The StarTribune's Joe Christensen reported last Friday that the Twins were interested in signing free agent Jim Thome. Although Joe C. was able to dispel rumors circulating via a Chicago radio station that the signing was to be concluded last Friday, the deal did not go down. However, the Twins' interest appears real, so real that they signed him Tuesday to a one-year, $1.5M deal. The question I have is "why?"
The left-handed hitting DH will turn 40 during the season and is a veteran of 19 MLB seasons. Thome is a career .277/.404/.557 hitter with 564 HR and 1,565 RBI in 9,463 plate appearances. He hit .249/.372/.493 with 23 HR and 74 RBI for the White Sox last season before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for the stretch drive. Used as a pinch hitter 17 times with the Dodgers, Thome went 4-17 with 3 RBI and 7 strikeouts.
Thome's days in the field are over, as the big slugger's last appearance in a position other than DH came in 2007 when he played but one game at first base for the White Sox. The Twins are set at first base with Justin Morneau and have Jason Kubel established as the team's everyday DH. With an already crowded outfield with Delmon Young, Denard Span, and Michael Cuddyer manning the starting spots, Kubel would be able to fill in for either of the corner spots, and someone like Thome would then serve as the DH. However, Thome's primary role would be as a potent option off the bench. The Twins don't have much in the form of options off the bench (Brendan Harris is the most serviceable option which comes to mind) and Thome would definitely bolster that situation. However, if he takes any at bats away from Kubel, the signing would be misguided. Kubel is a superior hitter at this stage of his career and is 12 years younger. The team's third-best hitter behind Joe Mauer and Morneau, Kubel came into his own in 2009, batting .300/.369/.539 with 35 doubles, 28 HR, and 103 RBI in 578 plate appearances.
Thome made $13M last season in Chicago, serving out the option year of a six-year deal he signed with Philadelphia in the winter of 2002.
The Twins have already been willing to spend $5M on Jarrod Washburn this winter, only to be rebuffed. However, it would be far better to have seen them use that money toward a deal for either Orlando Hudson or Felipe Lopez which would fill a gap in the lineup with a far younger player. Realizing I am continuing to beat a dead horse on the Hudson/Lopez situation, signing either of those is a far better option for this team right now. Of course, giving Thome $1.5M doesn't preclude signing the aforementioned players and it certainly makes more sense to toss a one-year reasonable deal toward Thome than it does to give $5M to Washburn.
Thome is clearly one of the game's all-time great guys and has been a productive player for a long time. His career will likely lead to induction in Cooperstown one day. However, he is clearly on the downward slope of his career and would be a misguided use of money which could be better utilized on a player of more pressing need. If he is truly a bench player and does not grab plate appearances which would otherwise be given to Kubel, then this is fine. As Aaron Gleeman points out, however, if Thome gets DH PAs, and Kubel gets LF appearances otherwise given to Young, then I'm really on board. However, that seems unlikely at this point.