What if Jim Thome's injury didn't solve Phillies' first base drama?

What if Jim Thome's injury didn't solve Phillies' first base drama?

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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Zack Wheeler is all in to play in 2020 ... for now

Zack Wheeler is all in to play in 2020 ... for now

Zack Wheeler is all in.

For now.

The Phillies' big off-season acquisition on Sunday said he was committed to pitching this season, but he left the door open wide enough to back out.

"Yeah, definitely," Wheeler said when asked if he had considered opting out of the season like several other prominent big leaguers have done.

"We just have to see how things are here at the field and at the stadium. I'm happy with what I see so far. But things could change, especially once our baby's born. I always think about what's going on around me. Is it safe? Is it OK? Literally every single day. I have to just ask myself that. I'm going to continue to keep asking myself that every day."

Wheeler's wife, Dominique, is due to give birth to the couple's first child in about three weeks.

That's an anxious time to begin with.

Now, add in a pandemic.


"It's a very difficult decision," Wheeler said. "It's something that is still playing in my head. I have to be very careful here at the field, outside of the field, wherever I go. The baby's and Dominique's health is most important to me. So whatever I can do to make sure they are safe, that is the No. 1 goal for me. Baseball comes after that."

Wheeler has expressed his concerns to team officials, including manager Joe Girardi.

Frankly, every person affiliated with the club has the same concerns about the health and safety of their families.

"We've chit-chatted here and there," Wheeler said. "I think they know what position I'm in. I think we are going to sit down and talk about that. But we haven't done it yet. I've been happy with what's gone on so far here (with health and safety protocols). 

"But, yeah, I'm definitely going to sit down with Joe and whoever else just to reiterate that. I'll let them know how I am feeling. Joe's a family guy. Family comes first to him. That's the first thing he told me when I talked to him on the phone right after I signed. 'Family is first.' I know he recognizes that. He knows the situation I'm in. He loves his kids. He's a good guy. He is one of the reasons why I signed here."

There are a number of players in MLB whose wives are expecting. Mike Trout is one and he has expressed reservations about playing and compromising his family's safety.

Wheeler was asked if he believed MLB should step in and make a blanket decision for players whose wives are pregnant.

"Maybe they could have put that label on guys with pregnant wives. I do believe that," Wheeler said. "I think they did a nice job with everything else. But there are a lot of guys with pregnant wives right now, whether it's later on in the pregnancy, early on in the pregnancy, they are at risk. It's a very serious thing as we all know. Maybe they should have thought about that a little bit more. I don't know. Like I said, I can only worry about myself and do as much as I can personally to protect my wife."

Wheeler signed a five-year, $118 million contract in December.

Players who opt out of the season do not get paid their prorated salaries unless they have an underlying health condition that makes playing too risky.

Baseball-wise, Wheeler is on a good track. During the shutdown, he maintained his throwing program back home in Georgia. He got up to 80 pitches in his bullpen sessions at home and faced hitters in camp on Saturday. With the uncertainty surrounding Aaron Nola — he's throwing at a nearby facility but has not joined the team for official workouts — Wheeler could end up starting the season opener July 23 or 24.

That is, if the virus allows for a season opener. 

And all is well at home.

Wheeler expects to take the permitted three days paternity leave once the baby arrives. Then he will need to go through testing and health protocols before rejoining the team. He estimated that he would miss at least a start, maybe two.

The Phillies are prepared for sudden changes in their pitching rotations. Girardi said he'll have relievers piggybacked with each starter and a five-man starting staff with the backup club in Lehigh Valley.

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COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

The Phillies have four players on the COVID-19 injured list (Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez, Scott Kingery and Tommy Hunter) and three more who have yet to arrive in camp because of coronavirus protocols (Aaron Nola, Adam Haseley and Christian Bethancourt).

We’re already seeing how unsteady and unpredictable this 60-game season will be. Nola is the Phillies’ best starting pitcher and Neris is their best reliever. Kingery is their starting second baseman. Haseley was set to start or split time in center field. Suarez was in the race for the fifth starter’s job.

So much for the Phillies would change without them, and it’s reasonable to expect at least a few of them will miss time early in the season. Phillies lefty Cole Irvin said Saturday he thinks it could take pitchers up to six weeks to return from coronavirus because it would require two weeks of quarantine, then the resumption of throwing, then a few bullpen sessions. The severity of cases varies, but it looks like it will generally cost pitchers more time than position players.

The best hitter in the NL East, Freddie Freeman, is also dealing with COVID-19 and is not feeling well at all right now, according to his wife Chelsea. Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters Saturday "it will be a while 'til we can get him back." It totally changes the Braves’ equation and 2020 chances if their rock is missing for a third of the season.

Will Smith, Atlanta’s top-tier lefty reliever signed to a three-year, $39 million in the offseason, also tested positive. Then on Saturday, Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez opted out of the season, as did their first base coach Eric Young Sr. Four Marlins players tested positive as well.

Yankees All-Star infielder D.J. LeMahieu tested positive.  So did Royals catcher Salvador Perez, Twins slugger Miguel Sano, Padres outfielder Tommy Pham and Indians speedster Delino DeShields Jr. Last week, Charlie Blackmon tested positive. There are at least another dozen known or suspected cases around the league with more, surely, to come.

On Friday, Mike Trout said "Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable" about the season ahead with a pregnant wife.

On Saturday, Dodgers left-hander David Price opted out of the season because of health and family concerns, joining King Felix, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Leake and Joe Ross. Buster Posey is reportedly mulling the decision too.

Other than that ... decent first weekend of camp?

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