On Sunday James Howard Thome received the greatest honor a professional baseball player can garner – enshrinement in the hallowed Baseball Hall of Fame. Thome smashed 612 home runs during his historic career. He brought joy to millions of Ohioans and rightly deserves a plaque in Cooperstown. Still, memories of Thome will forever be tainted by his bitter exit after the 2002 season. Clevelanders took it as a personal insult that he would sign with Philadelphia for more years and money than stay with Cleveland for a rebuild. The moment still recalls sour memories, but after further reflection, I have realized that Thome should not have left Cleveland as a free agent in 2002. The Indians should’ve traded him instead.
After a record-setting run of six division titles in seven seasons, the Tribe’s contention window finally closed in 2002. The front office saw the combination of bad prospects, a rising AL Central, and an undertalented team and decided to force a hard reboot. On June 27 Cleveland dealt the immortal Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew to Montreal for future Cy Young-winner Cliff Lee, future All-Star Brandon Phillips, future All-Star Grady Sizemore, and trivia answer Lee Stevens. On July 19 Cleveland dealt Chuck Finley to St. Louis for the speedy Coco Crisp. With the fire sale fully on, the front office declined the chance to shop a then-31-year-old Thome who was on pace to slug 52 home runs and drive in 118. Clearly, General Manager Mark Shapiro believed the club could bring Thome back. It’s interesting, however, to consider how that year’s pennant race and future Indians seasons have changed if the slugger had been dealt.
Obviously, these are hypotheticals and different franchises will develop prospects differently. However, to keep things simple I’m going to assume that these players’ career numbers would develop the same anywhere they went. I used educated guesses for postseason fates.
Indians trade Jim Thome to the San Francisco Giants for first baseman J.T. Snow, pitcher Boof Bonser, and outfielder Todd Linden
On Deadline Day the Giants trailed defending world champion Arizona by five games. Single-season home run champion Barry Bonds is having another career year, but the front office is looking to shore up the infield. Fist sacker J.T. Snow is hitting .224 with only three taters and 31 ribeyes. Looking to make a deal, the Giants send Snow and a pair of prospects to Cleveland for Jim Thome.
Everyone jokes that Snow will like Cleveland because of the snow, but he never laughs. Snow’s bat recovers, but at 34 he knows he won’t play forever. He is out of the game by 2006. Boof Bonser, San Francisco’s No. 2 prospect at the time of the trade, makes his big-league debut in 2006. He went 18-25 in his first three seasons before injuries wiped out his entire 2009 season. He appears in fifteen games as a reliever in 2010, but after that, he hangs it up, retired at 28. Todd Linden plays a replacement-level outfield from 2003-2007 before saying goodbye to the game. Within five years Cleveland has little to show for the trade.
Meanwhile, Thome is a breath of fresh air in San Francisco. His potent bat protects Barry Bonds in the lineup which gives the Giants a formidable cleanup combination. Thome also reunites with former teammate Kenny Lofton. The Giants still win the NL Pennant, but this time they have the firepower needed to defeat the Anaheim Angels in six games. Barry Bonds finally wins a ring. Impressed with Thome’s lumber, the Los Angeles Dodgers come calling that offseason and sign him to a rich deal. Thome goes from hero to villain in the Bay Area in record time.
Indians trade Jim Thome to Boston Red Sox for 1B Tony Clark, pitcher Rene Miniel, and 3B Kevin Youkilis
It’s tough to remember now, but in 2002 the Boston Red Sox were a haunted franchise. The specter or 1918 and the Curse of the Bambino hung over the franchise like a permanent cloud over Fenway Park. On Deadline Day the Sox trailed the New York Yankees by five games and were only one game out of the Wild Card race. The current first baseman, Tony Clark, can hardly hit his weight so the front office decides to make a deal. Clark is shipped off to Cleveland along with No. 3 prospect Rene Miniel and a 23-year-old third baseman named Kevin Youkilis. Clark plays out the second half in Cleveland then departs as a free agent. Miniel was a 23-year-old pitcher in High-A ball when the Indians acquired him. He got up to AA by 2004 before a series of injuries wiped out his career. He made a brief cameo in Independent ball in 2010, but his trajectory never took him to the bigs. Youkilis makes his MLB debut in 2004 then beats out Ben Broussard for the starting first baseman’s job in 2005. He hits .279 with 13 homers and 72 RBI. The Indians win an extra three games during the season which allows them to earn the Wild Card spot in the playoffs. The White Sox sweep Cleveland in the ALDS, but the team gains valuable experience which comes in handy the next two seasons.
Meanwhile, in Beantown, Thome’s bat serves as an immediate upgrade over Tony Clark. The Red Sox finish the season with 101 wins, not 93, and beat out the Anaheim Angels for the Wild Card spot. While the Yankees dispatch them in the ALDS, Thome is intoxicated by Boston’s intensity and the thrilling pennant race. He re-signs with the Sox for six years and $85 million. In Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, he tells manager Grady Little that Pedro Martinez “looks a little tired out there” inspiring the skipper to go the bullpen. Boston breaks the curse against the Marlins and goes back-to-back with another title in 2004. Jim Thome is mercilessly booed every time the Red Sox visit Cleveland and he proceeds to hit .375/.508/.618 against his old club for the rest of his career.
Indians trade Jim Thome to the Cincinnati Reds for utility infielder Brandon Larson, pitcher Ty Howington, catcher Dane Sardinha, and 1B Joey Votto
On July 31, 2002, the Cincinnati Reds woke up with a 55-50 record, five games out of first place. With Ken Griffey Jr. off the disabled list and the team sitting on a seven-year playoff drought, the Reds decided to take a big swing at the deadline. The front office calls Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro and the sides reach an accord. Cincinnati deals infielder Brandon Larson, No. 2 prospect Ty Howington, No. 9 prospect Dane Sardinha, and a young Joseph Votto. Once the No. 25 prospect in the country, Howington never pitches beyond AA-ball. Elbow and shoulder injuries derail his career and he is out of organized baseball by 2006. Strike one for the Tribe. Sardinha enjoyed a cup of coffee in the Show in 2003 and 2005 before bouncing around the league. He played in only 59 games and was out of the game by 2012. Strike two. Shapiro refuses to pull the trigger on the deal until the Reds throw in an 18-year-old first baseman named Joey Votto. Cincinnati took the Canadian in the second round of that year’s draft. At that point, he was more potential than man, and the Reds decide it’s worth the risk for a slugger like Thome. The Indians’ scouting department hits gold.
Votto beats out Ryan Garko for the starting first baseman spot in 2007. He enjoys a tremendous rookie year hitting .297/.368/.506 along with 24 homers and 84 RBI. The Indians win 98 games in ’07 which gives them the home-field advantage against the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. One parade later, Votto and the Indians have christened a new era of baseball in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, Thome provides a spark for the 2002 Reds, but no one can catch up to the Cardinals. St. Louis still wins the division though the Reds manage an 85-77 finish, seven better than they would have otherwise had. The Pride of Peoria still departs for Philadelphia and his big payday. Cincinnati can only clutch its collective pearls at the sight of Joey Votto blossoming into a star four hours north.
These scenarios highlight baseball’s mentality now versus where it was sixteen years ago. Back then even teams on a decline worked as hard as they could to hang onto their best players. Nowadays it’s understood that a team going nowhere has a better chance of selling its best players for prospects and spare parts with the hope of rebuilding from scratch. Houston’s last-to-first strategy received validation last year when the Astros won the World Series. If the 2002 Indians season were happening right now I have no doubt that Thome would be sold off to the highest bidder. Shapiro and the Indians weren’t necessarily wrong to hang onto Big Jim in 2002; by all accounts, Thome did consider staying. Plus as these examples show there is no reason to believe a deal would have catapulted Cleveland back into immediate contention. Still, it’s interesting to wonder how so many franchises’ fates could have been affected by a simple phone call.