The Phillies just signed the most popular slugger in Cleveland Indians’ history, inking a 6-year, $87 million deal.
Analysts note that with Thome in the lineup instead of Travis Lee, the Phillies would have scored about 70 more runs last season. They still would have been fourth in the league, even with those extra 70 runs. That’s not enough to guarantee you’ll be the fourth team in the playoffs.
Analysts also noted that for the past few years, Thome has spent a good deal of time as the DH rather than playing in the field, and they doubt Thome will be capable of playing first base for the last year or even two years of his contract.
Also, last week, Philadelphia signed David Bell to play third base, replacing Placido Polanco. Bell’s a better hitter than Polanco, but not by much. Bell’s a better fielder than Polanco (at least at third), but not by very much.
But this trend isn’t about fielding. It’s not so much even about scoring runs. I’m not even convinced it’s about winning ball games. This is about confidence.
You see, a year ago, the Phillies had the best third baseman in baseball and the second-best third baseman in their team’s history (second only to Mike Schmidt, who is one of the three best third basemen who ever lived). The Phillies offered Scott Rolen a pile of money to sign a long-term contract. But Scott Rolen wasn’t convinced the Phillies wanted to win badly enough. He refused a couple of offers, slumped, got into some arguments with manager Larry Bowa, and eventually was traded to the Cardinals for whatever they could manage to get for him, preferring that to losing him to free agency.
It wasn’t that long ago that Philadelphia lost Curt Schilling, one of the best pitchers in the game today, pretty much the same way.
Rolen rediscovered his swing, and helped the Cardinals get to the postseason. Schilling dueled Randy Johnson for the Cy Young Award two years straight, and along with Johnson was the hero of the 2001 World Series, and was practically unbeatable up until the 2002 postseason.
Meanwhile, the Phillies looked like they’d given up and entered a rebuilding phase as they got ready to open an expensive new ballpark. And Philadelphia fans are notoriously unforgiving. We’re talking fans who’ll boo Santa Claus.
And the Phillies have lots of young, exciting players whose contracts are running out.
Signing David Bell and Jim Thome proves the Phillies are willing to spend some money. This will make unhappy players play better (witness Scott Rolen’s performance after coming to St. Louis versus his so-so performance in Philadelphia last year). Bell has become one of those players who always seems to find himself playing for a winner. Young players need that influence. Bell, at least theoretically, brings value beyond the numbers he puts up. If it were about numbers, the Phillies would have acquired Joe Randa, who makes much less money, and the Phillies could have had Joe Randa for a bag of baseballs and a vial of dirt scraped off one of Mike Schmidt’s spikes. But Joe Randa’s never played for a winner.
And Jim Thome’s a big, burly, buff guy who hits monsterous home runs by the truckload and excites fans. The Phillies haven’t had a truly great power hitter since Mike Schmidt. In his best year, Schmidt hit 48 home runs and batted .286. Jim Thome hit 52 home runs and batted .304 last year.
In 1997, the St. Louis Cardinals were missing something. They had the opportunity to trade for Mark McGwire. McGwire hit a bunch of towering home runs and captured the fans’ imagination and helped the Cardinals lure some other great players, most notably center fielder Jim Edmonds, to St. Louis.
The Phillies want Jim Thome to come in and be Mark McGwire.
The Phillies covet former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. Glavine’s been one of the best left-handed pitchers in the National League for the past decade. The Braves and Mets are also interested in Glavine. But the Braves made him a half-hearted offer and seem to be more interested in unloading salary than in making another playoff run. The Mets are coming off a last-place finish and they’re trying to find someone willing to take Jeromy Burnitz and Mo Vaughn’s contracts. Meanwhile, the Phillies have just signed two of the most coveted players in the free agent market. The Phillies’ offer is comparable to the Mets’ offer. Glavine wants money, of course, but he also wants to win another World Series before he retires. Who do you think he’s most interested in pitching for now?
David Bell alone doesn’t make the Phillies a better team. Jim Thome alone makes the Phillies a marginally better team. David Bell plus Jim Thome plus Tom Glavine signal a commitment to win, at least for the next few years, which will draw out the best in the players they have and make other players interested, as well as draw fans, which creates revenue, which can be used to pursue other quality players.
Those are the ingredients of a dynasty.
Now the Phillies just have to figure out how to mix them properly.