Help Wanted: Professional Hitter

The big news last night coming out of the Twins office was about the 19 invitations to the big league camp sent out to minor league players. I’m sure that’s a big deal to those players, but I just don’t get all that worked up over who gets invited and who doesn’t when it comes to guys who are highly unlikely to break camp with the Twins. I’m looking forward to seeing Kyle Gibson throw, though, because I think he’s this year’s Danny Valencia… the guy people generally expect to get his first real shot with the Twins before the summer is over. Anyway… on to today’s topic…

I mentioned in the Sunday Snippets post a few days ago that the topic of the Twins’ need for a legitimate hitting threat off the bench probably warranted a post of its own, as opposed to the lone paragraph (albeit a lengthy paragraph) devoted to it in that post. Well, here’s that dedicated post.

Amazingly, I’m not the only person dedicating thought and written words to the subject. A couple of the TwinsCentric bloggers (both Seth and Parker) posted thoughts related to what remains perhaps the final outstanding issue for the Twins’ front office to address before Spring Training gets underway. (This assumes the long-rumored deal with Carl Pavano actually is about to be formalized and the bullpen will just be a mad scramble to be sorted out in Ft. Myers.)

Hey, here’s an idea… Maybe if we all start a good old fashioned cheer, it will carry all the way to Bill Smith’s ears and he’ll be so impressed with the outcry that he’ll immediately go out and get the big bat we want! Ready?…

Give me a T!

Give me an H!

Give me an O! … Um, wait a minute… not so fast… I may want to buy a different vowel.

Jim Thome

As I wrote Sunday, I think most of us would just love to see Jim Thome get home run #600 with the Twins. He was an absolute joy to have in a Twins uniform last season, from the perspective of fans, team mates, manager… pretty much anyone except the Bitch Sox and their fans. He was signed for low money in anticipation of being used on a part-time basis off the bench and as an occasional DH. Due to Justin Morneau’s injury, he was called upon to play a much bigger role and he did so. He deserves our gratitude.

But if he were to return in 2011, the expectations would again be that he would play a part-time role, as a pinch hitter and occasional DH. While Thome has stated he agrees that he’s at his best when he gets regular rest, he and his agent also may be intent on converting his unexpected 2010 performance (arguably one of the best statistical seasons of his career) in to a much higher salary in 2011. It seems to me that Thome can’t have it both ways… a role where he’s not expected to DH regularly AND a contract that pays him as if he is playing every day.

Maybe he can wrangle that kind of deal out of another team. It sounds like the Rangers could be interested in having him play a limited role with them and they do have some of that money they had hoped to be paying Cliff Lee still burning a hole in their pocket. If so, I would thank Thome for his inspirational performance in a Twins uniform last year, wish him the best of luck sweating his (base)balls off in Arlington, and move on to other options.

Ah… but what options really remain out there?

A lot of people seem to be advocating that the Twins simply swap out Thome for the guy the Rangers used as their DH last season, Vlad Guerrero. He’s righthanded, after all, and that’s what the Twins really should be looking for in a bench hitter, especially with the White Sox seemingly determined to add more lefties to their pitching staff. (It’s kind of a compliment, don’t you think, that the Twins have achieved a status where division rivals are making roster moves specifically intended to help them beat the Twins head-to-head?)

I think Vlad would be a really bad idea. First, Guerrero is almost as limited defensively as Thome is. Anyone who watched the World Series knows that he has no business wearing a glove on a baseball field. In addition, while he produced better than most people expected last season (I thought he was washed up before the season started), he found that fountain of youth in a very hitter-friendly environment in Texas. Guerrero could, and did, launch home runs solely on the strength of his upper body and arms. But you need strong legs to go with the rest of your body if you expect to get balls out of Target Field. I don’t think Vlad can be expected to do that.

Fortunately, it sounds like he’s only interested in playing for teams that would be able/willing to give him a regular job and 500+ plate appearances… and a contract that anticipates such. The Twins have neither the PAs nor the money to meet his expectations.

Names like Troy Glaus and Jorge Cantu have been getting some support, lately, and I’d probably be willing to give either of them a look in Spring Training if the Twins decide their bench bat should be someone who could back up their infield and, in particular, Morneau over at 1B. But neither of those hitters exactly make opposing managers or pitchers nervous when they come to the plate any more.

Andruw Jones is reportedly generating some interest from the Yankees, who are also looking at righthanded bench options. Apparently, they like the work he did in Chicago last year and his career line against lefty pitchers (.261/.361/.501). But you have to remember much of that career line was accumulated during his first decade of play with the Braves. His overall split for the past four years is a tidy .212/.312/.412. Still, he did put up some strong numbers for the White Sox last season in a part time role. Strong enough that he’s looking for more money for 2011.

Back in November when many of us posted our off-season “blueprint“… our suggestions for what the Twins should try to accomplish over the winter… I mentioned in mine that, in the absence of re-signing Jim Thome, I’d suggest calling Marcus Thames. Thames played a bench role for the Yankees last season and he’s still being considered as a possibility to return to the Bronx if the Evil Empire doesn’t roll the dice on Jones, instead.

I’d be inclined to be satisfied with whichever of the two, Jones or Thames, is available after the Yankees decide which one to overpay. That said, I hope the Bombers sign Jones, because I like Thames a bit better for the Twins. Here are a few things Thames has going for him:

Marcus Thames (Photo: Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)

Thames will turn 34 years old during Spring Training… six years younger than Thome and the same age as Jones.

Thames hits righthanded, but in addition to hitting lefty pitchers well (.838 career OPS vs. LHPs far exceeding Glaus or Cantu), he’s also hit righties better than Jones the last few years and well enough that he could step in to a full-time role in the event of an injury.

He’s a dead-pull power hitter (67 of his 113 career HRs or 59% have been hit to straightaway LF… one part of Target Field that has not been a HR death trap).

Thames has hit more career HRs (15) against the Twins than any other team, with the White Sox (14) a close second. If nothing else, Twins pitchers (especially Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano, who have given up the most and third-most HRs to Thames of all pitchers he’s faced) should be glad to see him in their own dugout.

Outside of Comerica Park (his home during his Tiger years), Thames has hit more HRs at US Cellular Field than anywhere else.

(Yes, I know much of this is a factor of having played in the AL Central with the Tigers for most of his career, but isn’t that familiarity with the division a good thing in itself?)

He isn’t the fielder that Jones is (though Jones isn’t the defender he used to be, either) and Thames may not be any better than Delmon Young or Jason Kubel in the outfield if he’s pressed in to duty out there, in fact he may even be a bit worse. But, while it certainly wouldn’t be considered a good thing to have him play first base extensively during the year, at least he has played the position enough in the past that he could give Doc a few innings off at the back end of blow-out games.

Finally, and unfortunately most importantly, he’s already accustomed to part-time duty (he’s never had 400 PAs in a season and only reached 300 twice) and should be very, very affordable. His salary with the Yankees in 2010 was $900,000 and it likely wouldn’t take much over $1 million to sign him for 2011 either. Jones is likely to command somewhat more.

So that’s where I stand on the bench bat issue… my heart says bring back Jim Thome, but my head says bring in Marcus Thames.

– JC