When Jim Thome signed as a free agent with the Phillies before the start of the 2003 season, most assumed he would be the team’s first baseman for a very long time.
He was one of the game’s premier sluggers and signed a six-year, $85 million deal with the Phils, a signing that signaled to the rest of the baseball world that the Phillies were once again major players. And there was hope that Thome, supported by a young, talented cast and a collection of promising starting pitchers, would lead the franchise to the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
It all started off so amazingly. In his first season, he led the NL with 47 homers, falling one short of the team record, held by Mike Schmidt. He hit another 42 in 2004, when he made the NL All Star team.
It didn’t appear as if there was anything that would prevent Thome from finishing his career with the Phils.
But then two things got in the way. First, Thome’s body began to fail him, forcing him to the disabled list for much of the 2005 season. He only played 59 games that year and hit 7 homers.
Second, and most importantly, Ryan Howard emerged as one of the game’s great young sluggers.
Howard had gotten a cup of coffee with the Phils the year before, when he went to the plate 42 times as a 24-year-old rookie, but made major noise hitting 37 bombs with the Reading Phillies. He was promoted to Scranton and hit another nine dingers there, then followed that up with two more for the big league club.
As the calendar flipped to 2005, the Phillies were obviously committed to Thome, but Howard was making them think. He smoked 16 more bombs in 61 games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the team’s AAA affiliate at the time, and had an OPS of 1.157.
It was clear this Howard kid was not going away.
Thome, now 34 years old, hit the disabled list twice that season and batted a mere .207/.360/.352 with those seven homers. It was Howard's time to shine.
However, Howard wasn't impressive right away. He hit .214/.267/.393 in his first 12 games with only one homer and one RBI before hitting the disabled list himself.
But after Thome went on the shelf again, Howard healed up and could not be stopped, batting .296/.365/.585 for a .949 OPS. In 76 games he hit 21 homers, finishing the season with 22 in 88 games.
Like Thome, Howard had a flair for the dramatic, hitting his first career grand slam in Los Angeles, against the Dodgers, in a tie game, in the top of the 9th.
Watching a young Howard do his thing, with Vin Scully on the call, is baseball zen.
By that year’s trade deadline, it was apparent the Phillies were going to have to move one of their powerful first basemen. Would they more the suddenly injury-prone, aging and expensive Thome? The man who put Philadelphia on the map and arrived in the city like a rock star just two and a half years before?
Or would they trade the young, inexpensive, and red-hot Howard, a player who appeared for all the world to be the game’s next great slugger?
At the end of the year, Howard had won the NL Rookie of the Year award, even though he only played half a season. He finished with 109 votes, 19 first place votes, well ahead of Houston’s Willy Taveras and Atlanta’s Jeff Francoeur.
And so, what just a year before would have been unthinkable happened. The team traded Thome to the Chicago White Sox, who sent back Aaron Rowand, Daniel Haigwood, and a little known prospect named Gio Gonzalez in return for Big Jim.
Happily, Thome went on to have a very successful final few seasons. He made the All Star team in 2006, hitting 42 homers, and would hit 35 and 34 the following two years for the White Sox as well. He is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
But in the end, the Phillies and then-general manager Ed Wade clearly made the right decision in keeping Howard. The 2005 season was merely a warm-up act for the Big Piece, one that ultimately included the thing everyone hoped Jim Thome would bring when he came to Philadelphia.
A world championship.