Phillies

Phillies

In 137 years of play, the Phillies have racked up more than a few what-ifs. What if Chico Ruiz doesn't steal home in 1964? What if Danny Ozark replaces Greg Luzinski for defense on Black Friday 1977? What if the Phillies protect George Bell in the Rule 5 draft? What if they don't trade Ferguson Jenkins? Or Ryne Sandberg?

What if Michael Martinez doesn't catch that ball in deep center field that 2011 night in Atlanta and the St. Louis Cardinals don't make the postseason? What if Chase Utley's knees don't go bad and Ryan Howard doesn't blow out his Achilles tendon? There are many, many more.

Over the next few days, we'll explore a few of the moments and events that may have flown under the radar but still make you ask: what if? Join us in our trip to an alternate Phillies universe ...

There was a brief time — very brief, as it turned out — that the Phillies faced a daunting conundrum involving two popular and extremely productive sluggers.

Today's trip to an alternate Phillies universe revisits Ryan Howard's rise and Jim Thome's departure.

When all was said and done, it worked out rather seamlessly. The Phillies traded Thome to the Chicago White Sox and that cleared the way for Howard to take over the first base position. Thome continued to ride a power-hitting track to Cooperstown and Howard won a National League MVP award and became the Big Piece on a club that won five division titles, two NL pennants and a World Series.

 

Everybody ended up happy, happy, happy.

But what if Thome hadn't injured his back in 2005?

The Phillies targeted Thome as a free agent and signed him to a six-year, $85 million deal before the 2003 season because they wanted him to light up a lineup and a fan base as they geared to move into a new stadium and he did just that, putting up huge numbers in his first two seasons with the cub.

The wise sage Lenny Dykstra once said, "Backs are tricky, dude, because they're connected to everything." Thome learned what Dykstra meant when his back started giving him big problems early in the 2005 season. His production slipped and the pain became too much to handle. He did not play after June 30.

You know the rest of the story. Howard, who had been bombing home runs for the better part of three seasons in the minors, came up and took off. He hit 22 homers and drove in 63 runs in 88 games, a little more than a half-season. He was named NL Rookie of the Year in November.

Meanwhile, down in Florida, Thome was rehabbing his back, getting stronger and angling for a big return in 2006.

But Thome knew that return couldn't be in Philadelphia. Ever gracious and classy, he tipped his cap to Howard and said he saw many of the same traits in the young slugger that others had seen in him years earlier. Thome quietly told the organization that the best thing for everyone was to trade him — preferably to his home state White Sox, who were in need of a designated hitter — and new general manager Pat Gillick got the deal done. Sure, the Phillies had to offset $24 million of Thome's salary, but it was a simple solution to what could have been a vexing issue.

In an alternate universe, Thome stays healthy in 2005 and continues to put up big numbers and Howard stays in Triple A and does not win the Rookie of the Year.

What happens then?

An experiment to use Howard in left field had failed miserably. There was no designated hitter in the NL. (That's probably going to happen in the coming years. Had there been a DH in the NL when Thome was a Phillie, the problem would have been solved and the Phils would have had a power plant in the middle of their lineup with the two left-handed sluggers.) The only solution was a trade. Howard had already requested one. Had Thome been healthy and productive through 2005, the Phils likely would not have considered dealing him. He had three years left on his contract and he was putting fannies in the seats.

Had Thome stayed healthy, the Phils likely would have had to trade Howard and who knows what they would have gotten in return. Yes, he was putting up big numbers in the minors, but there were questions in those days about whether he'd hit big-league pitching. Those questions would have lingered — and affected his trade value — had he stayed in the minors for most of 2005.

 

Howard's big half-season in 2005 made a trade of either him or Thome imperative. A couple of years earlier, the Phils could afford to be patient and let the situation play out because Howard needed development time. In fact, Ed Wade, the team's general manager through 2005, made just one call to gauge trade interest in Howard when Howard was in the minors. The general manager on the other end of the phone scoffed and compared Howard to Sam Horn, a minor-league slugging legend from the '80s and '90s who had just marginal big-league success. But now, something had to be done.

Wade never came close to trading Howard. And that scorching half-season and Rookie of the Year award in 2005 cemented the young slugger's place in the organization.

In an alternate universe, it could have been so very different. Howard could have moved on and done damage in another city, for another club. It would have been painful for Phillies fans to watch, even with good guy Jim Thome sticking around and doing big things. Ultimately, the pain in Thome's back started a chain of events that took care of everything — at least until Howard suffered his own career-changing injury.

"When I leave the game of baseball someday, I want people to recognize that I always put my teams first," Thome said the night he was traded to the White Sox. "That's what I love about the game — being part of the team. I see in Ryan Howard what someone saw in me when I broke into the big leagues. And now it's time for both of us to seize the opportunity ahead of us. It's a win-win situation."

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