TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays decided to send slumping slugger Frank Thomas to their bench on Saturday, a decision the angry veteran designated hitter feels is based more on his contract than his lack of production.
Thomas was given the news in a morning meeting with manager John Gibbons and did his best to control his frustration in the clubhouse afterwards. The 19-year veteran has a vesting option worth US$10 million in 2009 and he needs 304 more plate appearances for it to become guaranteed.
"It's pretty obvious," Thomas said when asked if he thought that was a factor in 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 option is part of the $18.12-million, two-year deal he signed with the Blue Jays in November 2006.
The decision comes with Thomas batting .167 in 16 games, with three homers and 11 RBIs. But take away his monster series against Boston during the season's opening week, when he hit two homers and drove in eight runs, and he's batting just .125.
Currently, he's mired in a 4-for-35 rut.
Matt Stairs of Fredericton is expected to pick up most of the at-bats at DH and prospect Adam Lind is looming on the horizon.
"I'm going to put the team out there that gives us the best chance to win," said Gibbons. "I feel for the guy, but right now we need more production."
The Blue Jays ended a six-game home losing streak with a 3-2 win over Detroit later in the day. Thomas wasn't seen in the dugout during the game and didn't join his teammates for post-game handshakes on the field after the final out.
General manager J.P. Ricciardi denied that Thomas' contract factored into the decision.
"I think the decision is the manager's based on what he thinks is best for the team," said Ricciardi. "As a team we're struggling offensively and I just think Gibby is trying to spark our offence a little bit.
"A lot of guys are struggling, I don't think (Thomas) is alone. I think at this point you try and do what you can do to help the club and Gibby's trying to put our best possible lineup on the field."
That explanation didn't sit well with Thomas, whose bat speed has been questioned by observers since spring training. He is a notoriously slow starter, and ended up with a decent offensive season after a horrendous April and May in 2007.
"Take a look at the other big-time DHs out there," said Thomas. "Look at Jim Thome (.182, four homers and 13 RBIs heading into Saturday) and Gary Sheffield (.208, 1, 2), my numbers are right on par with them. They're getting more than 60 at-bats."
Asked how he'd use Thomas in the coming while, Gibbons replied: "If the situation dictates. I'll let the games play out."
Thomas has 516 homers and a lifetime batting average of .302 during a career that will likely land him in the Hall of Fame. There are concerns that his benching could become a distraction, but Ricciardi has a track record of nipping such things in the bud.
The best example of that came in 2006, when Shea Hillenbrand was designated for assignment and later traded to San Francisco for reliever Jeremy Accardo following the infielder's insubordination in the clubhouse.
Thomas, however, isn't the type to write "This ship is sinking" on a locker-room whiteboard the way Hillenbrand did. He feels he can help the team and is disappointed he won't be getting the chance to do so regularly.
"Just look at what I did in that Boston series," he said. "We swept them."
But the Blue Jays feel his bat is too much of a liability in the lineup right now. With no one else in the lineup tearing things up right now, his struggles are exposed more openly.
And Ricciardi isn't content to just sit around and do nothing, even though he thinks his team is better at the plate than it's showed.
"If you're sitting here in June and you're playing like this, then I think it's a pattern," said Ricciardi. "Right now I wouldn't say it's a pattern, we're just scuffling offensively.
"You know you're not going to get those games back but it's not going to do us any good to dwell on them. We've got to go forward and try to be better."