Inside the Phillies: Jim Thome struggling as pinch-hitter

Posted: May 01, 2012

Reunions can be fun.

Watching Brian Dawkins hug his former Eagles teammates and fight back tears as he talked about the late Jim Johnson's profound impact on his career was one more grand moment for the man who used to serve as the needle that inflated the energy level at Lincoln Financial Field.

Reunions can be painful.

Watching 41-year-old Jim Thome play baseball this season has been excruciating.

Thome, of course, was the man who by simply signing a contract restored enthusiasm for a franchise that had fallen into a dark abyss. He was the star free agent who wanted to come to Philadelphia when all the other star free agents wanted to go anywhere else.

But that was a decade ago, and a sequel is rarely as good as the original.

In Thome's case, the second verse had no chance of being as sweet as the first. Thome was one of the premier power hitters in baseball when he left the Cleveland Indians and signed with the Phillies in December 2002.

When he left the Indians to sign with the Phillies in November 2011, he was a man way past his prime with only one thought: winning an elusive World Series ring.

It's the only missing line on Thome's Hall of Fame resume.

The hope was that Thome could be the Phillies' power-hitting bat off the bench while playing a game or two a week during first baseman Ryan Howard's extended stay on the disabled list.

That remained manager Charlie Manuel's hope even as Thome took some swings to test the back stiffness that forced him to leave Saturday night's game against the Chicago Cubs. There was no word from the team about his condition before Monday's series finale with the Cubs, but if Thome is having back issues after just four April starts, you have to wonder how productive he will be over the long haul.

Manuel admits that Thome was not put on this Earth to pinch-hit. He has made 152 pinch-hit appearances in his long career, and he is a .219 hitter with four home runs in those situations. Most of his career damage has been done as a first baseman or designated hitter. If he cannot do either of those jobs now, his value to the Phillies appears minimal unless you believe strongly in the power of being one of the world's best human beings.

"It's hard for him because he takes a big stride and a big cut," Manuel said. "You have to get your timing. The ideal pinch-hitter is usually a short guy who has a short, quick swing and is a singles hitter. That's the ideal, but at the same time in the National League you need a guy with power - a big guy sitting on the bench who can take one swing and win or a tie a game. That can be very important, too."

The Phillies carried that exact guy for the 2009 season after he helped them reach the World Series with one of the most memorable home runs in franchise history during the 2008 National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

His name was Matt Stairs.

He hit .194 in 129 plate appearances in 2009, but five of those hits were home runs. The Phillies didn't expect much more than one swing-for-the-fences plate appearance per night from Stairs that year. Unlike Thome, however, he had a lot more experience as a pinch-hitter.

Some decisions will have to be made in the coming months as players begin to return from the disabled list.

Most of them should be easy, but the one when Howard returns has the potential to be the most difficult.

At that point, the Phillies could have to decide between Thome and outfielder Juan Pierre.

Pierre, after being hit by a Scott Maine pitch with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, scored the winning run in Monday night's 6-4 Phillies win over Chicago.

The trip to first boosted his on-base percentage to .357, and his .318 batting average is the best on the team. Pierre, however, cannot hit the ball over an outfielder's head anymore. Thome is 2 for 18 with two singles overall and 0 for 8 with six strikeouts as a pinch-hitter. He did not hit any home runs in spring training, either.

When this season started, you could not imagine a public-relations nightmare in which the Phillies released Pierre instead of Thome, but that's a scenario that could occur if they opt to go with power off the bench when Howard returns.

Sometimes reunions can be painful, and it seems that the best ones almost always involve a speech and a final bow without any games being played.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or follow @brookob on Twitter.

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