Frank Thomas turns 41 years old on May 27, has not played over 27 games in the field since 2003, and is coming off of a poor 2008 season that, though marred with injuries, resulted in a league average .328 wOBA. Perhaps the average offensive output, deemed abysmal by many, speaks more for the career of Thomas than the season itself; you’re probably in good baseball shape when a .328 wOBA is considered poor compared to the .363-.421 range posted over the previous six seasons. Thomas is a sure-fire Hall of Fame player, with a .301/.419/.555 line, a .416 wOBA, and 521 home runs. Heck, with a bit more luck on the injury front, Thomas could be in line to approach the Willie Mays mark this season. He could hang up his cleats right now and walk away as one of the best hitters we have seen in a while.
But Frank Thomas does not want to retire. Instead, Frank has seemingly adopted the age-old spring training cliche that he is in great shape. In fact, Thomas recently stated he feels capable of mashing 35-40 home runs, and is surprised that nobody has made any type of bid for his services. With all of the corner outfielders and potential designated hitters on the market this offseason, Thomas became an afterthought, perhaps not even a worst case scenario. Good reasoning exists behind his lack of appeal, though, as Thomas has played 140+ games just three times in the last eight seasons. Combine that with the attributes mentioned at the very beginning of this post and it is not hard to see why teams are not exactly jumping to sign the former MVP.
Thomas’s balls-in-play rates last season were not too far off of his 2006 and 2007 marks, when he hit well enough to post wOBAs of .391 and .372 while launching a total of 65 dingers. His .282 BABIP actually surpassed the .251 mark produced in 2006, when he had a monster season. He sustained a solid BB-rate and didn’t see too drastic a jump in his K-rate either. So what happened? For one, Frank’s 7.9% HR/FB not only fell below the league average, but was essentially cut in half from the 15% HR/FB averaged since 2002. On top of that, his power output vanished. Since 2005, Thomas has seen his ISO decline from .371 to .275 to .203 to just .134.
If the nagging quad injury really hurt The Big Hurt’s production, and he checks out physically, why aren’t more teams calling? After all, without even factoring in a rebound from injury, Thomas still projects to be worth around +1.3 wins. Maybe, like Ray Durham, Thomas does not want to play for a bargain-bin salary or a non-guaranteed contract. Maybe he feels that with a fully healed quad, his production would more closely resemble the +2.4 wins amassed in 2007 or even the +3.3 wins supplied to the Athletics in 2006. The big elephant in the room of course is that he doesn’t check out physically.
Then again, if he were willing to accept a non-guaranteed contract or performance based deal, this wouldn’t be an issue. Just like the Eric Gagne deal, if Thomas makes the team he earns some money, and if he produces up to the standards he holds himself to, he would make even more. Frank Thomas is nowhere near as bad as he looked in 2008, with +0.2 win production, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking he is going to rebound into a +4-win player again. He could still help a team but it would have to be on their terms. We’ll have to wait and see if Thomas is too proud to play that way.
He did so back in 2006 to prove he could still hit, but who knows if he really wants to do that again. Maybe he feels that the 2006 and 2007 seasons suffice as showing what he can do and the 2008 campaign should obviously be considered a blip on the radar. This clearly is not obvious to GMs and I would venture a guess that Thomas doesn’t sign prior to Opening Day. No matter what, he has still put together one heck of a career.