Yankees unlikely to consider bringing back Thames

Via Buster Olney (Insider req’d), the Yankees are unlikely to consider bringing Marcus Thames back for the 2011 season. With Jorge Posada, a switch-hitter, slotted in as the full-time designated hitter, any right-handed bat off the bench would need to provided defensive flexibility to get playing time. The same logic applies to Manny Ramirez, another long shot signing.

Thames was awesome for the Yanks in 2010, but he’s unlikely to match the carer high (by frickin’ far) .345 BABIP again. His defense is also unusable, so he’s the very definition of a one-dimensional player.  It just doesn’t make sense given the present construction of the team.

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Mailbag: Marcus Thames

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

So the Yankees have extra cash, and need a 2011 Marcus Thames. I love the case for Scott Hairston, but what about … Marcus Thames?

(Here’s my case for Scott Hairston in case you missed it)

I don’t think you’ll be able to find a Yankee fan that doesn’t appreciate the job Thames did for the Yankees in 2010. He did what he was brought in to do against lefties (.354 wOBA) while far exceeding expectations against righties (.382 wOBA) and providing big hit after big hit after big hit. Plus he was extremely easy to like, at least based on his interviews and stuff. Sure, his defense was so bad that Joe Girardi simply refused to play him in the outfield in the second half (understandably), but the man hit, and that’s what he was hired in to do.

Now, as good as Thames was this season, let’s not forget that it was the second best offensive season of his career, behind his age-29 season in 2006. His wOBA and OPS+ in 2010 were just .005 and 1 off from his career highs, respectively, and if you go by wRC+ this season was actually the best year of his career. Either way you look at it, the point stands. Thames’ 2010 season was not a level of performance we should expect him to repeat going forward, especially against right-handers and especially when you consider that he’ll turn 34 in Spring Training.

That’s not to say that Thames can’t be a valuable contributor off the bench, because he certainly could be if his exposure to righties is limited. His 2010 performance against southpaws is almost dead even with his career average (.358 wOBA career), so we can expect that skill to remain. No so much against righties however, he outperformed his career average against same-side pitchers by more than 50 wOBA points. There’s no reason to believe that at his age, the light bulb just came on. There’s also the issue of defense. Thames is basically a platoon DH, so the Yankees would be wasting one of their bench spots on a guy that can’t play the field.

I like Thames and he’d be a fine choice to fill a similar role next season, but preferably he’d be a fall back option. Guys like Hairston and Reed Johnson can also play the field, giving the team that much more flexibility, and will probably cost less coming off down years. Thames did fine work for the Yankees, but are there are players available that could be even better next season.

Japanese club working to sign Thames

Via NPB Tracker, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are working to sign free agent outfielder/designated hitter Marcus Thames. Thames, of course, was fantastic after signing a dirt cheap minor league deal with the Yankees last year, exceeding all expectations by hitting .288/.350/.491 (.365 wOBA) overall. He was brought in to mash left-handers and he did just that (.365 wOBA), but he was much better than expected against right-handers as well (.382).

At 33 years old (34 in March) and coming off his best season in half-a-decade, Marcus is probably looking to cash in on what his likely his last opportunity for a big payday. If Softbank offers him two or more guaranteed years at something like $1.5-2M annually, I’m not sure Thames could turn that down.

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.

The need for good Thames against Texas

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

Marcus Thames has been everything the Yankees could have possibly asked him to be and then some. He was brought in to hit lefthanded pitching and has done just that (.300/.352/.454, .354 wOBA), but he’s also been much better than expected against righthanders (.268/.347/.549, .382 wOBA). He’s produced numerous big hits throughout the year, like this walk-off homer against the Red Sox, this walk-off single against the Blue Jays, this go-ahead homer against the Jays, and of course this go-ahead single against the same Rangers’ club that the Yanks will face in the ALCS starting Friday. As good as Thames has been this season, his team is going to need just a little bit more out of him against Texas.

Although neither team has officially released their ALCS rotation yet, the Rangers are expected to start the series with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis before giving the ball to Cliff Lee in Game Three. Tommy Hunter is your probable Game Four starter. It’s highly likely that each team will win at least one game at some point, meaning that Texas will be able to give the ball to a southpaw three times in the first five games of the series (Wilson twice, Lee once). These aren’t your everyday lefthanders either. Wilson annihilates batters of the same hand (lefthanded batters had just a .205 wOBA with just five doubles and no homers off him this season) and Lee … well … is Cliff Lee.

Even though Curtis Granderson has improved immensely against lefties since working with Kevin Long (.380 wOBA vs. LHP since the changes that, ironically, took place in Texas), his offensive ability is likely to be somewhat compromised during those three games. Ditto Brett Gardner, even though he was more than respectable against lefties this season (.332 wOBA, .351 vs. RHP). Alex Rodriguez was uncharacteristically awful against lefthanders this year (a solid .335 wOBA, but Alex is held to different standards than mere mortals) as well. That’s why they need Thames to be on top of his game, he’s got to pick up the seemingly inevitable slack.

The good news is that Marcus has already shown he can do that, albeit in a tiny sample. When Mark Teixeira was away with his birth-giving wife in early August, Thames not only stepped in as the three-hole hitter for two games, he basically replaced (or even improved upon) Tex’s production as well. He went 5-for-10 with a homer in the two games (started by Wilson and Lee of all people), with one of the hits being that go-ahead single linked above. He took Frank Francisco deep one inning before that to bring the Yanks to within one. Of course it was all or nothing for Marcus that series, because he struck out in the five plate appearances in which he didn’t get a hit. That’s the trade off you get with a guy like him though.

The Twins learned the hard way that the Yankee lineup is extremely deep with no easy out(s), especially their two lefties Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing. Thames was a big reason for that, as he has been all season, but the team still needs a little more out of him. They know that, he knows that, the other team knows it, everyone does. Thames has been worth every penny of his $900,000 salary so far this season, but the job isn’t done yet.

Aside: That’s easily my favorite picture of the season so far. So badass. Here’s that play, if you’re curious…Also, check out this Wall Street Journal piece on Thames. Mike Sielski spins a great tale of Thames’ friendship with former Yankee farmhands Jeff Nettles and Drew Henson as well as his time in Detroit.