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April 21, 2008
Big Hurt Banishment
Two days later, Thomas blasted a tiebreaking two-out grand slam in the fifth inning, giving the Jays a 6-2 lead in an eventual 7-4 win. Thomas' hits were essentially responsible for two of the Jays' three wins over the Red Sox in that opening weekend series. He was a hero, one coming off a down-ballot MVP-candidate season in 2006, followed by a productive one in 2007.
So, as you read the coverage of the Jays' decision to release Thomas yesterday, on the heels of their decision last week to reduce his playing time, remember that the "slow start" being cited as justification isn't a slow start at all. It's a slump that lasted all of 10 games, beginning April 9 against the A's. Thomas was hitting .240/.296/.640 a week into the 2008 season, which is the kind of awkward line you get when you have 27 plate appearances, but it's nonetheless productive. In the subsequent nine games, Thomas was awful: 4-for-35 with no extra-base hits and 10 walks.
There were any number of ways the Blue Jays could have handled this. They could have given Thomas a day or two off, diddled with his spot in the lineup, put him into a platoon with Matt Stairs for a week or two, kept everything quiet and private. No, the Blue Jays had to turn it into a project, telling Thomas that he would be playing less, which invited Thomas to question their motivations. After all, Thomas is a bit more than 300 plate appearances shy of vesting his 2010 option for $10 million, and has already lost one contract to the invocation of a "diminished skills" clause. He would, justifiably, see this as an attempt to take money out of his pocket rather than a baseball decision.
Whether motivated by baseball or money, the Jays released their DH and #5 hitter based on a 10-game slump. Thomas was unquestionably awful over the last two weeks. If only there were evidence of him emerging from similar early-season stretches to be productive over the course of a season. It's not like he hit .097/.243/.129 in a stretch of 37 PA last April, then went on to hit .285/.382/.500 afterwards. No, wait, that happened. Of course, that's another small sample size. It'd be something else if, in 72 PA, he hit .154/.236/.323. That would be meaningful. He could never come back from that and hit .289/.403/.575 the rest of the way. What? He did that in 2006? Boy, I don't know. Keep reading things like this, and you'd think that stretches of ineffectiveness weren't all that meaningful when put up against Thomas' career. But that would mean the Blue Jays had made a bad baseball decision, and that doesn't seem…. No, wait.
It would be one thing if the Blue Jays were so larded with talent that they had to create space for it, and this was the only way to do so. On Saturday, the Blue Jays DH'd Matt Stairs, batted Rod Barajas sixth, and played Joe Inglett in left field. On Sunday, their DH was Barajas, who batted fifth; their left fielder was Marco Scutaro. I give you Jays' GM J.P. Ricciardi:
I don't know that we have the luxury of waiting two to three months for somebody to kick in because we can't let this league or this division get away from us.
Really, now. Well, let me help you along with that, J.P. Rod Barajas is 32 and has a career OBP of .288. I seriously doubt it's all going to "kick in" for him. Marco Scutaro is 32 and a utility infielder. Not playing him in left field is one good idea if you want to help your club's offense. Joe Inglett is 30 and might be a serviceable replacement for Scutaro, but is also not suitable for the outfield. These are all the guys who Frank Thomas is too done to play ahead of, based on 10 bad games.
That actually brings us back to the real problem: left field. Shannon Stewart is the nominal Jays' left fielder, except that he's never available. Stewart is hitting .235/.341/.294 in just 41 PA, and while he hasn't been on the DL, he's just been unable to play about half of the time. I didn't hate the Stewart signing at the time, although I didn't really understand where he fit on the Blue Jays. As it turns out, signing Stewart pushed the Jays to release Reed Johnson, a better player. See? You can always create space for talent. Even if the talent can't throw and can't stay on the field. That the Jays would choose to keep Stewart and release Thomas is execrable decision-making, the kind of thing you do when you don't really know what you're doing.
Now, the long-term play here is to recall Adam Lind, who should have been the left fielder all along, even though he didn't hit last season and was sent down, then didn't make the team in March in part because of the decision to bring in Shannon Stewart. Lind is nursing a minor neck injury at the moment, and has not been called up. If he is promoted once healthy, the Jays have at least improved left field…but that still has nothing to do with Thomas. You could have Lind in left, or Lind platooning with Stewart on the eight days a month that Stewart can play. Thomas platoons with Matt Stairs at DH, with Stairs occasionally playing first base in place of Lyle Overbay, who is once again quietly killing the Jays (.262/.368/.323) with his contributions. You could also just release Stewart and play Lind every day.
The sheer quantity of alternate paths that were available to the Blue Jays four days ago boggle the mind. They chose the one in which they released the best hitter of the bunch based on 45 plate appearances. No, Thomas can't play the field, but it's an open question whether Shannon Stewart can, and only one of the two isn't a joke as a DH. The roster machinations necessary to cover for Shannon Stewart are driving virtually every move the Jays make.
Back all the way up to New Year's. At that point, the Blue Jays had Adam Lind, Reed Johnson, and Frank Thomas. Now, with Lind in Triple-A, they have Shannon Stewart, Matt Stairs, and Joe Inglett, and they're spending an additional $4 million on Stairs and Stewart. If Ricciardi's goal was to shift focus from the Troy Tulowitzki decision, he's there.
Because the baseball decision is such an inexplicable one, it's natural to consider the non-baseball factor, Thomas' $10 million option for 2010. That option vests with 1000 plate appearances in the two guaranteed years of the deal; Thomas was 304 plate appearances from that mark as of Saturday morning. Any kind of bounceback in which he justified his role-the kind that he had right in front of the Jays' "brain"trust a year ago-would have locked in that figure. The Jays aren't saving $10 million by releasing Thomas, though; they're saving $3.3 million, which is the difference between what they would have paid him next year and what they'll pay him this year to not play for them. To avoid the potential of that 2010 contract, they've made their current team worse and once again called into question just how they evaluate baseball players.
Maybe Frank Thomas is done. There's not nearly enough evidence to reach that conclusion, however, and the Blue Jays haven't improved their situation in any way by cutting ties to Thomas. An organization that repeatedly makes the wrong choice has done it again.