Phillies

Cooperstown calls Jim Thome

Cooperstown calls Jim Thome

Charlie Manuel likes to tell the story of how the Cleveland Indians brass asked him to peek in on some of the club's top young prospects during the instructional league in the fall of 1989.

After a few days, Manuel, then the Indians' big-league hitting coach, called back to Cleveland.

"There's this kid down here from Illinois that can really hit," Manuel said.

That kid was Jim Thome and on Wednesday night a spectacular baseball journey that started with his being an unheralded 13th-round draft pick of the Indians in 1989 took him to the Hall of Fame.

A friendly giant of a man — literally and figuratively — Thome slugged 612 home runs, eighth most all-time, and made five All-Star teams. Those credentials helped fuel a first-ballot selection to Cooperstown by voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Though Thome spent the majority of his career with the Indians, his selection was felt profoundly in Philadelphia, where he is a member of the Phillies' Wall of Fame. Thome played four seasons with the Phils and clubbed 101 home runs — including the milestone 400th of his career — with the club. He came to the Phillies as a free agent before the 2003 season, the team's last in Veterans Stadium. He finished fourth in the National League MVP balloting that year.

Though Thome was gone — traded to the Chicago White Sox to clear a spot for a kid named Ryan Howard — by the time the Phillies broke a 14-year postseason drought in 2007 and won the World Series in 2008, his signing marked a reawakening for an organization that had slumbered in the years following its winning the NL pennant in 1993.

Thome, who now works in the White Sox front office, was always a gentleman and a first-class teammate — "the best I ever had," said Dan Plesac, who pitched for 18 seasons in the majors — during his playing days. It seemed as if the entire baseball world was happy for him Wednesday night as he received 89.8 percent of a necessary 75 percent (of 422 ballots) for election.

No one was happier for Thome than Manuel, his mentor and former manager in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

“I couldn’t be happier for Jim, who is like a son to me," Manuel said. "This is totally deserving and, for me, ranks up there with anything I’ve ever seen happen in the game of baseball.

"For someone that I met as a 19-year-old and saw improve as much as anyone over time, it makes me smile to think that all that hard work, all those swings in the batting cage, paid off for him. 

"I started thinking this was possible after he hit his 500th home run and for the day to finally be here — it’s like winning the World Series all over again."

Phillies management, from the ownership level to then-general manager Ed Wade, targeted Thome after the 2002 season to help build some electricity around an improving club as it prepared to move into a new stadium, Citizens Bank Park, in 2004.

"A transformative moment for our organization," David Montgomery, the Phillies chairman, said of Thome's decision to accept the team's six-year, $85 million contract offer.

"Jim’s signing with the Phillies accomplished a great many things for the organization," Wade said. "First, he made us a better team. He gave us the opportunity to develop Ryan Howard at the proper pace. His clubhouse presence among a lot of outstanding young players allowed them to learn how to handle the pressures of the game. 

"In a global sense, his signing validated and reinforced the promises we made to our fans about being fully committed to use the resources of a new ballpark to build a championship-caliber organization. And, he just happened to open the door for us to hire the winningest manager in Phillies history: Charlie Manuel. Baseball, the Phillies, Philadelphia and many of us individually owe a debt of gratitude to Jim Thome.”

In addition to Thome, Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman were elected by the writers. Jones, like Thome, made it in his first year of eligibility.

Thome, 47, ranks 23rd all-time with a .5541 career slugging percentage. The Peoria, Illinois, native hit 40 or more homers six times.

And while he impacted baseballs with his powerful left-handed stroke, his impact on his teammates was also profound.

"I want to say congrats to one of the most deserving, and one of the most genuine, people I’ve ever met in my entire life," Howard said.

"He was an unbelievable hitter but somehow an even better person," Chase Utley said.

“They didn’t call him ‘Gentleman Jim’ for nothing," Brett Myers said. "A great family man and that’s exactly how he treated his teammates — as family. He greeted everyone with a smile no matter who you were and made sure he spoke to all his teammates no matter what kind of day he was having.”

Jimmy Rollins said sharing a clubhouse with Thome was an honor.

"His infectious smile, gentle nature, and the extra-large and tight hugs he’d give his friends because he was genuinely excited to see you were things I looked forward to every day," Rollins said. "I congratulate him on a well-deserved Hall of Fame selection."

Phillies have a number of options in filling infield need

Phillies have a number of options in filling infield need

SAN DEIGO — On Day 1 of the winter meetings, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak reiterated his team’s need to add a starting infielder.

“That's been the focus,” Klentak said Monday afternoon. “Today is Day 1, but technically we've been here for almost two full days. It feels like that is what we have mostly been working on since we've been here. We're just trying to explore all different avenues. Single-year and multi-year fits. Trade and free-agent fits. In the way that the pitching market has really come together quickly, this one doesn't seem to be coming together quite as quickly. But not because there aren't options.”

The free-agent pitching market is indeed moving quickly. Stephen Strasburg returned to the Washington Nationals on a staggering seven-year, $245 million deal on Monday and Gerrit Cole is expected to blow past that deal in the coming days. The Phillies made some (sort of) news Monday when their signing of Zack Wheeler became official after the right-hander passed his physical exam.

“We felt it was important to add someone to our rotation that could pair with Aaron Nola at the top and give us a chance to win any series against the best pitchers in baseball,” Klentak said. “I think those are as good a twosome as you'll find in the league.”

New manager Joe Girardi concurred.

“We have 1 and 1-A,” he said.

Now, the question is: Who will play second base, third base and shortstop behind Wheeler and Nola?

Scott Kingery and Jean Segura are likely to hold down two of the spots. We say “likely” because there’s always the chance that Kingery could play center field (right now it looks like Adam Haseley will be the guy there) and Segura could be traded if the Phils could find someone to take on the three years and $45 million that remain on his contract. That won’t be easy, even if the Phils eat some salary.

Ideally, the Phillies would land a shortstop like free-agent Didi Gregorius on a one-year or manageable multi-year deal and move Segura from shortstop to second base and play Kingery at third. The Phillies have had serious talks with Gregorius, but have to be ready to pivot if they can’t lock him up. As Klentak said, there are options in the infield. Most of them, however, are not shortstops. A free-agent second baseman like Jonathan Schoop could be a good fallback if the Phils can’t sign Gregorius. He had 23 doubles and 23 homers in 433 at-bats for the Twins last season. Signing Schoop would mean that Segura would have to stay at shortstop or move to third with Kingery playing shortstop.

There are plenty of options at third base, from veteran Todd Frazier to top-of-the-market superstars Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson. There are also versatile veterans like Starlin Castro and even Brock Holt who could be used in mix-and-match, platoon scenarios.

“There’s a bunch of different ways we can go,” Klentak said. “We can go a shorter-term variety, we can look at a longer-term solution, we can look at the trade market, we can look at the free-agent market and we can look into piecing it together with multiple players potentially, which not only would help the starting infield, but would improve the bench. That’s where a lot of our focus this week is being turned.”

All right, let’s address those top-of-the-market names: The Phils have had contact with the representatives for Rendon and Donaldson and they have not tapped out of those markets, but signing one of those big-money players remains a longshot. The Phils signed Bryce Harper for $330 million last winter, Wheeler for $118 million this winter and still have to budget for a potential $100 million contract extension for J.T. Realmuto. Rendon is expected to command well over $200 million and Donaldson should get more than $25 million per season when he lands. The Phils are creeping up on the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million in total payroll. Managing partner John Middleton would go over the tax for the right opportunity. There’s a lot of never-say-never here, but …

“Ownership has always encouraged us to stay engaged on everything,” Klentak said. “If there's an opportunity to bring something to them we will. I think the most notable example was signing Jake Arrieta two years ago. That was not necessarily on our radar. It came together late and the owners jumped on it. I'm not going to sit here today and declare that we are or are not in on certain players or that we will or will not exceed the tax threshold. Our job is to keep an open mind and continue to pursue all avenues and see what makes sense for us. There is an element of this from a management perspective in making sure we apply the proper balance to roster building and not get too top-heavy. We need to be responsible about it, but we're not going to shy away from pursuing or at least exploring opportunities, whether we bring them to the finish line or not.”

With Wheeler on board, an infielder on the way, the return to good health of some key players and the projected improvement of others, Klentak is confident of this:

“We are definitely building a team that we expect will contend in 2020,” he said.

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Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Good thing the Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did.

Stephen Strasburg, who entered the offseason as the No. 2 starting pitcher in free agency behind Gerrit Cole and ahead of Wheeler, is returning to the Nationals on a massive seven-year, $245 million contract, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.

As historically good as Strasburg was in October, that is an insane number for him. He will turn 32 midway through the first of the seven years. He has made 30 starts in just three of nine seasons and reached 200 innings twice. He was more durable than ever in 2019 and, boy, did he cash in because of it. 

Two seasons ago, in 2018, Strasburg made 22 starts with a 3.74 ERA. Had he had that type of season in 2019, he probably wouldn't have even opted out of the remaining three years and $75 million to find this next payday.

Good for him. But also good for the Phillies in agreeing with Wheeler five days before the Nats retained Strasburg. Because if Wheeler was still on the board today, that number is at least $20 million higher and maybe more. Would a team go to $140 million for Wheeler? What about $160 million? Think about how many free agents the White Sox have struck out on in recent years. Wouldn't they have been likely to up their offer one more time if Wheeler was still out there to see what Strasburg signed for?

Strasburg is a great pitcher, don't get it twisted. He proved in 2019 that he can be the most reliable and important arm in the league when the pressure is at its peak. But forget Year 6, by Year 3 or 4 of this deal, the Nationals could be regretting it mightily.

And if this is what it took to sign Strasburg, Gerrit Cole is even more likely to approach $300 million.

There has been much more offseason activity leaguewide than there was at this point a year ago. The five best remaining free agents are Cole, Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The next three would be Nick Castellanos, Didi Gregorius, Marcell Ozuna and then you're getting into back-end-rotation types.

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