I can understand why Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire would say that new acquisition Jim Thome is going to be used more as a pinch hitter and occasional DH rather than a regular player. I just don't believe him, and neither should you.
Even at the age of 39, Thome is one of the better hitters the Twins have, ranking behind Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, but on par with the rest of the team's top hitters in terms of OPS. I've been getting e-mails from those still stuck with Delmon Young in dynasty leagues, and they're all basically asking the same question: Will Young get 500 at-bats this season? I say no, he will not, not with Thome in town. The Twins don't have to find Thome at-bats, but why wouldn't they want to?
For now, the Twins say Young, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer will be the everyday outfielders, with Jason Kubel the regular designated hitter. Awesome. Here are the overall OPS figures for those players in 2009:
Hmm, do you still think Thome is going to sit? I love it how so many people are presuming that Thome is flat-out done. Really? Hitting 23 home runs, with 77 RBIs and a .864 OPS in 107 games for the Chicago White Sox (in 2009) is done? Yes, the White Sox gave Thome a shot to perform in the playoffs by sending him to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline, more of a gift than an indictment of his skills. But he easily led the White Sox in OPS. Had Thome been given regular playing time in September, he might have hit 30 home runs and knocked in 90 runs. That's not "done," by any means. In fact, Thome was the second-most productive designated hitter in baseball. Here are the top-5 players from 2009 in terms of OPS when being used as a designated hitter.
Adam Lind .901
Hideki Matsui .866
Luke Scott .845
Jason Kubel .838
That's right, Thome outperformed Kubel in the role, and not even mentioned here is David Ortiz, who fell 97 OPS points below Thome in 2009. I'm not saying Thome is better than Kubel (or Ortiz), but he is a better hitter than Delmon Young. Look, I know the Twins want to give Young, a once-tantalizing prospect, more time to see if he can emerge, but the bottom line is stats are stats. Young walked just 12 times in 416 plate appearances in 2009, one of the most embarrassing walk rates in the game. He struck out 92 times. And it's not like he makes up for it by being Alfonso Soriano, either. In two seasons with the Twins, Young has hit a total of 22 home runs. The Rays tired of Young, and it seems the Twins have too. I realize Young is still only 24 years old, and I'm not saying he'll never be a valuable fantasy option, but I don't think he's even close to Thome in terms of production with the bat. And before you throw any defensive value at me, note that Young might be the worst left fielder in baseball, by pretty much any metric one can find. Mr. Kubel, go get that outfield glove ready.
So what does this all mean for fantasy baseball? Let's take a player-by-player look:
Jim Thome: I'm expecting at least 400 at-bats from him, and around 25 home runs and 85 RBIs. That's right, you heard me. And for those of you in OPS leagues or those who favor walks, Thome is even more valuable. The Twins could hit him sixth, after Mauer, Morneau and Kubel, though that's a lot of consecutive lefty hitters. But heck, Thome also could hit third. He probably won't start against lefties, though it should be noted that Kubel didn't hit lefties well, either. Young did.
Best I can tell, there are four draftable DH-only players this season. I'd take Vladimir Guerrero and Hideki Matsui in the top 150 for sure, and David Ortiz is close. I don't think Thome is that much different than Ortiz, really, but I would take Ortiz first. Going with Thome in Round 20, assuming you leave your utility spot open, sounds about right to me.
Delmon Young: In 452 career games, Young's OPS is .738, below average for a corner outfielder. Even before the Thome signing, I was skeptical the Twins would simply play Young everyday and hope for the best. I say expect fewer at-bats -- he got 395 ABs last season -- and similar boring production to the 12 home runs, 60 RBIs and two stolen bases (in seven attempts!) from last year. No, I wouldn't even bother drafting that in a mixed league. Thome is a better fantasy option, even at age 39. That says a lot.
Jason Kubel: Nothing changes for him, really. He's coming off a career season, but he's still in his prime at 27 years old. It's worth noting his OPS while playing left field was 1.059 in 108 plate appearances, considerably higher than when he was the DH. Don't read much into that, but there have been studies over the years that many hitters do perform better at the plate when they are also playing in the field. Kubel might have more improvement left in him.