01/17/10 3:26 PM EST
Job market for Thome remains in flux
Rays, other AL teams may be fit for 19-year veteran slugger
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
There was the first of his 2,138 hits, the first home run en route to his mammoth total of 564, the first of his 1,565 RBIs and the first walk drawn among his 1,619. And for a man whose goals are first and foremost team-directed, there was the first of his eight seasons to reach the playoffs with Cleveland in 1995.
Currently, though, Thome is going through a first he would have gladly missed out on during his run to Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame. The prolific slugger stands as a man without a job as Spring Training fast approaches.
"It's a new experience for me, but you have to let the process play out," said Thome, speaking to MLB.com prior to the 15th annual Joyce Thome Benefit for Children's Hospital of Illinois on Saturday night at the Peoria Civic Center. "Again, you trust your agents and trust the fact somebody will call and I'll play in 2010."
Thome turns 40 on Aug. 27, but age certainly has not caused a precipitous drop in his production or his conditioning. He looks in the sort of solid physical shape primed for another couple of 30-home run seasons, and even his 23 home runs and 77 RBIs in 2009 would fit nicely for any team in need of a productive middle-of-the-order left-handed bat.
Those 2009 statistics certainly would have been greater if not for the White Sox trading Thome to the Dodgers, where he received a chance to play for that elusive World Series ring, but also was limited to pinch-hitting responsibilities and 15 at-bats in September. That time in Los Angeles gave Thome a chance to heal up, and he also relished the opportunity to play for manager Joe Torre and talk hitting with Don Mattingly.
Present job opportunities for Thome clearly will be limited to the American League. A handful of teams have contacted Thome's representative, Pat Rooney from SFX Baseball, and while Thome would not list any of those with interest, MLB.com has learned Tampa Bay stands as one of them.
The Rays would make sense in that Thome could split DH time with Pat Burrell, who previously played with Thome in Philadelphia. Thome's power stroke would serve as a great benefit for any team with playoff aspirations, such as Tampa Bay.
"If you are a team that wants to win, it's hard for me to see, with the way Jim swung the bat last year and the person he is, that somehow, some way he can't fit on a team in the Major Leagues," said White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko of his friend and former teammate. "Things are a little different now. Signings happened quickly before, where everything took place before Christmas. Now, it seems like everything is being drawn out more to the start of Spring Training. There are still a lot of good players out there, guys who had very good seasons and haven't signed yet."
A quick search of the respective AL depth charts leaves Detroit as another candidate for a DH, but the Tigers don't seem inclined to have one set hitter at this position. And of course, there's Thome's home for part of four years on the South Side of Chicago, but manager Ozzie Guillen also has expressed the desire to go with a DH-by-committee situation.
No bitter feelings exist toward the White Sox from Thome, who understands it's purely a business decision in regard to presently severing ties with a most popular individual within the organization. Nothing really stands as contractually imminent between Thome and any of the teams who have contacted him.
Thome's desire is to have a job at the start of Spring Training. If that situation does not play out, then Thome has to sit down with his family and assess the next move.
"How do you go about that, and what do guys do if they are unsigned and Spring Training starts?" said Thome, pointing out some of the questions to be answered. "Really, you go somewhere and continue to work out and be ready to go if someone does call you.
"I've been blessed to do this a long time. I know I'm getting into the twilight of my career, but I don't want to sit there and say I'm going play another year or two. The bottom line is you just want to keep playing if you can keep playing and not really put a number of years out there."
Charlie Manuel, the Phillies manager and Thome's mentor, made it clear during Saturday's charity event as to how Thome will continue playing simply because he remains a great hitter. Whatever the final destination, and whether it's in February or April, it's a guarantee Thome will appreciate the chance to participate in his 20th big league season.
"In life, you are put in opportunities and you savor every moment you are put in," Thome said. "I tried to do that for four years in Chicago and through all the steps I've been able to go through to reflect and embrace every moment."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.