With this MLB off-season so highly anticipated here in Philadelphia, I decided to take a look back during this month at some of the more important Hot Stove moments over the course of Phillies history.
So far we’ve traveled back to re-examine big free agent signings of Pete Rose in 1978 and Jose Mesa in the winter of 2000. We also took a look back at a pivotal 1981 trade in which catcher Bo Diaz came to Philly from Cleveland as part of a three-team swap which sent outfielder Lonnie Smith to the Cardinals.
This time around we’re going to take a look back at two different Hot Stove moves from the first decade of the 21st century. One is a free agent signing, the other a trade. Both involve the same centerpiece player, Phillies Wall of Famer and Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Thome.
To understand the motivations for the Phillies deciding to open up their wallets and bring Thome to Philadelphia you need to remember the context of where the franchise was and who the player was at that time.
From 1987 through 2002, a period that spanned the final years of Mike Schmidt‘s career through the final year of Scott Rolen‘s career with the Phillies, the team suffered through 14 losing campaigns over 16 seasons.
The 1993 National League champions had proven to be an oasis in a long, wide desert of losing years. But things began to change as the new century dawned.
Under popular and fiery new manager Larry Bowa the Phillies had nearly captured the 2001 NL East crown. Thanks to a stretch of nine losses in 11 games to open the month of September, the 2002 Phillies finished 80-81. Though it was another losing record, something was obviously different.
The Phillies had a talented core group of position players featuring veteran catcher Mike Lieberthal, exciting youngsters Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins, and the power-speed combination of an entering-his-prime Bobby Abreu.
Also, the club was preparing to say goodbye to Veteran’s Stadium. The 2003 season would be the 33rd and final one on turf for the team. A brand new facility to be named Citizens Bank Park was under construction and would open for 2004.
Phillies chairman Bill Giles, club president David Montgomery, and GM Ed Wade knew that there would be major financial benefits coming with the new ballpark. They wanted to make a push to excite the fan base even further, and so went into that off-season on the hunt for marquee names to add to the roster.
On December 2nd they signed 30-year-old free agent David Bell to play third base. This would allow Placido Polanco, obtained the previous summer in trade for Rolen, to shift over to second base, strengthening the overall lineup.
But what the lineup really needed was one truly menacing presence in the middle. A big bopper to serve as an anchor, a game-changing threat with the kind of true power that hadn’t regularly plowed the baseball trade in South Philly since Schmidt’s retirement more than a decade earlier.
As good fortune would have it, just such a talent was coming available on the free agent market. Thome was a 32-year-old veteran of a dozen big-league seasons who was one of the most feared power-hitters in the game at that time.
He first broke into the big-leagues with Cleveland in 1991 with the typical September cup of coffee. The following summer he became a regular at the end of June, but a late August injury brought his rookie campaign to an early end. He returned in 1993 but didn’t receive a promotion back to Cleveland until mid-August.
When the 1994 season opened he was one of the key pieces to a young and quickly improving Indians team. The club bolted out to a 66-47 record with Thome ripping 20 homers. But it was all brought to a sudden end by the player strike.
The true career breakout for Thome came when baseball returned for the 1995 campaign. He slashed .314/.438/.558 with 25 homers and 73 RBI as the Indians won 100 games and an AL Central crown. The Tribe then beat Boston and Seattle to capture the American League pennant before dropping a tough six-game World Series to the Atlanta Braves.
It would prove to be just the beginning of a baseball renaissance in Cleveland. The Indians became the AL Central’s dominant team, winning the division for five straight seasons and six times over seven years through 2001.
However, despite all of their talent and all of the winning, the Indians would return to the World Series just one more time during that stretch of dominance. That one other shot would also fall just short, and may have been the most demoralizing defeat of all.
In Game 7 of the 1997 Fall Classic, Cleveland was just two outs away against the Florida Marlins. But the Fish rallied against Tribe closer Jose Mesa to tie it up. In the bottom of the 11th, the Marlins would win it, sending Thome and the Indians home to another in a series of frustrating late-90’s winters.
During his time in Cleveland, Thome came under the tutelage of Indians hitting coach Charlie Manuel. The plain-spoken homespun wisdom of Manuel would blend perfectly with Thome’s own personality, and the two would become close.
Manuel became the Indians manager from 2000-02 and the club continued to win over the first couple of seasons, including capturing the 2001 AL East crown. However, with a number of the players aging quickly and others gone in trades or free agency, the Indians were losing in 2002.
Manuel was looking for a contract extension and some security as he would try to help the club rebuild. The Indians weren’t willing to meet his terms, and Manuel was fired on July 12. The handling of Manuel’s situation did not sit well with Thome, and would become a factor when he entered free agency that off-season.
Over parts of 12 seasons with Cleveland, Thome slashed .287/.414/.567 with 334 homers, 259 doubles, and 927 RBI. He had been a 3x AL All-Star, a Silver Slugger Award winner, and had finished among the top 10 in AL MVP voting three times, including each of his final two years.
He had also earned more than $40 million to that point in his career and received an annual salary at roughly $8 million per year over his last four seasons in Cleveland. This was the player who entered free agency in the fall of 2002.
The Phillies brass rolled out the red carpet in trying to woo the Paul Bunyan-esque Thome to sign with them. He and his wife, Andrea toured both Veteran’s Stadium and the construction site at Citizens Bank Park with agent Pat Rooney.
While outside of the construction site, a group of electricians union members cheered him on. When Thome stopped to speak with them, the group did a fantastic salesmanship job in representing Phillies fans wishes to have him join the team.
”I heard a lot of great things about Philadelphia,” Thome said per an AP report at ESPN at the time. ”You saw what the people did out there and that was heartwarming. It’s going to be a tough decision.”
Fans of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team would continue to apply the pressure that night when the Thome’s were treated to a game. On the couple’s introduction to the crowd midway between the second period the Philly sports fans gave him a rousing standing ovation.
The Phillies would ultimately win the bidding for the free agent star in a process that came down to them and a return to Cleveland. On December 6, 2002, Thome inked a six-year deal guaranteeing him at least $85 million and as much as $94 million over the life of the contract.
Thome would deliver everything that the Phillies hoped and then some. In the first season of 2003 the slugger finished fourth in the NL MVP voting as he led all of baseball with 47 home runs, ripped 30 doubles, and registered a career-high 131 RBI.
The 2003 Phillies led the NL Wildcard race as late as September 19. But a season-closing collapse in which they lost six straight and seven of the last eight games left them frustrated as the Veteran’s Stadium era came to an end.
In 2004, Thome blasted another 42 homers and made his first National League All-Star team. Those long balls included the milestone 400th home run of his career. The Phillies won 86 games for a second straight season and moved up from third to second place in the NL East Division standings. But the club would miss out on the postseason once again, this time it was a rough 5-13 stretch in mid-August that did them in.
Meanwhile down in the minor leagues, a 24-year-old first baseman named Ryan Howard was making an enormous impression. In that summer of 2004, Howard blasted 46 homers and had 131 RBI while playing at the two highest levels in the Phillies farm system.
It was fairly obvious that Howard could not be kept in the minors for much longer. But first base was his only real position. It was also Thome’s position, and the veteran still had four more years to run on his contract. Something had to give. The Phillies tried Howard out in left field, but there was no way that the big man could handle the position.
When the 2005 season opened the Thome-Howard had yet to resolve itself. But as so often happens in those situations, fate would step in to lend a hand.
Howard began 2005 ripping 16 home runs and driving in 54 runs while slashing an other-worldly .371/.467/.690 over his first 61 games back at Triple-A.
Thome started fast as well over the first couple of weeks. But then something began to change. The veteran began to slump, and then missed three weeks at the end of May. He returned to the lineup but struggled, hitting just .207 with seven homers through June.
It turned out that Thome had suffered a frayed tendon in his right elbow. He would require season-ending surgery and miss the entire last three months of the 2005 season. The decision to hang on to Howard was apparently going to pay at least short-term dividends.
Getting the call to the big-leagues, Howard would not waste the opportunity. In just 88 games he slashed .288/.356/.567 with 22 home runs, 17 doubles, 52 runs scored, and 63 RBI. For the performance, Howard would be named the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
Howard was just 25-years-old and was now part of an exciting, youthful Phillies lineup that included Rollins and Burrell, still both in their 20’s, and a 26-year-old second baseman named Chase Utley who had emerged that same summer as a future star.
Those 2005 Phillies again fell short of the postseason. But they improved to 88 wins, finished just two games behind the Braves in the NL East race, and were an agonizing one game short of the Houston Astros for the NL Wildcard berth. They had been done in by five straight early-September losses, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the Astros at Citizens Bank Park in which all three were agonizingly close.
The writing was on the wall for the now 35-year-old Thome. The surgery, Howard’s electrifying performance, and the latter’s perfect fit with the core of an emerging contender was going to make Thome expendable. It was time for new GM Pat Gillick to find a deal that would work for both the team and player.
That deal would come together over Thanksgiving, and on Black Friday of 2005 the Phillies general manager sent Thome to the newly-crowned World Series champion Chicago White Sox. The Phillies would include cash to help off-set the nearly $45 million still owed on Thome’s contract over the next three years.
In return the White Sox would send 28-year-old center fielder Aaron Rowand to the Phillies. Rowand had just completed his fifth big-league campaign, his second straight as a full-time starter. He hit .270 with 13 homers, 30 doubles, 16 steals, and 77 runs scored in helping the Chisox capture their first world championship in 88 years.
The deal worked out for both clubs. Thome bounced back all the way from his surgery, blasting 42 home runs and making the AL All-Star squad in the 2006 season. Rowand played a fantastic center field in Philly, including making one of the most memorable catches in team history, one that earned him an eternal place in the hearts of Phillies fans.
Then in 2007 while Thome was ripping another 35 homers with Chicago, Rowand became an NL All-Star and was a key piece in the Phillies capturing the first of five straight NL East crowns.
Meanwhile, Howard made sure that the Phillies didn’t miss a beat with their production from the first base position. In 2006 he followed up his Rookie of the Year campaign by slamming a franchise-record 58 home runs. He also slashed .313/.425/.659 and drove in 149 runs.
For that performance he was selected as an NL All-Star, and then was named as the National League Most Valuable Player. over the next five seasons, Howard would become known as ‘The Big Piece’ with five straight NL East champions, and one of the biggest pieces on a talented 2008 World Series championship squad.
In the late Fall of 2002, Jim Thome arrived in Philadelphia as a drawing card and hopefully the final piece to push an emerging contender to the postseason. He was absolutely the former, but never quite became the latter.
When he left in the Fall of 2005 it was to bring in Aaron Rowand, someone who would not be as big a drawing card, but who became a popular player with the fan base, and who would himself become one of the final pieces to a Phillies posteason team.
Thome would have one final moment on the stage at Citizens Bank Park when he signed to re-join his old mentor Manuel, who was now the Phillies manager. Manuel had been at the helm for that 2008 title and the Phillies were coming off a 102-win season that was the best in franchise history.
Ironically, Thome was brought in because Howard had been injured as the Phillies were eliminated in the 2011 NLDS. With the expectation that Howard’s injury could linger for a couple of months into the 2012 season, it was hoped that Thome could provide a veteran presence and some short-term power at first base.
Alas, it was not to be. The 2012 season turned out to be the most frustrating in more than a decade of Phillies baseball. The team sank to the .500 mark at 81-81, their first non-winning campaign since the 2002 season. Howard would not return until July, and his career would never again be as impactful as prior to the injury.
Thome would not be around for it. With Howard’s return looming and the team at 36-44 and 10 games off the NL East pace, the 41-year-old was dealt to the Baltimore Orioles for a pair of lesser prospects. Thome would help the Orioles to an AL Wildcard berth and appear with them in the postseason that year.
He would retire following Baltimore’s tough five-game loss to the New York Yankees in the ALDS. In 2016, Thome was honored by being enshrined on the Phillies Wall of Fame. At just two full seasons and parts of two others, he has the shortest service time of any player enshrined by the club. Few fans will argue his impact at a time when the Phillies were trying to establish a winning environment and tradition.
MORE HISTORY FROM PHILLIES NATION:
- Philography: Richie Ashburn – a mini career biography of a Phillies icon
- Hot Stove History: The 1978 free agent signing of Pete Rose
- Hot Stove History: The 2000 free agent signing of Jose Mesa
- Hot Stove History: The 1981 three-way trade involving Bo Diaz and Lonnie Smith
- Remembering two with Phillies ties who died while serving in combat during World War I