First baseman Scott Thorman, who hit .234 with five home runs in 128 at-bats for the Atlanta Braves last season, is the favourite to take over full-time from the departed Adam LaRoche. (Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press)
Canuck slugger Scott Thorman braves Atlanta competition
Hustle, heart put first baseman on MLB must-watch list
Last Updated Wed., Feb. 28 2007
As Scott Thorman geared up for his biggest spring training with the Atlanta Braves, good friend Adam LaRoche was enjoying a relaxing and one-sided round of golf with world No. 1 Tiger Woods.
A few days later, LaRoche would experience another bittersweet moment – his final goodbye to Canadian slugger Thorman and the other Braves players before joining his new club, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in Bradenton, Fla.
It was the first time many of his ex-teammates, including fellow first baseman Thorman, had talked to LaRoche since he was traded on Jan. 18 for left-handed relief pitcher Mike Gonzalez.
One might have expected LaRoche to offer some last words of advice to Thorman in his pursuit for full-time employment in the major leagues, but they instead talked about the off-season.
"I know he knows I'm behind him," LaRoche told CBC Sports Online. "I would love to see him do [well], and I know he feels the same about me.
"When you play the same position with the same organization, it can be a little uncomfortable. You can fake it and say you hope the other guy does good, but there's competition there. We always got along, though."
While a future in the majors appears much clearer for 25-year-old Thorman, a native of Cambridge, Ont., he said he wouldn’t change his approach in the pre-season.
But he did tell Sports Online that the vacancy at first base would bring a new aspect to spring training and make each day a little more exciting.
"My job is to win a job and do the best I can," said Thorman, who split last season with the Braves and their triple-A affiliate in Richmond, Va. "The rest is up to management and [Braves manager] Bobby Cox.
"I want to get my at-bats, leave healthy and be in the Atlanta lineup on opening day [April 2 in Philadelphia]."
Strong start to spring training
Judging by the early reports from Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Thorman could make life difficult for his competition.
Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton has been impressed, saying the first baseman is swinging the bat much better than last season when Thorman hit .234 in 128 at-bats with the big club after hitting 15 home runs in Richmond.
“He’s not trying to pull everything,” Pendleton told Sports Online. “I haven’t had to correct or remind him of anything. He has come here [in top form] like he just finished the season.”
Pendleton was reminded of a Thorman at-bat at San Diego’s PETCO Park on July 15, 2006, when the left-handed hitter took the first pitch he saw from Padres starter Chan Ho Park and deposited it over the left-centre-field fence for an opposite-field home run.
“That homer showed me he doesn’t want to be just a dead pull hitter,” Pendleton said. “This kid has matured to the point that if he keeps doing this, he’ll give himself the opportunity to be dangerous with a bat in his hand.”
Thorman’s potential to post big numbers at the big-league level was one of the main reasons Braves general manager John Schuerholz was willing to deal LaRoche after he posted career bests in batting average (.285) homers (32) and runs batted in (90) last season.
Thorman didn't make an error in 55 games with Atlanta last season, split between left field and first base. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Some baseball observers viewed the subsequent signing of free-agent utility man Craig Wilson, who has played 262 games in the majors at first, as an indication that Schuerholz isn't sold on Thorman. However, the GM has said Wilson will spend the majority of time in left field.
“Scotty Thorman will be our first baseman,” Schuerholz told reporters during a conference call in January. “We believe it’s time for another young player to matriculate, if you will, to everyday responsibility, and we believe he [Thorman] can do the job as an everyday player.”
The six-foot-three, 235-pound Thorman has earned the opportunity, having paid his dues for five-and-a-half seasons in the minor leagues. Like some prospects, he broke into the majors as an injury fill-in.
Confident in left field
On June 18, 2006, Thorman was summoned from Richmond to replace veteran outfielder Brian Jordan, who was put on the disabled list with a bruised right clavicle. He made his major-league debut that night against the Boston Red Sox, playing left field and hitting third in the batting order.
Until then, Thorman had played nine games in the outfield, dating back to age five. He went on to play 20 more games in the outfield and 18 at first base.
“There was a little bit of anxiety [learning a new position]," said Thorman. "Bobby [Cox] kept running me out there and I started to feel confident.
"For a long time, I was just a first baseman, but my minor-league managers told me to take flyballs during BP [batting practice] to get a feel for it. Who would have thought my first game in the major leagues would be in left field?
“At the time, I just wanted to get to the big leagues. It was a challenge for me and it was like playing an entirely different game. It gave me a whole new spark to come to the park.”
'He's a workaholic,' coach says of Thorman
Thorman battled through a 1-for-30 stretch following his recall, and then hit .341 with four homers and nine RBI in July. The Braves sent Thorman back to triple-A on Aug. 15, only to bring him back Sept. 1 when teams were allowed to expand their rosters to 40 players from 25 for the playoff drive.
Thorman finished with just 12 hits in his final 56 big-league at-bats (.214 average), but said the struggles had more to do with adjusting to a reduced role as a pinch hitter than anything else.
Defensively, Thorman may not rival the silky smooth LaRoche, but he can make up for it with his relentless hustle and anything-for-the-team approach.
“He’s a workaholic,” said Pendleton of Thorman. “He wants to be the best player out there, and if you tell him he can’t be, he’s going to try to prove you wrong.
“You can’t judge a kid’s heart until you’re around him a lot, and this kid has a lot of heart.”
All that remains for Cox is to determine whether Thorman possesses the tools to handle the demands of a 162-game season.
“Each year I’m more confident than the year before,” said Thorman before spring training. “I was up there [with Atlanta] for 90 days [last season] and I feel confident I can do the job.”
Thorman has the month of March to prove Schuerholz made a wise move.
Born: Jan. 6, 1982, in Cambridge, Ont.
Weight: 235 pounds
Drafted: First round (30th overall) by Atlanta Braves in 2000
Major league debut: June 18, 2006
First major league hit: A run-scoring single on June 20, 2006, against Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Scott Downs
First major league home run: July 5, 2006, off St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Josh Hancock
2005: Led all Braves minor leaguers in hits (164), total bases (268), runs batted in (92) and tied for first in home runs (21); Represented Mississippi in Southern League (double-A) all-star game
2004: Member of Canadian national baseball team that qualified for 2004 Athens Olympics
2003: Selected to play in Futures Game of minor league prospects
2000: Chose baseball over school after signing letter of intent to attend the University of South Carolina
1998: Junior athlete of the year at Preston High School in Cambridge, Ont.
How would you describe your off-season routine with regards to training?
"When I get home after the season I take a good month off. It's as much a mental break as physical. But I still lift weights because I enjoy doing that anyways for health benefits and to prevent injury. I crank it up around Christmas, getting in the batting cages and loosening up. I'll also play long toss and work on footwork. It's in your best interest to go to [spring training] in the best shape possible."
After last season, did Braves manager Bobby Cox give you an indication of what your role would be in 2007?
"Absolutely nothing. I think everyone wants to know where they stand. But Bobby isn't a big believer in telling players their role at the end of the season. A lot of times they [managers] are in no position to say anything because of [off-season] trades and injuries."
How much attention did you give the Adam LaRoche trade rumours that began last December?
"If I heard something I would check the [Braves'] official website. I tried to keep up with it because it's my job, it's reality, but 90 per cent of the time it's speculation."
What was your initial reaction to the LaRoche deal?
"A lot of disbelief. I didn't think it would happen because he had such a good year. It goes to show you how bad [management] wanted [reliever Mike Gonzalez]."
How do the Atlanta Braves go above and beyond to prepare their young prospects for a major league call-up?
"Fundamentally, the organization is solid from the Gulf Coast League to triple-A [Richmond]. A lot of the Braves' [minor league] staff has been there 25 to 35 years and they make the minor leagues a priority. That's not often the case [with other teams]. All the instructors and coaches at the lower level make you feel comfortable and have played the game at some level. For them it's a matter of what's best for the players. They treated me like a son."
Who is the toughest pitcher you have faced in your brief major league career?
"Chris Carpenter [of the St. Louis Cardinals]. The  Cy Young Award [as the National League's top pitcher] is definitely warranted. For some reason I can't stop breaking my bat against him."