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July 03, 2002

Will Thome walk?
By Dan Patrick

As the Cleveland Indians rebuild their team, most of the speculation centers on hard-hitting first baseman Jim Thome.

It is clear that he'd already be gone if he didn't have a no-trade clause. What isn't clear is whether or not he will waive that clause and leave town. And if he did leave, would he only be gone for the second half of this season and be an Indian again come spring training?

If (Thome) really wants to stay in Cleveland, he should work out a hometown discount ... But if he doesn't want to sell himself short on the market, then he should waive the no-trade.

Like most things in baseball, Thome's situation is complicated. He and his wife love Cleveland and are expecting a child early next year. Cleveland is home.

Thome, a free agent after this season, would be happy to stay around and -- at 31 -- be the elder statesman, helping the little Indians in 2003 and 2004. He played in the 1995 World Series and would love to return and win one with the Indians, but he is also aware of what he could command in the free-agent market.

But the Indians are watching their payroll more strictly than they did in their mid-1990s heyday. Robby Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Juan Gonzalez, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and the others are gone. The Indians are starting over again, and that is not something a team can do halfway. Three good prospects for Thome would make a lot of sense for the Indians' rebuilding project.

Further clouding the issue for Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro is baseball's labor problem. A lot of teams are skittish about making big moves. Why would they pick up Thome in July if there is a strike in September?

Shapiro, however, knows that keeping Thome could easily be spun as a good move for the Indians. He would provide a link to the early glory days of Jacobs Field. His presence would also show the avid Jacobs Field fans that the team is not totally giving up, that they would remain competitive while they reload.

Shapiro has to find out how much he can spend on Thome's next contract and if the amount fits Thome's desire to stay in Cleveland. The only problem is, I don't even think Thome knows the answer. He makes $8 million a year now. He could probably get $10 million or more as a free agent. Can he live with making $9 million?

If he really wants to stay in Cleveland, he should work out a hometown discount with Shapiro and put the affair behind him. But if he doesn't want to sell himself short on the market, then he should waive the no-trade, spend a few months in a hotel in a new town and then figure out where he'll play next year. There's no sense finishing out the season in Cleveland if he knows he probably won't be there next year.

When I spoke to Thome this week, he said he just didn't know yet if he would waive the no-trade. His honesty was revealing. If he were dead set on staying in Cleveland, he'd invoke that clause all day. But he's not sure. The door is open, with plenty of room for him to walk right through.

I'm not saying he will walk, and I'm not saying the door is wide open. I'm just saying Thome has a lot to think about during the All-Star break -- besides wondering why he isn't playing in the game.

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