Jim Thome Career Profile

Per reader request, here is a look at the career path of Jim Thome.

 

Jim Thome was drafted in the 13th round by the Cleveland Indians in 1989, out of Illinois Central Junior College, where he played shortstop. He began his career in the Gulf Coast League, hitting a mere .237/.314/.296 in 55 games, 186 at-bats. He showed decent strike zone judgment but little power. He split time defensively between shortstop and third base, though scouts felt he would end up at third in the long run due to lack of range. There was little to distinguish him at his point from the mass of rookie-ball players: a junior college guy drafted in the 13th round who couldn't hit in rookie ball wouldn't end up on many prospect lists.

That changed dramatically in 1990. Thome hit .373/.503/.754 in 34 games in the Appalachian League, earning Top Prospect in the league honors from Baseball America. The Indians jumped him up to the Carolina League in late July and he continued to hit well at .308/.427/.462, showing excellent strike zone judgment. He was more physically mature, and some adjustments to his swing enabled him to unleash his power. He moved over to third base full-time and struggled defensively with too many errors, though he showed off a good arm and was considered to have enough range for the position. I was in graduate school in 1990 and not doing prospect analysis for a living, but a similar player now would get a Grade B at a minimum and very likely a B+.

Thome began 1991 with Canton-Akron in the Double-A Eastern League, hitting .337/.426/.469 in 84 games, with a sharp 44/58 BB/K ratio in 294 at-bats. He drew raves from managers and scouts and was named the Top Prospect in the league once again. Moved up to Triple-A at mid-summer, he hit .285/.331/.411 in 41 games for Colorado Springs, not terrific considering the context, but he was just 20. He made his major league debut on September 4th, 1991, then hit .255/.298/.367 the rest of the way, doing enough to convince the Indians that he was the third baseman of the future. He would have been a Grade A- prospect at worst and probably a Grade A.

1992 was a disappointment. Injuries limited him to 30 games in Double-A (.336/.462/.486) and 12 games in Triple-A (.313/.400/.563), but he struggled in 40 games for Cleveland with a .205/.275/.299 mark, looking quite overmatched. He exceeded rookie qualifications at this point and wouldn't be in a prospect book. Grade-wise I would probably have reduced him a notch to a Grade A-, but it is hard to say in retrospect given that we know how his career turned out.

Thome spent most of 1993 in Triple-A, hitting .332/.441/.585 with 25 homers, 76 walks, and 94 strikeouts in 410 at-bats for Charlotte, winning the league batting title and once again carrying away Top Prospect honors. He got into 47 more games for the Indians and this time hit well, with a .266/.385/.474 mark and establishing himself in the lineup, clearly one of the most exciting young hitters in the game.


You know the rest of the story with Thome: years as an excellent slugger, with declining defensive value but enough power and patience to remain a terrific hitter last year at age 39. He now has 589 homers to his credit, with a career mark of .278/.404/.559, 147 OPS+.  His career list of comparable players is a who's-who of Hall of Fame and near Hall of Fame players: Frank Thomas, Mike Schmidt, Harmon Killebrew, Fred McGriff, Reggie Jackson, Gary Sheffield, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Ken Griffey Jr., and Rafael Palmeiro.  Thome has never been tied to steroids/PED use, although his Hall chances may get dragged down by the general suspicion of power numbers from the juiced-ball ‘90s and early ‘00s.

I suspect that Thome will get in eventually, perhaps similar to what happened with Bert Blyleven. Even if he doesn't make it, it has been an outstanding career for 13th round junior college draft pick who didn't hit in rookie ball.

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