Thome time again in Philly?

November, 4, 2011
11/04/11
8:39
PM ET
Jim ThomeDavid Richard/US PresswireWill 41-year-old Jim Thome have a successful encore in Philadelphia?
Just yesterday I noted where Jim Thome ranked among my five favorite free agents. Now, according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com, Thome might not be a free agent much longer. He appears headed back to Philadelphia to play first base, for $1.25 million, pending a physical.

The Phillies had to find a substitute for Ryan Howard, who figures to miss at least the first couple of months of the season as he recovers from surgery to repair his ruptured left Achilles. Once you get past the flashy options Insider, Philadelphia does not want Lyle Overbay as a dance partner trying to prop up a team offense that has dropped to around the league average -- whether you rely on OPS, OPS+ or equivalent average.

For Thome, it's a matter of trying to do something he hasn't managed to do since 2005, which is play first base with any semblance of regularity. You remember 2005, right? Papa Roach was big. It was a while ago. And Thome got hurt, first injuring his back in May before breaking down for keeps with a scragged elbow on July 1. He was 34 years old.

He's 41 now, with a career home run tally sitting at 604. He has little left to prove on his way to Cooperstown ... except perhaps that he can still play the field.

Can he do it? As far as DHs who attempted to return to the field late in their careers, there aren't a lot of happily-ever-after stories. Mike Easler gave it a shot in 1987 -- with the Phillies, no less -- and it didn't take. Easler had been an everyday DH for three years, but he'd played some first base and left field over that time. Yet he still was cooked as a position player at 36.

A more recent -- and more encouraging -- example is that of Jason Giambi with the Rockies. In a part-time role, "The Giambino" has done a nifty job of bopping from the bench and spot-starting for Todd Helton.

Having Thome around to contribute as a spot starter and pinch-hitting monster while Howard gets up to full speed, and then potentially give the Phillies some DH duty during the 2012 World Series? See, that's easy to imagine.

The problem is the time before Howard can come back and whether Thome can hold up when repeatedly playing the field. He'll almost certainly be platooned with John Mayberry Jr., which helps considerably. You also can bet that if Thome's old joints start aching, Charlie Manuel will sit him for day games after night games, regardless of who's on the mound. You can expect his defense to be terrible, however many polite compliments it draws in spring training. The focus in his starts will be on getting three or four at-bats and then getting him off the field with a double-switch or a pinch runner. Manuel has dealt with those sorts of handicaps before; it won't be a problem as much as a daily task.

Can Thome keep bopping at this level, as a 41-year-old? That might be a question better answered by Dan Szymborski, who projects results for ESPN Insider, but in the meantime, it doesn't seem like an unreasonable proposition. He still can walk around 10 percent of the time, and he'll still crank homers around 5 percent of the time. Citizens Bank Park isn't quite the bandbox it's reputed to be and is certainly an easier place to hit than the chilly expanses of Target Field.

As much fire as the Phillies catch -- and deserved to catch, even before the injury -- for Howard's latest deal ($125 million now through 2017 if they don't pick up his option), they couldn't afford to go without offense. Settling for an Overbay would not have guaranteed much offense. General manager Ruben Amaro is rolling the dice, but it's the sort of entertaining risk that might pay off. If it doesn't, it's doubtful the expense will be enough to prohibit the Phillies from going back to the dancers of Overbay's ilk.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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