The signing of Jim Thome back in December of 2002 represents a fact most Phillies fans don’t want to hear: general manager Ed Wade listens to fans too much.
The baseball landscape in 2002 was different than it is today. The Yankees were winning championships by spending the most, a simple solution adopted by most fans. "If you wanted to win, you needed to spend." The team had long been stingy with their bucks, and many fans equated failure with an unwillingness to open their wallets.
Meanwhile, small-market teams like the Twins and Athletics were figuring out ways to win on a tight budget, taking their farm system seriously, holding on to top prospects and seeking value among free agents and through trades. They refused to sign players long-term, knowing when it was time to say goodbye to a veteran and build for the future. Today, the Twins and A’s remain the most consistently competitive teams in baseball and are perennial playoff contenders.
In Philadelphia, a new ballpark was on the horizon, adding to the false illusion that if you simply build another Camden Yards, the team would excel out from the oppression of Veterans Stadium.
The Phils also believed they needed to field a competitor in order to sell tickets. They also needed a marquee star, and believed Thome could be the new face of franchise.
Before that, the team was already resigning existing players, the most black-and-white way to piece together a team. The trend started before the 2002 with the resigning of Bobby Abreu, a deal that would take him through 2007 with a club option for 2008, partially designed to show Scott Rolen a commitment to winning. Next was Mike Lieberthal, signing a lucrative three-year contract extension in August of 2002, taking him through 2005 with a club option for 2006. Later on, Randy Wolf signed a four-year extension in December, and Pat Burrell, coming off a career year, re-upped before the start of 2003. In every case, each player was already under contract and no deal was being forced.
Right in the middle of all this spending was the Thome signing, another easy answer for Ed Wade. With the Yankees out of the picture by signing Jason Giambi the year before, only two teams were bidding for his services: Cleveland and Philadelphia. Even before the end of the 2002 season, the Phils and their fans knew the team was going to throw a ton of cash someone’s way, and the biggest target was big Jim.
Statistically, he was the ultimate prize – the closest available answer to Barry Bonds a team could hope for. He was on his way to a career-high 52 home runs, 15 more than the Phils’ leader, Pat Burrell, with 37.
The talk in town centered on outbidding Cleveland for his services and whether Philadelphia would fit his family’s lifestyle. It didn’t matter that he was 32, or that there were cheaper alternatives offering shorter deals. All that mattered was the Phils spent the most to get him out of respect for their fans.
All told, the team spent $26 million more than Cleveland and rewarded him with an extra year that would keep him in town through 2008, a deal worth close to $85 million. The Indians said no because they doubted he could still bop homers past the age of 35. Thome is under contract through age 38.
Three days ago, he sat in the locker room and fielded questions about trade rumors. With three years left on his contract, turning 35 in August, he’s suffering from numerous ailments, including a bad back and bum elbow. There appear to be few bites from potential buyers, and the team would be forced to eat much of his contract if any deal is made.
In true Thome fashion, he tried to spin the probing question in a positive direction, even though his long-term future for him and his family might be in doubt.
Only now are the Phillies and fans beginning to see what smarter teams figured out years ago: you can win without spending. You can win with disgruntled players and their contracts, you can play through injuries, and not every move must be for the immediate.
The current buy or sell state is a real ideological crossroad for the team, but the quagmire is all because of those money-burning months between February 2002-2003. Wade traded flexibility for insurance, and the result is a team permanently stuck on the cusp of the playoffs. If no move is made, 2006’s core squad, to a man, will remain the same. The same, but older.