Monday, January 17, 2011

Jim Thome and the (Modest) Price of Insurance

There are a number of storylines relating to the Twins that will increasingly come into focus as we edge toward spring training. The answers to a handful of important questions will play a large part in dictating whether the season is a success or a failure. Will Tsuyoshi Nishioka be able to effectively transition his game from Japan to the States? Will Joe Nathan be the same dominant late-inning reliever he was prior to surgery? Can Francisco Liriano blossom into one of the league's premier aces?

All players worth following. But to me, no storyline looms larger than the recovery of Justin Morneau, who hasn't been able to comfortably swing a bat since sustaining a concussion on July 7 of last year. If Morneau experiences another setback in spring training or takes any kind of bump to the head while on the field, the Twins will be facing the very real possibility of having to play without him for an extended period of time.

Up until this week, the front office had done little to address such a scenario. But on Friday, the Twins announced that they'd reached agreement with Jim Thome on a one-year, $3 million deal. The contract, which includes incentives based on playing time, ensures that a great bat from 2010 will be back in the mix this year, and also supplies the Twins with some Morneau insurance.

As great as Thome was last year, he's not necessarily an ideal fit. He's 40 years old and incapable of playing any position, which limits flexibility in an already suspect bench. He's a left-handed hitter who's weaker against southpaws, so if Morneau's healthy Thome does nothing to offset the Twins' vulnerability to lefties at the DH spot. (This was an issue many fans were pointing their fingers at after the Yankees took a two-game ALDS lead on starts from CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte.) 

Of course, those concerns are secondary when you consider the price. It's impossible not to like this signing at the terms the Twins were able to get. Thome is guaranteed only $3 million, which is a pittance for a player who became one of the league's best hitters upon stepping into regular duty last season.

After Morneau went down on July 7, Thome batted .303/.438/.669 with 15 home runs and 31 RBI in 50 games. His production was a key reason the Twins were able to handily lock up the AL Central despite losing their best hitter amidst an MVP-caliber season.

That performance, along with his excellent clubhouse rapport and tremendous fan appeal, has already earned Thome his 2011 salary, in my mind. As a fan, it's always more enjoyable to watch a player who truly likes being here. This was evident in Thome's demeanor last season and in the fact that he reportedly turned down at least $1 million from Texas to return to Minnesota. He's a class act and it will be a pleasure to watch him blast home run No. 600 -- only 11 more to go -- in a Twins uniform.

As a bench bat, Thome will be a godsend for a group that features Drew Butera, Matt Tolbert and Jason Repko. But there is room for concern over what will happen if indeed Morneau -- or Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel, for that matter -- should go down and force Thome into regular duty.

One can't realistically expect the Hall of Fame slugger to repeat his spectacular performance from last year. It was one of the top five seasons of his career, and duplicating that at age 40 with a balky back could be an impossibly tall order. One miraculous season for an aging star does not promise another -- just ask Brett Favre.

I've noted before that the track record for historically elite sluggers after turning 40 is not particularly pretty. Even the all-time greats tend to decline swiftly at this age. Then again, there wasn't much precedent for what Thome did last year, and he claims his back is feeling good, so why doubt him? He might not be ideal in terms of balancing the roster, but he's a great hitter and a great guy at a bargain price. I've got a lot more peace of mind now than I did a week ago when it looked as though he might be leaning toward the Rangers.

That peace of mind came in handy this weekend as I read the final paragraphs a Joe Christensen story updating the progress of Morneau's recovery:

Smith has had multiple conversations with Morneau's doctor and noted a recent change in the recovery plan.

"In July, August and September, the protocol was if he had any concussion symptoms, he needed to back off," Smith said. "Now I think the doctors have given him a little more of the go-ahead. If you have mild symptoms, you need to work through it, play through it.

"So we think that's a great sign, and the doctor was very pleased with where [Morneau] was when he saw him the last time."

I can't help but be troubled by what Smith was trying to frame as a positive update on the first baseman's condition. It indicates that, more than six months after initially sustaining his concussion in Toronto, Morneau still has not shaken symptoms. I'm not distrustful of the team's doctors, but it does strike me as a bit of a slippery slope advising Morneau to "work through" his symptoms -- this is a brain injury, not a sprained ankle. I'm sure that ultimately they'll exercise appropriate caution, as they have all along in this process.

Should worse come to worst with Morneau, it's comforting to know that the team now at least has someone on the roster capable of making up for even a fraction of that missing power production. In the best case scenario, Thome will serve as a late-inning weapon on the bench and occasional DH. For those purposes, you couldn't ask for a better hitter -- or person -- than a man who will soon become the eighth in major-league history to reach 600 home runs.


For some quick additional reading, check out this article from the Stats & Info Blog on the historical significance of Thome's numbers against right-handed pitching. You might be surprised by how high he ranks.


Anonymous said...

Bob Barker would be proud, the price was right.

I liked the idea of having Thome back with the team next year but I was very worried that we were going to end up way over paying him. You can't expect Thome to put up the kind of numbers he did last year, because (a) he is another year older and (b) hopefully he won't have to play as much next year. But the fact still remains that he is a good bat to have on the team and a good personality in the clubhouse. At $3 million I really can't complain. This was definitely a good signing.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should let the medical professionals deal with Morneau's recovery, I think they might know a thing or two more about concussions then what you have been able to pull up watching old koskie highlights and by reading wikipedia.

Nick N. said...

I think you'd be surprised by how little medical professionals actually know and understand about concussions.

Anonymous said...

But yet somehow you know more then them?

Mike said...

Nick didn't say he knew more than medical professionals. He merely used sound logic to deduce that Morneau is still experiencing concussion symptoms. And he noted that the doctor's advice as to how to get through all of this has changed over the last couple of months, even though the symptoms are still there.

It just makes a person have to question how well he's recovered and if he'll be able to play at the same caliber as he did pre-concussion.

Mike said...

As far as the Thome signing, I have mixed feelings. He definitely brings some level of calm to this team, but is still undeniably yet another question mark. As aptly noted, I don't think we can expect the same level of play from him at his age that we got last year, he's limited in what he can do for the team, he has health issues (regardless of what he says), and he'll have to be used fairly sparingly to keep him healthy til the end of the season.

But, I don't know who would have been better and available, he showed last year that he's not a bad gamble, he has an affordable salary, and everyone seems to like him.

Nick N. said...

But yet somehow you know more then them?

What have I claimed to know? All I've said is that the Twins and their fans have to prepare for the very realistic possibility that Morneau won't be able to play this year. I'm not even contradicting what the Twins have said, which is that they're "hopeful" and "optimistic" that the first baseman will be able to play. They were hopeful and optimistic he'd be able to play last year, too.

rootlinuxusr said...

This is scarily starting to remind me of Corey Koskie.

J. Lee Rankin said...

"If Morneau experiences another setback...., the Twins will be facing the very real possibility of having to play without him for an extended period of time"

I thought half a season was already considered an extended period of time. Seriously though if his head isn't already cleared up by the begining of S.T. for his own good he needs to retire.

Kelly Vance said...

You know, there are many players we could have signed, other than Thome. But none I'd rather see batting with runners in scoring position, or when a game is on the line.

And, as much as anything. If it was my money, I'd rather pay it to a good and decent gentleman and a hall of famer that is a class act.

When all is said and done, you find good comrades to go to war with. And Jimmy is someone that I am proud to see wearing the Twins uniform.

Anonymous said...

As someone that suffered post-concussion syndrome for a year following a concussion in basketball, I can say that "work through it" is about the best answer. You sometimes can't wait to feel 100% and you aren't going to do more damage unless you possibly take a shot to the head again. In that case, Morneau needs to decide whether he's willing to take that risk. Assuming he is, he needs to just get out there at this point. Your mind also starts playing games with you...convincing you of lingering symptoms. Getting back to what you love helps get your mind off of it. If Morneau decides he wants to continue playing baseball...sitting around and watching isn't going to help at all. Mild headaches, the need to want to sleep a little more...that's what I dealt with for a year...didn't even notice it while I was playing. And, I wasn't even making $13 million a year.

Josh said...

The Thome signing is a good one. The price is right, he's a quality bat and he fits into the Twins team concept.

My problem isn't the signing, it's more where we're left right now looking at the roster of hitters. It's hard to look at the every day players and say that they're going to be better than the lineup from last season. They're relying on a full season of Valencia to be an upgrade from last year, when a push is more likely (hard to believe Danny V will maintain his BABIP; I still think he's a good player and an upgrade from Punto at 3B, but he'll almost certainly regress some this season). They're hoping Nishioka & Casilla will be better than Hardy & Hudson, which COULD happen...but it's hardly a sure shot. They're looking at a full season from Morneau, but until he actually gets on the field that's hard to be confident in as well. They're hoping for more development from Delmon Young and a better season from Span: maybe?

For the lineup to improve, the Twins are hoping for a number of breaks to go their way.

Anonymous said...

The Thome signing was a mistake. $3 million isn't huge, but they really could've spent that money on pitching. Put it this way, sign Kubel or Thome, but not both. And, I'd go with Kubel because of age. I still say Johnny Damon would've provided more usefullness to the team. That said, I hope to see Thome's 600th in person.