Trading Thome — keeping Howard — transformed Phillies

It was the greatest trade the Phillies never made.

Eleven years ago today, then-GM Pat Gillick didn’t trade Ryan Howard, but instead shipped out rock-star-popular Jim Thome. The Phils sent Thome to the White Sox in exchange for Aaron Rowand, Gio Gonzalez, and somebody named Daniel Haigwood.

Trading Thome wasn’t just a trade — it was a resounding boom of confidence for Ryan Howard, who hit 22 HR and won the Rookie of the Year in 2005, while Thome lingered on the disabled list for most of the season.

Howard’s emergence presented the Phillies with a conundrum during the offseason: Who will play first base in 2006, the younger Howard or the beloved Thome? At first, irrational solutions were tossed out. How about moving Thome to third, where he played when he came up? No way. What if Ryan Howard gives the outfield a shot? Impossible.

Somebody had to go. 

That somebody hit 47 and 42 HR respectively in his first two seasons with the Phillies. That somebody inked an $85 million deal, convincing a disgruntled fan-base that the team was finally committed to winning. That somebody hit mythic bombs, resembled Paul Bunyon, and heard nary a boo in boo-happy Philly.

That somebody knew it was Ryan Howard’s time. 

I see in Ryan Howard what someone saw in me when I broke into the big leagues.,” Thome told the Philadelphia Inquirer after the trade.

Even after Howard’s eye-popping rookie performance, trading Thome wasn’t the unanimous choice. Both fans and reporters wondered: How can you trade a future Hall of Famer, who hit 413 HR in his previous 11 seasons?

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Some fans were demanding to keep Thome and trade Howard. There was even scuttlebutt that Gillick was shopping both Howard and Thome when he got the White Sox to bite on Thome.

The saddest person to see Big Jim go was Charlie Manuel, who had an extensive history with Thome from their days in Cleveland.

“If you want to know the truth, the news kind of numbed me,” Manuel told ESPN. “Jimmy is like my son.”

Through the years, Howard too became a son to Manuel, who christened him the “Big Piece.”

Trading Howard, we now know, would have been disastrous. Howard flourished as one of the most fearsome bashers over the next six years, winning an MVP in 2006, averaging 44 homers per season, leading the team to five consecutive division titles, and ultimately a World Series.

Howard wasn’t just the Big Piece — he was the biggest threat during the most magical run in Phillies history. And he rolled down Broad Street a champion.

Without Howard, do the Phillies win the World Series in 2008? Probably not. And eleven years later — the first offseason without Ryan Howard in a very long time — we can say trading Thome and keeping Howard transformed a franchise for the better.

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