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December 3, 2002

The Daily Prospectus

Thome and Foulke

by Derek Zumsteg

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The price of loyalty is $22 million and an extra year. The two contracts Jim Thome agonized over between turkey and potatoes were Cleveland's five-year, $60 million deal, plus a vesting option year, and the contract he took, which started with six years for $82 million plus a vesting option year.

I've watched a lot of Jim Thome this year. I'm writing the Indians chapter for the 2003 edition of Baseball Prospectus and that meant that almost all the games I couldn't attend, I taped, and I've watched some of those tapes over and over, trying to figure out, say, what was up with Ryan Drese. And there Thome was, the throwback, hitting in good times and bad, as his team paid attention or goofed off. I started to feel for him, hoping that the next time I went through the tapes I'd find out that someone else was hitting for him, and Thome had been traded mid-season to the Atlanta, or Boston, or San Francisco -- someplace where they even cared. Sure, there's something to be said for being comfortable in your surroundings, but around here in the Pacific Northwest, we've got a name for people who choose to dig into limited circumstances, and where they're not expected to excel -- Boeing employees.

Yeah, Thome's going to be pushing up on 40 at the end of the contract, but I'm not particularly concerned about that... he just had a huge season, the eighth really good one in a row, and in a couple of years Barry Bonds will probably have retired, which means his retinue of trainers, nutritionists, and grape-peelers will all be available for hire. I look forward to Jim Thome embarking on a new workout regimen in 2007 that will have him cranking 50 or 60 home runs a year.

What's particularly interesting about this is that the Indians, in the midst of a conventional rebuilding process, cut Opening Day payroll from $79 million to the mid-$60s during the season, have now chopped it further with Thome off to Philly. Ironically, the Phillies have been leeching off Cleveland's revenue sharing payments for years, even though they're in one of the largest single-team markets in baseball. In 2001, for instance, the Indians paid a whopping $13 million into the pool, and the Phillies got to put $11 million in the bank. That's a free year of Jim Thome, from the people who brought you contraction.

There's a lot being made of the Phillies going nutty on the market as they approach their new stadium, but I have to wonder -- why now? Why over-spend on a good luck charm like David Bell, and then drive the money truck up to Thome's house? If you want to make a playoff run, wouldn't you be better off doing it when you've got shiny luxury boxes? And why in the world is Larry Bowa coming back, when he spent most of the year proving that axiom that ass-burner managers can have positive short-term effects but can almost never enjoy continued success?

There's something to be said for the strategy, though. Getting fans excited for the team and the new stadium at once, like they did in Seattle prior to the construction of Safeco Field, can drive the amazingly lucrative season ticket sales up, and finally investing in the team may get many fans to forget how badly they've been treated in these lean years. And I think that's been lost in the analysis of the deal: if the Phillies are competitive these next few years, it'll help their ability to rebuild their fan base and compete for years to come... when they'll be subsidizing the hapless Orioles.

* * *

Billy Beane rides again: Billy Koch, Proven Closer, has been wrapped up with two minor leaguers we haven't heard about yet and traded to the White Sox for Keith FoulkeMark JohnsonJoe Valentine, and cash.

Keith Foulke rules. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise -- the line that he "was a closer who lost his job for most of the year" overlooks entirely the fact that he was taken out of the role not because he sucked, but because he had a couple of bad outings in a row and his manager was stupid. He's been one of baseball's best relievers since 1999 (and he threw 105 innings that year!). Koch... Koch hasn't.

I'd love to see the A's grant Foulke his wish and see if he can start. Foulke's wanted to start for years and he's got the stuff to do it. He's a guy who fell into a closer label and hasn't been able to get it off since, not a natural closer type like Koch, a guy with a 100-mph heater and not a lot else. If Beane can get a Derek Lowe v2002-style performance out of Foulke he'd have baseball's best rotation by far next year, even if it read Hudson-Zito-Mulder-Foulke-Bower. Even if he doesn't, Foulke's going to be a significant upgrade on Koch in the closer role, which is the safe decision.

Mark Johnson's a guy with good minor league lines that hasn't done much in his service time in the bigs, in no small part because the White Sox spend most of their time complaining about what he's not -- a crappy hitter like Josh Paul. In Oakland, he's likely to share catching duties with Ramon Hernandez, and Johnson may well develop some of the promise he's flashed in the past. It's a case where the change in scenery may make all the difference in the path his career takes. At his best, Mark Johnson's not a top-flight catcher. But he could easily be a quality upgrade on the cheap.

Foulke's under contract for $6M in 2003. Koch is arb-eligible, and will make more than $4M, win or lose, with the cash in the deal probably making up most of the difference. The worst part of it is, Koch will also be arb-eligible the following season, and he'll cost even more than that then, assuming the Sox don't go off the deep end and given him a multi-year deal. As if the A's needed anything else in their favor on this deal, they can try to leverage something where they allow Foulke to start (something he's wanted to do for years) in exchange for his signing a sweetheart contract after 2003, or they can let him go as a free agent and take the resurrected draft pick compensation for him.

We'll get to read about the rest of the package in Transaction Analysis, but for now, this is a great deal for the A's. If they decide to gamble on starting Foulke, it could wind up being the greatest swindle this off-season.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Jim Thome,  The Who,  Managers Of The Year,  Billy Koch

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