M's can use this kind of hurt, should make a move to acquire Frank Thomas
The Mariners had a good run with the Big Unit. Should they pursue the Big Hurt, now that future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas is unexpectedly...
Seattle Times baseball reporter
The Mariners had a good run with the Big Unit. Should they pursue the Big Hurt, now that future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas is unexpectedly — and inexpensively — available?
Not an easy question, once you really delve into it, because it opens up myriad side issues and ancillary topics.
But, from this vantage point, it looks like a risk well worth taking, provided Thomas doesn't come with any contractual obligations for 2009.
And Thomas, having cut ties with the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday after a stormy confrontation over reduced playing time a day earlier, is not in any position to demand any guarantees beyond this year.
The Mariners, who open a three-game series with the Orioles tonight at Safeco Field, were believed to have spent Monday addressing the issue of whether to take the Thomas plunge.
That includes poring over scouting reports, because the first matter to confront is fundamental, and a possible instant deal-breaker: Does Thomas, one month shy of his 40th birthday, have anything left to offer?
The Blue Jays obviously don't think so, and one person who has seen him extensively this season said Monday he looks "old and slow."
But if the Mariners' answer is affirmative — and Thomas is coming off a 26-homer, 95-RBI season in 2007, after going 39-114 with Oakland in 2006 — then why not sign him for what would be the prorated portion of the major-league $390,000 minimum salary?
It's the Blue Jays who are on the hook for the remaining $7.08 million of Thomas' $8 million contract for 2008. The Jays were willing to do so to open up the lineup for other players, and to get out from under Thomas' $10 million option for 2009 (which would have kicked in with 304 more plate appearances, but evaporated once he was cut).
The Mariners' risk, provided Thomas agrees to sign only for the remainder of this year, would be minimal.
Perhaps they get the benefit of a Thomas resurgence and he gives them a much-needed boost at the designated-hitter spot. Jose Vidro — who has a vesting option of his own for 2009 that kicks in after a certain number of plate appearances — has struggled this season.
Perhaps Thomas would continue to perform like the over-the-hill Hurt who was hitting .167 for the Blue Jays, and was mired in a 4-for-35 slump since hitting three homers and driving in eight runs in a three-game stretch in early April.
In that case, the Mariners could quietly cut him loose, cut their losses, and try something else.
For the record, Mariners GM Bill Bavasi on Monday offered little insight on the team's plans regarding Thomas.
"We respect Frank's accomplishments a great deal," he said via e-mail. "But we don't get into our 'possible' personnel moves [or non-moves]. We can offer, though, that our focus right now is on the current 25 and getting [J.J.] Putz and [Erik] Bedard back."
Thomas' agent, Arn Tellem, did not return calls Monday. Other teams that have been mentioned as possibilities include Tampa Bay, Oakland, Texas and even the Yankees. But many baseball people believe the Mariners make the most sense, one even calling it "a no-brainer," on Monday.
In evaluating Thomas' current abilities, it's instructive to look at the past two years, when he also started out slowly but caught fire as the season progressed.
Last year, after 60 at-bats (his current total) Thomas was hitting .200 with two homers and five RBI. In 2006, he hit .190 in April. In both instances, he rebounded to have strong seasons. After the All-Star break last year, he hit .306 with 12 homers and 52 RBI, while in 2006, he was .298-20-68 in the second half. Historically, April has been Thomas' worst month.
Not a direct parallel, but keep in mind that Boston's David Ortiz was hitting .111 last Friday, and just drove in 11 runs in a four-game series against Texas. Some guys just take a while to get rolling, but are worth the wait.
Ken Macha, who managed Thomas in 2006 with Oakland, has fond memories of the season, which resulted in an AL West title for the A's and first-round playoff victory over Minnesota (with Thomas leading the way in Game 1 with a big homer off Johan Santana).
"He was terrific," Macha said by phone Monday. "He got off to a slow start, but I remember distinctly we went to Chicago, his return, and I had a little sit-down with him. I told him to just relax. He hit two home runs that night, and it really got him going.
"If Toronto is eating $8 million, they must feel strongly, but he played great for me."
And while Thomas has had his turmoil over the years, and inexcusably didn't stay around to congratulate teammates after a win on Saturday, he is not generally regarded as a divisive clubhouse influence.
"I had an interesting squad that year, with Milton Bradley, Jay Payton, Esteban Loiaza," Macha recalled. "Frank did his best to try to help."
Macha recalled the first game of a key series at Yankee Stadium, when the A's were facing New York's Mike Mussina.
"Frank fouled off about 12 pitches and hit a home run," Macha said.
When Thomas got back to the dugout, he exhorted the team by shouting, "We can beat these guys!" The A's went on to sweep the Yankees. Macha also remembered a critical game against the Angels in which Thomas hit a winning homer off Scot Shields in the 10th inning.
"He had some very good moments," Macha said.
The drawbacks? Maybe Thomas really is done, and he'll be a drag on Seattle's lineup just as he was in Toronto. Thomas went 0 for 3 on Friday against Kenny Rogers, a pitcher he usually owns. The Toronto Star described him as "hopelessly out of sync," while the Globe and Mail wrote that "he made contact ... the ball just didn't go very far."
The Mariners have been first-hand witnesses to players losing it virtually overnight (John Olerud, Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez). Besides, Thomas is a right-handed bat, and the Mariners are crying for left-handed help. Perhaps the answer is sitting in Tacoma in the person of Jeff Clement, hitting .393 through 17 games.
Frank Thomas, however, is a proven commodity, an all-time talent who might be able to carry a team for stretches. I think it's worth a shot by the Mariners to see if he's still got some hurt left in him.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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