The Phillies do not need Jim Thome to play first base, but Jim Thome may need first base to be successful. He was signed to provide game-changing power off the bench. But he's never been a full-time reserve and at-bats could be scarce without occasional time in the field.
He waited three innings Monday for the first ground ball hit his way. Albert Cartwright tapped a Lisalberto Bonilla change-up toward Thome. The ball spun past him and into right field. Thome, hunched on one knee, looked backward. He looked like a 41-year-old who hadn't stored a glove in his locker for four years.
"It'll find you," Thome said. "The ball always finds you when you haven't been out there in a while."
In four innings, Thome made five putouts. Only two balls were hit his way and he fielded the last one with ease.
His aging knees and back prompted a permanent move off the field five years ago. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has said he wants Thome to bat about 200 times in 2012. For that to happen, he must play first base.
In June, he can serve as designated hitter for nine games during interleague play. As a pinch-hitter, he might bat approximately 80 times. (Pinch-hitting statistics date to 1974. The well-traveled Lenny Harris is the all-time single-season leader with 83 at-bats in 2001.) That leaves him well shy of Manuel's goal.
Thome was reluctant to put a number on how many at-bats he needed to remain sharp.
"As I get into the latter stages of my career here, my role is what it is," Thome said. "I understand that. That's something over the last couple of years I've had to learn as well. I'll try to do the best I can."
He began training for play at first base during the winter. The most important test isn't Thome's fielding, but his ability to sustain the grind of a full game there. The constant crouching can be difficult on his back.
"As I got going on, I could feel it a little bit, but nothing major," Thome said. "The big thing is how I feel [Tuesday]. That's always going to be the biggest test. How do you feel after playing? And this is great. It was great to be out there. I look forward to each step as we go."
Thome said he feels like he could play at first again in three or four days without any issues. The current plan isn't clear, but the Phillies will likely ease him into increased action at minor-league camp for the time being. Ideally, before the spring is over, he plays first base in a Grapefruit League game.
He signaled the end of his day by signing autographs for fans while still standing in the dugout. Cameron Rupp, a 23-year-old catcher who played at single-A Lakewood in 2011, commiserated with Thome about the ball that skipped past him.
"I knew it was trouble," Rupp said.
Thome took a swig of water, packed his bag, and smiled.
Contact Matt Gelb at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @magelb.