve role. That was not a surprise. Thome has a strong relationship with Manuel, and the Phillies tried to acquire him during the 2011 season before he got traded to Cleveland.
"I've tried to express my feelings on getting an opportunity to win a ring," he said. "The bottom line is that the Phillies have put themselves in a position to do that. And I think we have to state -- my bond with Charlie is very big. I'm not saying today that this is my last year, but if this is it would be nice to go out with a guy who mentored you and was special to you, for sure."
Thome is expected to be four things for the Phillies: a power bat off the bench, an occasional player at first base, a mentor to the team's hitters and a potential recruit for one free agent that the Phillies are pursuing.
Thome has been almost exclusively a designated hitter since he left the Phillies in 2005, and is no longer capable of playing in the field on an everyday basis. He will see a dramatic decline in at-bats in 2012, which will pose a significant challenge for him. Can he be productive getting only a handful of at-bats every week?
He thinks so.
"If it is pinch-hit four or five nights a week, I'll be ready to go," he said. "I'm hoping I can sit down this winter and get a game plan. I will say this: maybe my routine will change a little bit because of pinch-hitting. I had a lot of people ask me, 'How do you get ready to DH? And the experience kind of -- over a couple years, I had a routine. Harold Baines told me to have a routine. To pinch-hit, it is the same way. At least I had that chance in LA when I went there for the playoffs."
Thome has some experience with it. He pinch-hit for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the final month of the 2009 season, hitting .235 (4-for-17) with three RBIs.
"He'll prepare himself to do that," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said in a telephone interview on Saturday. "And perhaps Charlie can get him in to play a little more than he did with [Ross] Gload."
Thome has played a combined 28 innings in the field since the Phillies traded him, so it will be a lot to ask of him to play first base. Not only because he is 41, but also because he has battled back problems over the years.
But Amaro said that Phillies physician Michael Ciccotti and head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan were pleasantly surprised with Thome's physical on Saturday. Amaro said that there wasn't much of a difference between his physical in Dec. 2002 compared to the one he had on Saturday.
Thome indicated to Amaro that he believes he can play first base three to five times a month, if needed. Gload started just 11 games in 2011.
"I've always loved a challenge," Thome said. "Let's face it, when the Phillies call and they want you to come over and be part of their club, it's something for me. I looked in the mirror and said, 'OK, I haven't played first base, but also I like the challenge of preparing over the winter to get ready for it.' It'll be a great challenge. It'll be fun. We'll see what happens."
Thome believes that if he simply prepares to play first base he should be able to play there occasionally. He didn't even field ground balls in the previous two seasons with the Twins and Indians because he knew that he had no shot to play there, so he opted not to risk injury practicing. But if he knows that he might be needed and works out -- he said he could arrive to Spring Training early to begin that work -- then he thinks that he can handle the workload and the extra wear and tear on his back.
Amaro and Manuel talked quite a bit about improving their hitters' approaches in 2012. Thome could help in a big way, serving as an extra set of eyes in the dugout and talking to hitters before, during and after games.
"My role is different than it was when I signed here," Thome said. "If I can play a role as a guy on the bench who can get a big hit or sit there with a few young guys and watch the pitchers and help them learn what I learned over the years ... I've always enjoyed communicating with my hitting instructors. I think they, to me, have the toughest job in baseball, because hitting is always the toughest thing to do in sports. Their job is always scrutinized and they are always questioned. It would be fun to have a little fun with that, too."
Said Amaro: "I think it would behoove the hitters to draw upon his expertise. I think Jimmy wants to do something in the game after he's finished playing. And what better way to try to do on-the-job training a little bit than working with hitters and players as far as their approach and those sorts of things?"
The Phillies are seriously pursuing free agent Michael Cuddyer, who would be a good fit because he is a right-handed bat and can play the corner infield and outfield positions. Thome and Cuddyer are good friends and Thome could help the Phillies' recruitment of Cuddyer.
"We've texted a little bit," Thome said. "We've talked. All I can say about Michael is that he's a great player. He's a winner. He's a stand-up guy. I know he's done a lot of great things on and off the field in Minnesota. Anybody that plays in that organization for a long time, their credibility is instantly high. Any team that gets him is going to gain. He's a great teammate. I would put Michael as one of my top-five, all-time favorite teammates. No question. He's up there. He's a winner."
Did Cuddyer express any interest in coming to Philly?
"I can't answer that," Thome said. "Look, every player that sees the way the Phillies have done things over the last seven or eight years, they've set the bar very, very high. Guys around baseball would love to come here. When you win, you create a lot of good things."
Did Thome encourage his former teammate to join him?
"I could, yes," he said. "Absolutely. I'm sure we will talk going forward."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.