THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO — The suddenly-soured marriage between Frank Thomas and the Toronto Blue Jays came to an abrupt end Sunday morning when the slumping slugger was given his unconditional release.
The decision had seemed imminent after Thomas popped off following his benching Saturday, angrily accusing the club of making the decision to prevent his US$10 million option for 2009 from becoming guaranteed rather than his lack of production.
Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi and Thomas met early Sunday morning and decided a quick divorce was the best course of action following the weekend’s unexpected turn of events.
"Our best opportunity is to put other guys in the lineup at this point," Ricciardi told a hastily assembled news conference afterwards. "Obviously, reduced playing time is not something that he was interested in. In order to let him go forward and get on with his career, I think it’s fair to do it at this point."
So much for Frank Thomas bobblehead day May 25.
Thomas left the team shortly after his meeting with Ricciardi but in reality the split was sealed when he didn’t come out of the clubhouse during Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Detroit Tigers and refused to join his teammates for victory handshakes on the field afterwards.
There was no chance Thomas was going to accept the reduced role the Blue Jays had envisioned for him, playing at most two or three times a week, meaning reconciliation was impossible.
He led the team with 26 home runs and 95 RBIs while batting .277 last season. His lifetime batting average of .302 with 516 home runs is likely to land him in the Hall of Fame once he’s done playing.
"It’s pretty obvious," Thomas told The Canadian Press on Saturday when asked if he thought his contract led to his benching. "Sixty at-bats isn’t enough time to make that decision.
"I’m angry, I know I can help this team. My career isn’t going to end like this."
The 19-year veteran who turns 40 next month needed 304 more plate appearances for his option next season to kick in, something the club privately feared due to what some feel is a rapidly deteriorating skill-set. The option was part of the $18.12-million, two-year deal Thomas signed with the Blue Jays in November 2006 and the team is on the hook for the remainder of his $8 million salary this season.
They will, however, save around $1 million in performance bonuses.
"That never came up," Ricciardi said of the contract issue. "I told Frank our decision is based on performance and his decision is based on not being able to be in the lineup."
The quick resolution to the Thomas situation prevented what could have become a festering issue from taking hold in the clubhouse.
Thomas complained Saturday he was being treated unfairly and that he had been showing signs of emerging from a lengthy slump — he was mired in a 4-for-35 rut and was batting .167 in 16 games, with three homers and 11 RBIs.
"I hit some laser beams," he said. "I can’t guide them."
Given that he also complained privately last season when he was briefly dropped down in the batting order and was unhappy this spring when he was moved from fourth to fifth in the lineup, trouble would likely have ensued with him on the bench.
"Out of respect for him and the career he’s had, he shouldn’t have to do that," said Ricciardi. "It’s a chance for him to move on and it’s a chance for him to maybe get those at bats that he wants."
Added manager John Gibbons: "Out of respect for his career, it’s not fair to him to sit around and become a part-time player. I know he wasn’t going to be happy with that and you can definitely understand that. … He doesn’t deserve to be hanging here sitting around not being a player."
Matt Stairs of Fredericton will get most of the at-bats at DH in place of Thomas while catcher Robinzon Diaz will be called up from triple-A for Monday’s series finale with the Tigers. Prospect Adam Lind, hampered by a minor neck injury right now, is expected to eventually take over in left field.
Thomas has been a notorious slow-starter in recent years but with the Blue Jays offence sputtering and options on the bench and in the minors, they felt they couldn’t afford to carry his lack of production.
Take away a big series against Boston during the season’s opening week, when he ripped two homers and drove in eight runs, he’s hitting just .125 with a homer and three RBIs.
"I don’t know that we have the luxury of waiting two to three months for somebody to kick in because we can’t let this league or this division get away from us," Ricciardi said. "I don’t think we have the spot to allow him to stay there and work it out. …
"Frank’s had a complete spring training that we got to watch him from start to finish and half a month here. I think it’s not just based on half-a-month experience."
Centre-fielder Vernon Wells spoke with Thomas briefly before the big man left and was glad the situation was resolved quickly.
"It might have (become a distraction), I don’t know how frustrated he would have been with the situation," said Wells. "It didn’t get to that point. …
"I think it’s better for him, too. He gets a chance to have more time to possibly pick up with another team, with us it may give some of our younger guys a chance to come up. I’m sure eventually Lindy will be up here to get some at-bats that he needs at the big-league level."
Thomas’ brief stay with the Blue Jays included his 500th career home run last June 28. With a career average of .302, he’s one of four players in baseball history to record at least a .300 average, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs and 1,500 walks. The others are Mel Ott, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
The question now is whether the divorce helps or hurts the Blue Jays.
"I don’t know, that remains to be seen," said Wells. "We haven’t been the best team so far this season, we definitely have some improvements to make."