Pain in My Heart is Treating Me Cold

Well, as you no doubt heard yesterday, Frank Thomas was not very happy about the Jays' decision to "bench" him indefinitely. Thomas did not shake hands with his teammates after the game and spoke angrily to reporters, indicating his belief that the decision was based on money, not putting the best team on the field.

If Thomas makes approximately 350 plate appearances this season, a $10 million dollar option will kick in and pay him that much to play for the Jays in 2009. Thomas believes the Jays' move to be based on preventing him from reaching enough plate appearances for his option to vest. For their part, John Gibbons and J.P. Ricciardi insist that money has nothing to do with it and that the move is designed simply to put the best team on the field everyday.

"I'm going to put the team out there that gives us the best chance to win," said Gibbons. "I feel for the guy, but right now we need more production."

I'm just going to come out and say that I think Gibbons' argument would be more convincing if the bat that replaced Thomas in the lineup yesterday didn't belong to Joe Inglett. Not that Inglett has been so terrible, but if the Jays want his bat in the lineup, there's an open spot at third base and he can get plenty of at-bats sharing that spot with Marco Scutaro. In addition, Shannon Stewart would seem to see more at-bats based on this, and Stewart is not exactly tearing it up - not only is he hitting poorly (.235/.341/.294) but his groin has been acting up and has limited his play.

If the Jays were to, say, demote Inglett (or better yet, one of their pitchers they're unlikely to use much like Camp) and call up Adam Lind to play leftfield and/or DH against righthanded pitching, an argument could be made - but as it is, the Jays lineup is clearly better with Thomas in it than on the bench.

Anyway, we remember Thomas' struggles at the beginning of last season (his slump lasted really through May) and then the way he turned it on to become arguably the Jays best hitter of 2007 (only Stairs, in part-time duty, had a higher OPS) with a .277/.377/480 line, not to mention his abysmal start to his big 2006 campaign, which lead to his deal with the Jays in the first place. Thomas has historically been a slow starter and has admitted quite forthrightly that it takes him about 200 plate appearances to get comfortable.

I understand why Thomas believes he is being treated unfairly. He heard the Jays' concerns about his slow start last season and this year made a special effort to get ready for the season, showing up to camp early and working his butt off to get ready, which is not something he's done in the past. He was hoping it would short-circuit his usual slow start, and how do we know it won't? Last season Thomas struggled for almost 1/3 of the season, and this year we're just 1/10 of the way there. Thomas has been hitting the ball hard of late and perhaps his work could pay off and mean he has a slow 3 weeks rather than 2 months to start the season. Isn't 60 plate appearances way too small a sample to draw any conclusions anyway? Thomas points to other older DHs around the league, Jim Thome and Gary Sheffield, who aren't hitting any better than himself and yet are not being benched.

The only way the move can really be justified on any grounds other than money is if the Jays have identified something in Thomas that suggests his skills have evaporated and won't be coming back. Jays' beat writer Jordan Bastian suggests that the Jays are concerned that Thomas' bat speed has declined and he has altered his stance to try to catch up to pitches. Looking at Frank's batted ball data, he's still drawing the walks, and a .159 BABIP could just be bad luck that will self-correct. It's worth saying though that Frank's LD % is down far lower than any season and that could indicate a problem, or it could just be small sample size.

The Jays have a duty to do what's best for the team both in the short and the long-term and I'm not questioning that. But they also have a contractual obligation to execute their side of Thomas' deal in good faith. To bench a player just to prevent him from meeting an incentive in his contract violates the letter and spirit of their contract with Thomas (and the CBA, I would expect, though I haven't checked).

The move is such a problem PR-wise that it almost makes you think that the Jays aren't lying about the option - perhaps they are seeking to send a message that those who won't produce won't play to spark a fire under the Jays' offense, which has been lackluster. But Thomas is not the kind of man who takes slights well - he is a proud man and, quite honestly, has quite a lot to be proud about.

 

Update: As chengy breaks in the comments, Thomas has been released by the Jays. I wonder if this was the plan all along or if the Jays felt like Thomas forced their hand by taking his case to the media. The fact that Lind hasn't played for Syracuse for the past 2 games makes you think it might have been the former. Let us know what you think about this whole situation in the comments.

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