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Tribe Happenings: Thome returns home

August 28, 2011
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Jim Thome looks on as he receives a standing
ovation in his first at bat Friday. (Photo: AP)
Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

The return of a legend

The Indians made one of their more popular moves in a long time when on Thursday night they completed a trade with the Minnesota Twins to acquire designated hitter Jim Thome.

When the Twins put Thome on trade waivers Monday afternoon word quickly started to spread that the Indians may claim him and try to swing a deal with the Twins. With designated hitter Travis Hafner suffering a nasty foot injury in Detroit on Sunday and potentially done for the season, it made a lot of sense to find a designated hitter option if one were to come available.

While the 48 hour waiver period had to run its course there was a lot of speculation that the Chicago White Sox would put in a claim on Thome to block the Indians. For those unfamiliar with the claim process, how it works is teams with a worse record have higher waiver priority and the White Sox were a game behind the Indians so they could have claimed him before the Indians. In the end the White Sox did not make a claim, possibly as a nice gesture to allow a clear path for Thome to return to the Indians.

Once the Indians were awarded the claim it was but a mere formality for the Indians and Twins to complete a deal. Thome did not have a lot of trade value, so the Indians and Twins were able to agree on a very small list of players for the Twins to choose from. The deal ended up being for a “player to be named later”, and the Twins have until October 15th to make that decision. The player is not expected to be a player of significance.

Upon the official news being released late on Thursday night that Thome was indeed an Indian again, it set off a fervor among Tribe Nation. One of the true Indians greats of all time was returning to the team and city for one final hurrah, and to potentially retire with the team he originally started his long professional career with back in 1991.

Over Thome’s 12-year Major League career with the Indians from 1991-2002 he hit .287 with 334 homers, and 927 RBI in 1377 games. He turned 41-years old last night and returns to the Indians as the club’s all time leader in home runs (334) and walks (997), and ranks second all time in club history in RBI (927), fifth in runs scored (917), fourth in total bases (2633), third in on-base percentage (.414), and third in extra base hits (613). His 52 home runs in 2002 are a franchise single season record, and his 49 home runs in 2001 are third most in franchise history (Albert Belle had 50 homers in 1995).

Thome is no longer one of the most feared left-handed power hitters in the game, but he is still very productive. Prior to joining the Indians he was hitting .243 with 12 homers, 40 RBI and a .827 OPS in 71 games with the Twins. He recently joined the 600 home run club when he socked two homers against Detroit on August 15th, and is only the eighth player in baseball history to reach the 600 homer club.

The return “home” for Thome was celebrated on Friday night with a sellout crowd that gave him a standing ovation and lifted “Welcome Thome” signs when he first stepped to the plate. It was an electric atmosphere and brought back memories of the time nine years ago when “The Jake” was flooded with fans every night, the Tribe was a yearly contender, and Thome was the face of the franchise.

Thome is no longer the face of the franchise, but he gets to come back and potentially write the final chapter and close the book to his 21-year career by finishing where it all started. Maybe he and the team has one final run in them to make some noise and make his homecoming truly magical with a postseason berth.

Setting the record straight on Thome’s departure

While a great majority of fans are happy to see Thome back, there are still some bitter fans who still carry a grudge over his departure nine years ago. Time has healed a lot of the wounds from that December day in 2002 when he packed his bags and left for Philadelphia, but some animosity still exists.

If you rewind the tape back to that time almost nine years ago when Thome left Cleveland there was a feeling of betrayal in this city. Long before LeBron James, there was Thome’s departure which incensed a fanbase. Thome is not a narcissistic jerk like James, and instead is one of the nicest, most genuine people to ever play professional sports (unlike James). But back then he did mislead the fans by saying he would give a hometown discount and that they would have to “tear the shirt off his back to leave Cleveland”.

It seemed but a mere formality that Thome would remain an Indian after the 2002 season, especially after a season where the Indians traded almost every household name on the roster. The Indians did not trade Thome, and they went into the offseason with the intention of resigning him and rebuilding the club around him.

After several negotiations, in the end the Phillies signed him for six years and $85 million, a deal which also included a club option for a seventh season for $13 million. The total value of that contract was a potential $98 million dollars. On the flip side the Indians final offer was for five years and $63 million with vesting options based on performance for a sixth and seventh season at $12 million each. The total value of that contract was a potential $87 million.

In the end Thome chose the Phillies’ offer for what he called “a chance to win” and ultimately appeared greedy by not giving the Indians a hometown discount and leaving for the last dollar. He was supposed to be different, and one of those unique players who got it like the Cal Ripken’s, Tony Gwynn’s, Trevor Hoffman’s, etc of the world who stayed with their teams for much less money when they could have easily received millions more on the open market. They were loyal to their teams and loved the cities they played in so gave substantial hometown discounts.

What’s done is done. I will be the first to admit that I lost a lot of respect for Thome after that decision and don’t hold him in as high regard as I once did. But whether you are still bitter or not, he is still an amazing human being, life is too short to cry foul over the past, and he is an Indian now. So welcome home the living legend.

Jeckyll and Hyde

Since being acquired in a trade from the Colorado Rockies on July 30th, right-handed pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez has had some very good outings and some downright awful ones. You never know what pitcher you are going to get on a given night it seems, but if there is one thing that he has proven so far in the small sample size of five starts is he likes pitching at Progressive Field.

In Jimenez’s two starts at Progressive Field he has been great going 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA. He has gone at least seven innings in each outing and in 15.0 innings has given up one earned run, 12 hits, two walks, and has 16 strikeouts. That 2-to-16 walk to strikeout ratio is outstanding, and shows the kind of dominating stuff he has.

By the same token, in Jimenez’s three starts on the road since joining the Indians he is 0-3 with an 11.77 ERA. He has only logged a total of 13.0 innings in those three starts and has given up 17 earned runs, 25 hits, seven walks, and has 16 strikeouts. He is actually striking out hitters at a higher rate on the road, but the walk rate is much higher and he is giving up almost two hits an inning.

The Indians obviously did not expect this kind of inconsistent pitching when they paid a big bounty for Jimenez a few weeks ago. But they also knew going in that there were some delivery issues and his mechanics have been off this year after battling several nagging, minor injuries earlier in the year. As a result, we are seeing him flash the top of the rotation stuff in some outings that made the Indians gamble on acquiring him, but at the same time seeing a lot of the inconsistencies and issues that maybe made the Rockies more inclined to trade him.

Jimenez’s performance will probably continue to be up and down the rest of the year as he and the Indians continue to work through some of his issues. There is no doubt he will be a big offseason project and work closely with pitching coach Tim Belcher to get things squared away to where he is hopefully a much more consistent pitcher in 2012, and if so maybe his dominating stuff shows itself much more frequently night after night.

Injuries continue to pile up

The Indians have just been decimated by injuries the past few weeks. Three more players hit the disabled list this week as designated hitter Travis Hafner (foot), right-handed pitcher Josh Tomlin (elbow), and outfielder Michael Brantley (wrist) all were placed on the 15-day disabled list in the past few days. This is in addition to second baseman Jason Kipnis (hamstring) who was placed on the 15-day disabled list last weekend.

The Indians have battled the injury bug all season, and in a lot of ways is why they have been so inconsistent since their 30-15 start. Ever since that start they have had injuries to key players like Hafner, outfielder Grady Sizemore, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, and right-handed pitcher Alex White which caused them to all miss considerable time. Add in all the other injuries of late and to other players over the course of the season and they have truly taken their toll on the Indians this year.

Teams hate to use injuries as an excuse, but in this case it is warranted as they have no doubt affected their season. You have to wonder what would have happened this year without so many injuries. With a lot of players possibly coming back healthy in the next week or so, maybe once the team is close to full strength it will allow them to go on one final run and make things interesting with the Tigers down the stretch.

Columbus clinches

The Indians Triple-A Columbus affiliate earned a playoff berth this week when they clinched the International League West Division. Even with all of the player movement up and down to Cleveland this year they have an 82-53 record which is the best record in the league. They won the league title last year, so with the postseason berth they now get a chance to defend their title.

The Indians have some good players and teams coming together in the upper levels over the past few years, and it is beginning to translate at the big league level. The success of late with the upper level of the Indians farm system and the emergence of the big league team as a contender is no coincidence. Double-A Akron won the Eastern League title in 2009, Columbus won their league title last year, and Columbus is once again a very good team this year.

This is a lot like the success the Indians enjoyed back in 2004 and 2005 when they were re-emerging as a contender. Akron was 93-48 in 2002 and lost in the playoffs, won the league title in 2003, and lost in the finals in 2004. Triple-A Buffalo won the International League title in 2004 and lost in the playoffs in 2005.

Winning and losing often does not correlate from the minor leagues to the big leagues, but in the Indians case the last two times they have rebuilt their teams it looks like it is the exception.

Parting Shots

Sizemore continues to work his way back from his right knee contusion and sports hernia operation. He ran the bases on Friday for the first time since going on the disabled list and this weekend is taking batting practice and running sprints in pre-game activities. There is a good chance he could go on a short minor league rehab assignment next weekend and be back with the Indians sometime after Labor Day. … Right-handed pitcher Carlos Carrasco is expected to start a throwing program this coming week as he looks to return from right elbow inflammation. … Former Indians prospect left-handed pitcher Drew Pomeranz’s season came to a sudden end as he had an emergency appendectomy surgery earlier in the week and is done for the season. … Former Indians right-handed pitcher Alex White made his Rockies’ big league debut on Tuesday going six innings and allowed five runs on seven hits, one walk, and had four strikeouts.

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI. Also, his latest book the 2011 Cleveland Indians Top 100 Prospects & More is available for purchase for $20.95 to customers in the US (shipping and handling extra). Use discount code 2Z6F362B to receive 40% off the book through the site store!

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