Jays, Thomas mutually part ways
Designated hitter took exception to decrease in playing time
TORONTO -- It was a situation that had potential to become an enormous distraction for the Blue Jays. Instead, the club found a way to come to an agreement with veteran Frank Thomas on a mutual parting of ways.
On Sunday morning, Thomas sat down with Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi to discuss the previous day's developments. Thomas had been informed that he would no longer be Toronto's primary designated hitter and the news understandably did not sit well with the aging slugger.
Thomas publicly vented frustration over the matter on Saturday, when he first was informed of the lineup change by Jays manager John Gibbons. One day later, Thomas' jersey still hung inside his locker in Toronto's clubhouse, but he was nowhere to be found after being granted his unconditional release.
"Out of respect for his career," Gibbons said, "it's not fair to him, sitting around and becoming a part-time player -- it's really not. I know he wasn't going to be happy with that and we can definitely understand that.
"He doesn't deserve hanging here and sitting around not being able to play. It's a privilege to be able to say you managed a Hall of Famer. I'll miss a lot of things about him."
The bottom line was that Thomas wasn't producing the way the Blue Jays had hoped he would out of the DH position. Toronto wants to do everything in its power to compete for a postseason berth in the American League this year, affording the club little time to allow Thomas to work through another early-season slump.
Through 16 games, Thomas was batting .167 with three home runs and 11 RBIs for the Blue Jays. Thomas had a similar start to last season, but he finished hitting .277 with a team-high 26 homers and 95 RBIs. With their offense struggling in the early going this year, patience wasn't on the Blue Jays' side this time around.
"This guy did lead our team in home runs and RBIs last year," Ricciardi said. "But it's just a situation where I don't know if we have the luxury of waiting two to three months for someone to kick in, because we can't let this league or this division get away from us."
That being the case, Gibbons met with Thomas on Saturday morning to inform the 39-year-old DH that he was being moved to the bench. Toronto was willing to offer Thomas two or three starts per week, but that provided no solace for Thomas, who has enjoyed a storied 19-year career.
"When I talked to Frank," Ricciardi said, "the one thing I mentioned to him was that, 'Your role will probably be diminished and, just knowing you, I don't think you're going to be happy in that role.' He said he wouldn't be happy in that role, so he thought the best bet was just to move on."
On Saturday, Thomas questioned whether the decision to reduce his playing time was simply a result of his statistics. Thomas, who turns 40 years old in May, said he believed there was more to the change that just his slow start, alluding to his contract situation.
Under the terms of the two-year deal Thomas inked with Toronto prior to last season, he could've been guaranteed a $10 million salary for 2009 by reaching 1,000 plate appearances between the 2007-08 campaigns. Thomas needed just 304 more trips to the plate this season for that option to vest.
"Basically, I've been told that I'm not going to be in that lineup," Thomas said on Saturday. "Gibby told me that this morning. I see it as something else is going on. We'll see how that plays out.
"You know what's going on and I know what's going on. We'll see how it plays out. I'm just a little frustrated right now. There are some things going on around here this year that I haven't been happy about."
With Thomas now out of the picture, the Jays don't have to worry about potentially owing him $10 million next year or an extra $1 million in performance bonuses this season. Toronto does have to provide Thomas with his full $8 million salary for this season, though.
Ricciardi indicated that the contract situation wasn't broached during his meeting with Thomas.
"That never came up," Ricciardi said. "Like I told Frank, our decision is based on performance and his decision is based on not being able to be in the lineup. It was a mutual agreement. Frank was very professional about it."
Ricciardi also didn't worry too much about Thomas' heated reaction after being told he was going to have a more diminished role with the Jays.
"I probably didn't put much stock into it as maybe some other people," Ricciardi said. "If you know Frank, he's an emotional guy. He wears his heart on his sleeve and I would be disappointed if a player didn't have a reaction where he cared."
Still, an unhappy Thomas could've made for an uncomfortable clubhouse, possibly leading to the Blue Jays' swift action. Toronto center fielder Vernon Wells, sitting in front of his locker prior to Saturday's game, couldn't say whether or not the matter would've become a distraction for the team.
"It might have," Wells said. "I don't know how frustrated he would've been with the situation. But it didn't get to that point. Frank, as well as our management, wanted to get this situation resolved as quick as possible and, obviously, it didn't take too long."
Without Thomas' bat in the fold, the Jays will rely more on Matt Stairs and catcher Rod Barajas to occupy the DH slot. Following Sunday's game against the Tigers, Toronto recalled catcher Robinzon Diaz from Triple-A Syracuse to take Thomas' spot on the roster. Diaz can help out behind the plate on days that Barajas is the DH.
A long-term solution would be outfielder Adam Lind, who is currently batting .360 with three homers and 13 RBIs in 16 games with Triple-A Syracuse this season. The only problem is that Lind, who spent time with the Jays in parts of the past two seasons, is currently nursing a stiff neck and might not be available for a few days.
Until the 24-year-old Lind is ready, Toronto will probably find a temporary solution to account for the loss of Thomas, who has hit .302 with 516 career home runs. It's not every day that a team needs to replace a two-time AL Most Valuable Player who appears destined for baseball's highest honor.
"He's had a Hall of Fame career," Wells said. "Some things happened this year that resulted in where we are today. It's an unfortunate situation for both sides and we need to move on. He's going to move on and we need to move on and concentrate on winning some ballgames.
"You'll remember the times that you got to play with a Hall of Famer, but after that it's time to concentrate on the bigger picture."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.