August 26, 2014

Thome or Travis? I Choose Neither

Jim ThomeHere’s a piece I never thought I would be writing again, let alone in 2013.

With Indians roster all but set, there is still one spot that is wide open as we sit here on January 23rd. Designated Hitter.

For years, the Indians have had the position held down with a big bat who plopped themselves in the spot and didn’t move. From Eddie Murray in 1995, to David Justice in 1997, to Ellis Burks in 2001, to Travis Hafner in 2004 all the way through 2012, the Tribe has been set in that spot in the way the position was originally designed. When you think of the DH spot, the poster boys of the last 20 years have been Seattle’s Edgar Martinez and Boston’s David Ortiz. These are two fringe Hall of Famer who consistently hit in the middle of their respective lineups, came up with big hits time after time, and couldn’t play the field (though Ortiz moonlights during interleague play as a first baseman).

As you can see by the list above, the Indians have stayed the course with the DH spot. If the season started today, there would be a shift in that organization’s view of the role. In essence, there has been a change in the view throughout the American League. Many teams are now moving to a “DH by committee” spot, allowing regulars to take turns in the spot to rest their legs, while keeping their bats in the lineup. The Yankees did it a lot with Alex Rodriguez last season as he recovered from his various ailments. Notorious forward-thinker Joe Madden used a plethora of DH options last year, with a regular left-handed all-hit, no-field guy in Luke Scott mixed in for just over half the season. Really, the DH role and bench spots these days are all about versatility. Without another free agent signing, the Indians will enter the season with a combination of players who will get shots.

Mike Aviles, acquired from Toronto in early November was brought in to be a super utility man who can play second, short, and third with a little outfield mixed in if need be. I thought the idea of adding Aviles was to be as a stopgap if the Tribe decided to trade shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, but it looks as though AC will be staying right where he is. Manager Terry Francona told us Aviles is here to play. So he will be doing quite a bit of rotating all over the diamond. Second baseman Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal, and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall will all be able to take advantage of their rest days. As we know, Kipnis and Cabrera wore down in the second half of 2012. Francona has a great option to keep his infielders fresh.

Reports have circulated over the last few weeks that the Indians are still looking for another bat. This morning CBS Sports’s Jon Heyman said are eyeing a couple of old-friends should they decided that they want a regular DH:

Jim Thome and Travis Hafner are two of the ex-Indians being considered, among other free agents. There has been a hint of buzz about a possible Manny Ramirez reunion, but the ex-Indians great who is tearing it up on the winter league playoffs is not a consideration at this point, one person familiar with the Indians’ thinking said.

First off, you can forget the Manny thing. He has burned every single Major League bridge he had left. Nobody is going to take a shot on him. After last year’s debacle in Oakland, it doesnt matter what he does in a winter league. That cheater has played his last game in the bigs.

This brings us to Thome and Hafner. I have been staunchly on record against bringing back Hafner, even at a reduced rate. The Indians need to move away from the idea of Pronk. Let me repeat what I said two weeks ago:

We’ve seen that movie 1,000 times. Having Hafner clogging up a roster spot when he can do nothing but hit against right-handed pitching when he actually stays healthy, makes zero sense. The guy hasn’t played more than 118 games in a season in six years.

I know, the other side will say “what if he can stay healthy?” What’s the point of revisiting? If the guy is still available at this point, there is a reason. I just do not want to revisit the whole Pronk thing again.

As for Thome, there is still a faction of people in this town that haven’t forgiven him for how he left for Philadelphia over a decade ago. I think he put that all to rest in August 2011 when he made his triumphant return to Cleveland. I will be the first to tell you I am an unabashed Thome fan and supporter. Some people here called him a liar, I called him a realist. Never once did I blame him for taking the money and a chance to win in Philly. At the time, the Indians were starting a long rebuild and signing Thome to a anchor-type contract would have been a mistake. There is no nicer man in the game than Gentleman Jim, my favorite athlete of all time.

if you want a greater detailed version of my Thome defense, click here. This is a snipit.

Good friends of ours lost a daughter 13 years ago to Cystic Fibrosis at age 17. She struggled with her illness for years and was in and out of the hospital. Now I didn’t know them at that time. So one day I’m telling them a story about when my late father threw out the first pitch on his 60th birthday at Jacobs Field and how Thome was so nice to him talking before the game. They began to tell me how big Jim used to show up unannounced regularly to come and visit their daughter at the hospital and she didn’t even know who he was when he first arrived. They said he would sit with her for an hour or more, just talking. Never with reporters, never with cameras, he would just show up on his own accord.

He did this all summer long. My friends to this day say they have the utmost respect for him because he didn’t need to go to the hospital to visit her, he did because he wanted to. He’d come in quietly and leave quietly.

All class. That is what Gentleman Jim is all about.

With all of that said, I just don’t think that a third go-round with a now 42 year old Thome is a good idea. Sure, he could be regular DH against right-handed pitching. Over the last three years, Big Jim had a line of .276/.395/.937 in 526 ABs against righties. He still has the power, but like additions Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs, Thome is a whiff machine. He is zero speed and offers zero versatility. I’d be a complete hypocrite if I was so vehemently against re-signing Hafner but wanted Thome back in the Wahoo Red, White, and Blue.

If the Indians are dead set on adding an aging free agent bat, why not bring back Casey Kotchman for another year and move Mark Reynolds to DH a few times a week? Did I just say that out loud? OK, so Kotchman’s bat leave a lot to be desired (.229/.280/.612), but the guy is the best defensive first baseman this city has seen in decades. I think he would add more value a few times a week in the field than Hafner or Thome would, considering neither of them can stay healthy.

I am for sticking with the Aviles rotation plan while giving a kid like Rule V draftee Chris McGuiness a shot. It should be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Commenters letting me have it on my Kotchman take in 3…..2…..1…..

(photo via Joshua Gunter/ The Plain Dealer)

  • boomhauertjs

    Kotchman’s D isn’t worth the weakness of his bat. Plus Reynolds is at least a solid defensive 1b. I’m for the Aviles/Rotating DH plan.

  • mgbode

    “Notorious forward-thinker Joe Madden used a plethora of DH options last
    year, with a regular left-handed all-hit, no-field guy in Luke Scott
    mixed in for just over half the season.”

    if only we had an available left-handed all-hit, no-field guy we could sign cheaply to mix-in and fill such a role :)

  • mgbode

    and this has nothing to do with him staying healthy. if he plays 80-90 games against RHP, then he is a valuable bat we can have for ~$2mil. again, he was our 2nd best hitter last season (and this is consistent with what he has done the past several seasons).

  • mgbode

    if we are going to add a defensive specialist and move a hitter to the DH spot, then why wouldn’t we do that at SS and Asdrubal.

  • http://twitter.com/GreatestHurley Jason Hurley

    Unless you’re getting a 35+ HR a year masher to take some hacks, there’s no sense plugging up a roster spot while you’ve got young guys who need ABs.

  • mgbode

    yeah, where is Lillibridge :)

  • matt underwood

    mike rouse?

  • Natedawg86

    We signed Rayburn and Ben Francisco…

  • Natedawg86

    Is Asdrubal going to come in bulky again this year. Seems like he has gained a little mass the last year or two

  • mgbode

    let’s put it this way, would you be more surprised if he showed up to Goodyear in-shape or out-of-shape?

  • mgbode

    ah yes, they will compete to be this year’s Lillibridge. and Ben Francisco’s best offensive season is still his rookie year (2007) :)

  • FearTheRoo

    Would love to see Thome retire an Indian. Just sign him for a day contract before he is ready to call it quits. Don’t think he can play a whole season…

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Pass on both.

  • Natedawg86

    Guess I can’t complain. Keep those strikeouts down and we will be ok.

  • nj0

    “Notorious forward-thinker Joe Madden used a plethora of DH options last year, with a regular left-handed all-hit, no-field guy in Luke Scott mixed in for just over half the season.”

    TBR’s DHs – .228/.289/.397
    CLE’s DHs – .226/.317/.385

    Everything the TBR do is not genius.

  • nj0

    If you can sign Hafner to a fair, incentive laden deal based on PAs, I say do it. 121 OPS+ last year. And with some right handed bats in the lineup, hopefully teams won’t be able to exploit his splits too badly.

  • woofersus

    I’m not wholly opposed to using the DH spot in the manner you say, but that assumes we have a good enough hitting utility guy that we want him in the lineup in one way or another on most nights. And of course that’s not even taking into consideration the possibility of injury putting Aviles in the everyday lineup for a month or two with Reynolds or Santana moving to DH and Marson catching. The reality is that the Indians will in fact swap people around at DH, but they would like another bat to have available. It makes sense given Reynolds hits righty that they might look at a left handed all-hit, no-field guy with power who might sign here for not too much. Hence their interest in our old friends. The alternative to bringing somebody in is seeing a fair amount of Cord Phelps and Juan Diaz once we get past the first two guys off the bench. (Aviles and Carrerra) I actually like Mike McDade a lot as a guy in the mix at 1st base in the future, but I don’t think he’s ready to be that extra guy yet, and if you bring in Kotchman (who I didn’t hate) at this point you’re taking Reynolds and/or Santana out of the lineup to play him. He’d be strictly a late-game defensive replacement and not the extra bat that would make the lineup better on a regular basis. And remember, SOMEBODY will get hurt and miss significant time, and then one of those AAAA misc. guys will be in the lineup batting .215.

    I know the memory of Hafner’s big contract is painful, but when he was in the lineup he was one of our best hitters. (especially agains RHP’s) If nobody throws much money at him and/or he’d take less to stay here, I can’t see the downside. Yeah he’ll probably get hurt and miss some time. It’s not such a big deal when he’s not making 13.5mil and expected to be the heart of your lineup. You can put him in at DH against lefties whether or not Aviles is giving some guy a night off, and against righties you can either move Reynolds to DH and play Santana at 1st base or play Aviles somewhere and give somebody like Chisenhall, Cabrerra or Kipnis a night off of fielding by putting one of them at DH. It’s not like we have such a plethora of decent bats that adding a strategic asset doesn’t make sense here. The nature of inexpensive additions is that they have some risks and weaknesses. Find a guy who puts up the kind of numbers Hafner did last year when he was healthy, except he hits well against both righties and lefties, rarely gets hurt, and isn’t getting old. Oh yeah, we just gave THAT guy 14.5 million a year.

    I feel like there’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction happening over past disappointments when if one of those guys had played their whole career somewhere else and we brought him in for a platoon DH scenario for 2mil or so people would love it.

  • woofersus

    Our most promising young guys are already everyday players. I’m not sure I want to see Phelps, Diaz, or LaPorta taking a bunch of AB’s. You only give guys like that AB’s for the sake of their long term development if you plan on being a bad team. If we can afford to “plug up a roster spot” with a bat that makes us better I say do it. Let the marginal AAAA guys get their AB’s in the minors.

  • mgbode

    thank you and NJ for adding some sanity to the Hafner situation. perhaps if people thought of it as using the money/roster-spot we spent on Johnny Damon and Dan Wheeler last season, then it wouldn’t sound so bad?

  • woofersus

    Maybe there are one or two still on the market. Probably not though…

  • Wheel

    Two things I never hope to never see again: 1) Travis Hafner in an Indians’ uniform; 2) Ray Lewis preening and dancing. His ‘everyone look at me’ act is tired.

  • Kildawg

    We shouldn’t see #2 again after Feb 3, 2013. He won’t do that on ESPN for sure, although he should be rotting in jail.

  • Kildawg

    McGuiness and Reynolds should split time at 1B/DH to keep them both fresh. Also, McGuiness should see time in LF/RF to give Brantley/Stubbs/Swisher a breather.

  • Kildawg

    I am as well. Flexibility is good for a team, as well as the third/emergency catcher. Some teams even have co-starting catchers. If one or two of the three catchers can play other positions, it just makes it worthwhile. (Gomes might need more development as a full-time catcher in C-bus this year though).

  • Harv 21

    must admit that I don’t even get this flexibility-at-DH push. Seems the fear of wasting a roster spot during interleague play is encouraging the use of guys at DH who don’t hit all that well. No idea why if you had the choice between “flexible” more all-around players and an Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz or Thome close to their primes you wouldn’t want the latter. Not sure it’s so easy for a position player to get used to having quality ABs after sitting all game.

    Maybe the real reason for this shift is that the classic meathead DH types are no longer so easily available, in part because some great ones are aging out and in part because of the PED crackdown.

  • saggy

    No Thanks. I’d rather have Derek Anderson back.

  • saggy

    and, btw, Thome was on steroids. Just thought I’d let all the non-believers in on what the rest of us know.

  • ThatAlex

    I want Hafner back. I don’t care if it’s an unpopular move. He gives us more in that position 3 times a week than whatever “DH by committee” we could put there.

  • Tom

    Over the last 4 years, Hafner has averaged 320 at bats and an ops of .814. If Hafner can supply half a year’s worth of quality at bats (which he’s done the last 4 years), then why wouldn’t you spend $2 million on him?

  • mgbode

    i think those are factors and teams also seem less capable of forcing the issue on the players. there are plenty of guys who SHOULD be DH that are in the field. Miggy, Berkman, et cetera. Some guys stick in the NL and some refuse to go DH in the AL. It’s strange (it used to be just accepted that old hitters DH’d).

  • TronColtrane

    I’m baffled by this post. Hafner is a bad option because I said Hafner is a bad option? Backing Thome makes me a hypocrite because Hafner is a bad option (because I said Hafner is a bad option?)

  • saggy

    In cases like this, i don’t care so much about the averaged categories because that’s not how you measure production. if you go 2-for-4 and get injured you’re “averaging” .500.

    Hafner has “averaged” 12 homers, 44 rbi’s, and 37 runs scored over the last 3 years. those numbers matter because of his inability to stay on the field. Further to his detriment, his production has dwindled, and last year was as bad a year as he has ever had.

    Take a moment to think of how bad this is. How many guys in the league can average 12 homers and a .266 average? and that’s just his 3-year numbers. it’s probably even easier to find a guy to hit .228 like Hafner did last season.

    NO.

  • http://twitter.com/GreatestHurley Jason Hurley

    I’m sure it’s more of an availability issue, really. What AL team with any collective intelligence would turn down a guy that can hit 30+ HRs and hit .280, just because he’s a hack with the glove (with cost being a non-issue for this scenario)?

  • http://twitter.com/GreatestHurley Jason Hurley

    I think Gomes would be better served playing regularly in AAA for now. Marson/Santana should do fine, unless they decide to do something else with Santana.

  • mgbode

    but we need to look deeper than batting average, no? how many guys can get a 120OPS+? Hafner has had that all but one year even with his injuries.

    If you are looking to the Tribe the only player with that type of OPS+ was Choo (who is gone) and the only player we have for 2013 who had that type of hitting was Swisher.

    Completely agree about his injuries. That’s why we get him on a cheap 1yr deal.

  • Tom

    I am still not seeing why he isn’t worth it. Yes I agree he’s injury prone and not the player he once was, but what are you going to get out of $2 million? If he can give you a half year, 12 home runs and 44 rbi, it’s better than paying Raburn or Carrera 500,000 to get you 2 home runs and the same batting average is it not?

    All I’m saying is that Hafner has been a consistent hitter despite his injuries and would give us a decent DH to stick out there for 80 games for really cheap. Look at the alternatives! It’s not like we’re taking at bats away from a good prospect either!

    If you don’t use averaged categories to measure production in baseball, (BA, OBP, Slg, OPS, fielding%, HR/year, RBI/year), then I must know nothing of baseball.

  • Steve

    Right, I don’t see the issue if you pay him like a ~80 game guy with a ~120 OPS+. The Phillies just signed Delmon Young for cheap, the Blue Jays signed DeRosa for cheap. Hafner is still more valuable than either of those two.

    Here are the options

    Aviles or Marson in the lineup everyday.

    Kotchman or similar.

    McGuiness or Gomes.

    Hafner against RHP and as a PH, and shuffling/giving key guys a half day against LHP.

    If all costs are equal, how is the last option not the most preferable? Because we’re sick of Hafne

  • Steve

    But it’s not simply 12 homers and a .266. As mgbode pointed out, you have to include ability to get on base.

    Also, you can’t compare what Hafner does in 300 PAs to what someone else would do in 600. You can still use those 300 PAs to gain value, unless you play Kotchman.

  • jack

    i say cleve needs to get the fans back…..thats a priority…..jim thome wudnt hurt thats for for. bring back thome….why not it makes perfect sense

  • oldschooltribeguy

    If you look at his baseball cards from 1991 when he first came up, to what he looked like in 1996 and later, there’s no question about it.

  • oldschooltribeguy

    You mean Goodyear in-shape or Michelin man out-of-shape….