What Went Right: Mr. Thames To You

(AP Photo)

As the 2009-2010 offseason played out, it became increasingly clear that the Yankees needed some sort of righthanded bat to balance out their lefty heavy outfield. Nick Swisher wasn’t the problem since he’s a switch hitter, but the newly acquired Curtis Granderson had significant trouble against southpaws in recent years (.267 wOBA vs. LHP from ’08-’09) and Brett Gardner was still a complete unknown at the time. Enter Marcus Thames.

The former Yankee farmhand agreed to a minor league contract in early February that granted him an invitation to Spring Training, at which point he’d have to compete for job against the likes of Rule 5 Draft pick Jamie Hoffmann, Greg Golson, and David Winfree. Thames didn’t perform well during camp at all (.135/.182/.269 in 52 at-bats), but the Yankees preferred his experience and power to whatever the younger guys had to offer. If you’re going to go for experience over youth, a bench/platoon spot isn’t a bad place to do it.

Thames started the season in a platoon with Gardner (not Granderson, contrary to what we all expected) and played in only two of the team’s first eight games. He got a start at designated hitter in the ninth game of the season, going 2-for-3 with a double in a win against the Angels. That earned Marcus another start the next day, which resulted in another two hits, and before you knew he finished the month with a .588/.650/.941 (.666 wOBA) in 20 trips to the plate. Thames kept hitting so Joe Girardi kept giving him starts through the month of May.

The Yanks started play with a 24-13 record on May 17th, certainly a dynamite record, but they hadn’t had one of those big remember-why-you-love-’em wins yet. Thames gave New York just that when he completed a ninth inning comeback against Jonathan Papelbon by following Alex Rodriguez‘s game-tying two-run homer with a walk-off two-run homer of his own. Brought in to mash lefties, he also was getting the job done against righties, and that homer won him a place in the heart of every fan.

Mr. Thames to you. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

After a bum hamstring sidelined Thames for close to a month, he returned on Independence Day and provided an instant jolt to the team’s offense. He pinch hit for Ramiro Pena in the tenth inning of a tie game against the Blue Jays, driving in the winning run with a walk-off broken bat single. Not bad for a welcome back moment, eh? A few weeks later he helped the Yanks mount a comeback win against Cliff Lee and the Rangers by whacking a solo homer in the eighth before driving in the go-ahead run with a single in the ninth.

Thames’ role became more and more prominent as the season progressed. He hit .342/.384/.671 (.438 wOBA) after returning from the disabled list through September 1st, after which he and the newly acquired Lance Berkman went into a straight platoon at DH. All told, Marcus hit .288/.350/.491 (.365 wOBA) with a dozen homers in 237 plate appearances on the season, filling the role of platoon bat perfectly. He did his job against lefties (.354 wOBA) and was even better than expected against righties (.382).

Of course, we can’t forget the horror show that was Thames’ outfield defense. He played just 171 innings in the outfield all season, but he managed to cost the team more than four runs defensively. It seemed like a helluva lot more, I know that much. The most notable blunder came a day after the walk-off homer against Papelbon, when Thames botched a fly ball in right that led to a pair of unearned runs in the ninth and an eventual loss. Thankfully Girardi wised up, and Thames’ days as a regular outfielder were finished after he came back from the disabled list.

Mighty Marcus Thames was everything the Yankees hoped he would be and then some, giving them pop off the bench and later on, production in a damn-near every day role. As far as gambles on minor league deals go, the Yankees hit the jackpot with this one.

Report: ‘No chance’ Greinke would accept trade to NY

Via Jon Heyman, “people close to” Royals’ ace Zack Greinke say there’s no chance the righty would accept a trade to New York. Greinke has some sort of convoluted no-trade clause, and it’s only natural that he’d be connected to the Yankees after Kansas City put him out on the market.

The anti-Greinke camp was pretty strong given the concerns about his bout with social anxiety disorder and the MSM-made pressure cooker of New York, so this should make them happy. Sure, there has to be some concern when you’re dealing with something like that, but Greinke is a special case; a supremely talented 27-year-old with three straight years of no worse than 4.9 fWAR. Usually you move mountains to acquire a player like that, and who knows, they still might.

The problem with the playoffs

After a rough September, the Yankees stormed into the playoffs nearly a month ago. In three games played over four days, they quickly dispatched the Minnesota Twins to reach the American League Championship Series for the second straight year. And then they sat, sat and sat some more.

In total, the club sat for six days before playing Game 1 of the ALCS, and the Yanks never seemed to click in their series against the Texas Rangers. The pitching wasn’t sharp, and after a long layoff, the bats seemed sluggish as well. While speaking on the air earlier today, Yanks’ owner and Manager General Partner Hal Steinbrenner fingered the long delay as a culprit behind the Yanks’ ALCS loss. “We seemed a little bit cold in that series. I don’t know if it was the long layoff or not,” Hal said, obviously intimating that it was indeed the long layoff.

The problem seems particularly exacerbated when we look at the playoffs on the whole, and the problem starts with the ALDS. When the baseball season ended on Sunday, October 3, teams were granted two days off before the first Division Series games. The LDS slates were designed to take forever in the grand scheme of baseball. Due to built-in travel days, had the Yanks gone to five games, the series would have taken seven calendar days. The Reds and Phillies played only three games, but it took five days for the series to wrap.

The layoff in between the LDS and LCS series is problematic too. Had the Yankees gone to five games, they would have had two days off in between series as the Rangers did. At that point, they would have played five games over nine days since the regular season had ended. Outside of April and the All Star Break, at no point during the season do teams play just five times over nine calendar days.

The break after the LCS and the World Series is nearly as painful. This year, the two League Championship Series finished in six games. The Rangers wrapped their series on a Friday with World Series Game 1 scheduled for the following Wednesday while the Giants had three days off after their Game 6 win. This development too is a relatively new one.

A few weeks ago, I dug up playoff schedules for 1998 and 2003 as a point of comparison, and the changes were apparently from the get-go. The 1998 season ended on Sunday, September 27, and the playoffs started on Tuesday, September 29. The Yanks needed just three games to beat the Rangers in the ALDS that year, but their five-game set was slated for just six calendar days with no day off between Games 4 and 5. The other ALDS series enjoyed the same schedule so that the two would have ended on the same day, and the ALCS was slated to start on Tuesday, October 6 with just one day off between a potential ALDS Game 5 and ALCS Game 1. Game 7 of the ALCS was scheduled for Wednesday, October 14, and the World Series started on Saturday, October 17. Game 7 of the 1998 World Series was scheduled for two days before the start of the 2010 World Series. The 2003 playoff schedule was similarly more condensed.

In essence, even though the Yanks swept their ALDS series in 1998, they had just three days off before the ALCS started. Compare that to this year’s six-game vacation. No wonder the team came out of the gate seemingly playing slowly.

So what went wrong? At some point over the last few years, baseball decided it needed more days off. It needed to make sure that no Division Series game overlapped with another. It needed to maximize prime time playoff exposure while discarding baseball continuity. It had to make us nearly forget in between the ALCS and World Series that baseball was going on.

The sport’s reaction is, of course, the opposite of what you would expect it to be. Instead of proposing to fix a situation where the World Series winners played 15 games over a span of 27 days this year, Bud Selig and Co. want to expand the playoffs. More teams! More rounds! More days off! Coming to a baseball stadium near you in 2012.

The details are sparse, and the MLBPA and Commissioner’s Office will hammer out in agreement when the Collective Bargaining Agreement comes due next year. Selig, though, has his flawed rationale. “We have less teams than any other sport” in the playoffs, he said in September. “We certainly haven’t abused anything.” If the NHL and NBA both allow more than half of their teams to reach the endless dance these leagues call the playoffs, why shouldn’t baseball? Brilliant, indeed.

The answer is a simple one: Baseball should prepare for flexible playoff scheduling while restoring the master schedule to the 2003/1998 model. The league doesn’t need all of these days off in between the end of the season and the playoffs, in between the end of the rounds and the start of the next. At the very least, considering the options are narrowed just by the initial schedule, baseball should be able to determine that, if the ALDS series end early, the ALCS can start earlier. If the two LCS series end early, move up the World Series.

Baseball is meant to be played every day, and for six months, we see our teams take the field day in and day out with off-days few and far between. In the playoffs, the season grinds to a halt. It stretches from early October into early November for only one reason: money. It doesn’t always have to be about the money, and as baseball in October starts to feel fleeting, the herky-jerkiness of the playoffs should give way to a smoother schedule. It would be for the good of the game.

Thanks to Jeff Quagliata, the research manager at the YES Network, for tracking down the old playoff schedules. Find him on Twitter at YEStoResearch.

Banuelos & Heyer combine for six strong innings

Manny Banuelos, Austin Romine, and Brandon Laird were selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Showcase. It’s an All Star Game, but not based on AzFL performance. It’s the best prospects in the league all in one game. The game will be played this Saturday at 9pm ET and guess what? It’ll be broadcast on MLB Network. Neato.

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (2-2 tie with Surprise in 11 innings) ewww ties … they probably ran out of pitchers
Brandon Laird, DH: 1 for 5, 1 RBI – four for his last 27 (.148)
Jose Pirela, 2B: 1 for 3, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 CS – the walk was intentional
Manny Banuelos: 3 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 6-2 GB/FB – 25 of 40 pitches were strikes (62.5%) … Project Prospect’s Adam Foster tweeted a mini-scouting report
Craig Heyer: 3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 4-2 GB/FB – same deal as ManBan, 25 strikes in 40 pitches … creepy

Agent calls Yankees a ‘dark horse’ in Iwakuma bidding

Via NPB Tracker, agent Don Nomura called the Yankees a “dark horse” in the bidding for Japanese righty Hisashi Iwakuma. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a classic case of an agent trying to drive up the price by looping the Yanks into the mix. I posted about Iwakuma yesterday, and we have zero indication that they actually have interest in acquiring him, at least until this report from his agent. The posting process started today, so we should found out a results in the next week or so.

Open Thread: Important Offseason Dates

Now that the 2010 baseball season is officially over, we can all turn our attention to the Hot Stove League. The Yankees figure to be prominent figures this offseason, as always, and their first order of business will be re-signing Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Cliff Lee is a not-to-distant second … or is that third? Either way, you get the drift.

The baseball offseason is full of important dates for various events, such as arbitration deadlines and the like. Here’s a round-up of this winter’s key dates, with a brief explanation…

  • Nov. 2nd-6th: Period for teams to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents. This used to be 15 days.
  • Nov. 7th: Free agents can now negotiate – and sign – with any team.
  • Nov. 16-17th: GM Meetings in Orlando. There will be rumors, but probably not any major moves.
  • Nov. 17th-18th: Owners Meetings in Orlando. Everyone complains about the Yankees.
  • Nov. 20th: Deadline for teams to set their 40-man roster with regards to the Rule 5 Draft.
  • Nov. 23rd: Last day for teams to offer their free agents arbitration, which they must do to receive draft pick compensation.
  • Nov. 30th: Last day for free agents to accept an arbitration offer.
  • Dec. 2nd: Last day to tender contracts to players with less than six years of service time. Another batch of players will hit free agency as they’re non-tendered.
  • Dec. 6th-9th: Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista. All hell breaks loose.
  • Jan. 5th-15th: Period for teams and players to file for arbitration.
  • Jan. 18th: Salary arbitration figures are exchanged.
  • Feb. 1st-21st: Salary arbitration hearings. Everyone likes to avoid these.
  • March 2nd-11th: Contracts of players with less than three years of service time can be renewed at any salary by the team (as long as it’s 80% of his previous year’s salary).
  • March 28th: Deadline to release players with non-guaranteed contracts without having to pay them their full 2011 salary.

I have no idea when the Rule 5 Draft is this year. Usually it’s on the final day of the Winter Meetings, but there’s been talk that’ll be moved up to late-November. That Nov. 20th date for setting the 40-man roster isn’t even set in stone (all of the other ones are, however). You’re also going to see a lot of options picked up and declined this week, those things usually have to be addressed within three days of the end of the World Series (or something like that) per the contracts.

Anyway, you may notice that everything is earlier this offseason than in years past, and that’s by design. MLB and the union want to give players as much time as possible to find jobs, and it’s hard to blame them given the way the market’s played out over the last few years. It’s also good for us, because all of the Hot Stove action starts that much earlier.

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Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Knicks are playing the Magic in the Garden have been postponed because of asbestos at the Garden, so that’s pretty much it for local sports. Now I remember why I hate the offseason. Talk about whatever, just be cool.

Harkey gets ‘serious consideration’ for pitching coach spot

Via Sweeny Murti, bullpen coach Mike Harkey is being given “serious consideration” for the team’s vacant pitching coach position. He’s served as the Yankees’ bullpen coach since 2008, and although he has no full-time experience as a pitching coach in the big leagues (remember he did fill in for a month while Dave Eiland was on personal leave in June), he’s done it at the Triple-A level. Harkey’s familiarity with the staff certainly works in his favor.