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Saturday, June 30, 2012
Trading for Thome fixes non-DH problem

By Christina Kahrl

Jim Thome's right back where he needs to be, and if you’re an Orioles fan, you might think the trade that moves him down I-95 has come not a moment too soon. The Orioles really needed to do something to shore up their offense, and perhaps more than anything, they’ve needed to find an outfield bat or two. Averaging just 4.2 runs per game, they’re ninth in the American League in offense, and a major part of the problem is the lack of good wood they’ve gotten from their left fielders (.642 collective OPS) and right fielders (.703).

The funny thing is that the Orioles’ designated hitters weren’t a problem, not in the aggregate, with a .787 OPS. Their in-season problem was that the absence of a reliable performer had helped suck Chris Davis out of the infield and into their DH mix. With their gaping holes in the outfield corners, they really do need something that would stick at DH, freeing manager Buck Showalter to reemploy Davis in the field and spare the club from reverting to the DH-du-jour non-answers Baltimore's weakly stocked bench provides.

Which brings me to the other major implication of this move -- what this deal does not mean: Thome isn’t replacing Wilson Betemit or Davis in the lineup in a bit of incremental improvement. Instead, he’s the answer to a crying need in Showalter’s offense, which was the absence of a regular DH who could deliver on the hitting half of being designated to hit. The Orioles’ current scoring clip is not going to get it done in the AL East, even with the expanded postseason.

But the market didn’t really have much to offer as far as outfield thumpers, so general manager Dan Duquette did the next-best thing: He traded for a cheaply available bat in Thome, figuring that adding a bat lets Showalter reemploy the day-to-day rovers he’s used to plug lineup holes all season to man one fewer position, and perhaps more precisely help fix the club’s problems in the non-Nick Markakis outfield corner. Markakis is due back soon, so the Orioles are already going to have one outfield answer. Trading for Thome is going to help them fix the other corner.

Adding Thome to the roster helps because it frees up the bats the Orioles were using at DH to help fix the other slots in the lineup. Showalter has utilized Davis in particular as one of those rovers, and he’ll no doubt continue to use Betemit as his infield Mr. Fix-It. With Thome in the fold, Davis might very well be the Orioles’ left fielder of the immediate future, a patch they desperately need.

With Markakis looking like a lock to return from the disabled list after the All-Star break, the Orioles’ lineup should be in significantly better shape shortly, with Markakis in right field, Davis in left and Thome at DH.

Where roster management is concerned, it’s understandably fashionable in the age of the seven-man bullpen to laud the virtues of doing without an everyday DH, and to instead use the slot as a chance to spread at-bats around to the three non-catchers most AL teams get by with on their benches. There’s a certain kind of wisdom to it when you have bench bats worth playing, but that was not this Orioles team, not when it's been picking from among the likes of infrequently healthy Nick Johnson, minor league veteran Steve Pearce, Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty or career fifth outfielder Endy Chavez. Or what might be more simply referred to as “bad choices.”

The Orioles' getting away from their initial team-DH solution and instead placing their faith in one of the last few true designated mashers left is what both Thome and they deserve. Just as he can be an instrument of their second-half success, so too can Thome show off that he’s still got plenty left in the tank.

Over the past two seasons, as a 40- and 41-year-old, Thome has hit .254/.357/.484 for the Twins, Indians and Phillies. This year, DHs around Major League Baseball have put together a .257/.331/.435 line -- which might not sound great, but it’s a better line than what MLB teams are getting from their first basemen or left fielders. But Thome’s been better still, despite the rust that started forming in his infrequent DH role until interleague play helped get him back in action.

The 27 innings that Thome played in the field for the Phillies were more than some thought he could handle, and it was more playing time with a fielding glove than he’s put in since 2005. They might also be the last, because after the misery of less-than-part-time play, Thome may elect to never return to the National League. If he keeps hitting this way, he shouldn’t need to.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Pablo Sandoval
A Kung-Fu Panda has a natural advantage: A low center of gravity.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.