Jim Thome looksevery bit of his 35 years. Lines are forming at the outside of his eyes, hishairline is receding. And though he had nine straight 30-home run seasons from1996 through 2004, Thome is as eager as a rookie to make a powerful firstimpression on his new team. Seated in front of his corner locker in the WhiteSox clubhouse on an early March morning, he spoke with the intensity of NFLlinebacker Ray Lewis. "Trust me," he said, "I've got the fire to bethe hitter I know I still am. It sounds weird, and I don't know if people willunderstand this, but I've got to prove myself all over again.
"Not tothem," he continued, pointing a finger around the room before thumpinghimself on his chest twice, with feeling, "but to me. I've got to prove Ibelong on the World Series champions."
The White Sox arerolling the dice with Thome, who's coming off back trouble and a torn elbowtendon that limited him to 59 games in 2005. After hitting 49, 52, 47 and 42home runs in his four previous seasons, Thome hit seven last year and batted.207. The Phillies were willing to pick up nearly half of the $46 millionremaining on his contract in making a November trade that landed themcenterfielder Aaron Rowand and two minor leaguers. Thome says his back andsurgically repaired elbow are fine now, but to protect their pricey investment($24 million over the next three years) the White Sox will employ Thome almostexclusively as a DH, occasionally using him to spell Paul Konerko at firstbase.
"The DH roleshould help him stay healthy," says manager Ozzie Guillen. "We want tosave him from the wear and tear of the field. We feel confident he can be thehitter he's always been."
April 2, 2006
If Thome staysfit, his value is obvious. "Seems like we struggled to score more thanthree or four runs a game last year," says Konerko. Among AL clubs onlyMinnesota and Seattle had lower team batting averages than Chicago's (.262) in'05. That prompted G.M. Kenny Williams to make the aggressive move for Thome,which had a side benefit: Konerko, the top free-agent bat on the market, saidthe acquisition of Thome was the decisive factor in his decision to re-signwith the White Sox (five years, $60 million) despite more generous offers fromthe Angels and the Orioles. "I knew Kenny was going to go out and get us abat," says Konerko, who, with the declining health of Frank Thomas, was theonly consistent power threat in the lineup the last few years. "I had noidea it'd be someone the caliber of Jim Thome. That clinched it. It showed methat not only were we trying to stay on top, but we were also trying to getbetter."
To get ready forthe season, Thome began a new workout regimen that he continued into springtraining. Each day he spent an hour on core training--back, torso, abs--beforemoving on to regular baseball drills. After practices or games he spent 30minutes rehabbing the elbow. "Now I understand how important maintenance ofmy body is, at my age," Thome said. "I can't look into a crystal ball,but I'd like to play 150 games, and I think I can."
If he's even 80%of his old self, Thome will be an upgrade over last year's designated-hitterduo of Thomas and Carl Everett, who combined for 30 homers in 135 games but hadan on-base percentage of only .311. A three-time league leader in walks, Thome(career OBP: .408) should easily beat that number.
The White Soxshould be similarly improved on the mound. Javier Vazquez, who was obtainedfrom the Diamondbacks in a deal for Orlando Hernandez, might be the best No. 5starter in baseball. Having thrown at least 198 innings in each of the last sixseasons, the 29-year-old righthander is more durable than the rickety,41-year-old Hernandez. In the bullpen flamethrowing Bobby Jenks, fresh from astrong postseason in which he had four saves, takes over the closer's role fromDustin Hermanson.
But pitching wasalready a Chicago strength. Where the White Sox got the biggest upgrade is atthe plate. "From what I've seen so far this spring," says Konerko ofThome, "he's going to hit 30, 35 home runs by accident."
Jim Thome's ratioof one home run every 13.8 at bats is the best among active AL players. On thealltime list only Mark McGwire, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds have a betterrate.
a modest proposal
It'sunderstandable that prized prospect Brandon McCarthy, 22, must wait for anopening in a rotation that has five solid veterans, but he has too good an armto be relegated to long relief. The righthander's big curveball, thrown from afull overhand position and a 6'7" frame, is the sort of out pitch that canmake fools of the toughest hitters in the league. If McCarthy (right) were usedin relief full time this season, Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA system projectsthat he would have a 3.57 ERA--second-best among Chicago relievers and toppedonly by closer Bobby Jenks's computed figure. McCarthy should fill the team'ssetup role.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
first in ALCentral
third season withChicago
JIM THOME [Newacquisition]
ROB MACKOWIAK[New acquisition]
ALEX CINTRON [Newacquisition]
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Triple A stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...
In high schoolJerry Owens, 25, a speedy, lefty-hitting outfielder in the mold of ScottPodsednik, caught the passes of Kyle Boller, now the Baltimore Ravensquarterback, and earned a full ride to UCLA as a wideout. After an ankle injuryin his junior year, he returned to playing baseball and was picked by the Exposin the second round of the '03 draft. Last year Owens hit .331 with 38 stealsin Double A. He'll open this season at Triple A Charlotte.