Monday, February 8, 2010

Marcus Thames Returns, Nostalgic Offseason Continues

I don't think Brian Cashman would actually make decisions based on something as irrational as nostalgia, but he has spent much of this offseason reacquiring players that were dealt away when the Tampa "brain trust" was purportedly controlling the Yankee organization. First it was Javy Vazquez, next Nick Johnson and this afternoon the Yanks signed Marcus Thames - who was dealt to the Rangers in exchange for Ruben Sierra back in 2003 - to a minor league deal.

Thames had spent six seasons in the Yanks' minor league system before he was dealt. After being drafted in the 30th round of the 1997 draft, he was placed in Rookie ball, slowly moved up through the levels of the farm and was promoted to AA in the middle of 1999. After a marginal 2000 campaign, Thames broke out with a massive 2001 in which he jacked 31 homers for the Norwich Navigators and hit .321/.410/.598. His excellent season earned him a promotion to AAA the following year but he regressed badly, mustering a line of only .207/.297/.378. Despite those dismal results, he still earned a call up to the Major League club in June and famously debuted by hitting a home run of Randy Johnson.

Thames was traded at the behest of George Steinbrenner who was dead set on acquiring a left handed bat for the team. The 37 year old Ruben Sierra apparently fit that bill, but had only a 90 OPS+ over his last 6 seasons in the majors. The salaries were pretty much comparable and the Rangers decided to take a shot on Thames. Neither end of the transaction worked out especially well but the Yankees did slightly better. Sierra hit .276/.323/.432 (100 OPS+) in 189 plate appearances while Thames was fairly dreadful (47 OPS+) in 84 PAs for the Rangers. Thames was DFA'd by Texas at the end of the season to make room on their 40 man roster.

The Tigers signed Thames the following offseason. He provided solid value for Detroit over the first two years of the deal but was below replacement level in both 2008 and 2009. Last year, he missed two months with a severely pulled muscle in his rib cage. The Tigers elected to non-tender him instead of going through arbitration on his salary of $2.275M.

The deal with the Yankees could be worth up to $900K if Thames makes the Major League team. Not coincidentally, Randy Winn's base salary was $1.1M (with $900K in incentives, based on PAs) so regardless how the competition for the 4th outfielder in Spring Training goes, the Yanks will be paying out a maximum of $2M for that spot, all told.

Thames has a career .360 wOBA against lefties as opposed to .324 against righties, so he could be useful as a platoon option in right field. But as we are slowly learning, platoon splits are not always as pronounced as they seem. His value is derived from his power; he's hit an average of 33 home runs per 500 ABs over the course of his career. Thames provides an interesting depth option for the Yanks and with the structure of the deal, it's essentially a no-risk move. I don't think the team has any use at all for Juan Rivera, but at this point I wouldn't be totally shocked if they traded for him anyway.

9 Days Until Spring Training: Roger Maris

In a perfect world, Mantle would have been the one to break Babe Ruth's single season home run record. Instead it was an aloof North Dakota native named Roger Maris who didn't come up with the Yankees, wasn't comfortable in New York, didn't get along with the media, and was never fully embraced by the fans.

Maris was signed by the Indians in 1953 for $5,000 and chose the path of professional baseball over a standing offer for a scholarship to Oklahoma State. In his first full season as a minor leaguer, Maris was assigned to the B-level Keokuk Kernels of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa league. It was there that manager Jo Jo White taught him how to pull the ball and transformed from a solid hitter for average to a bona fide home run threat. That year, Maris hit 32 round trippers in 134 games and made his first significant strides towards becoming a Big Leaguer.

He made his debut on Opening Day 1957 for the Indians and hit the ground running with a 3 for 5 effort against the White Sox. The following day, he hit his first Major League home run, a go-ahead grand slam in the top of the 11th inning.

Maris was the starting center fielder for Indians in '57 but played all three OF positions, appearing in 116 games in total. He left his high batting averages in the minor leagues, hitting only .235 but his 14 home runs helped him to be a better than league average hitter (105 OPS+).

During the 1958 season, Maris was dealt to the A's for, among others, the immortal Woodie Held. Maris doubled his home run output from the previous year to 28 but hit only 19 doubles, saw his on base percentage dip below .300 and his OPS+ drop to 97. In 1959 he was transitioned to right field and began to put it all together at the plate, hitting .273/.359/.464 (123 OPS+) and was rewarded with a selection to the All-Star team.

The Yankees were tantalized by Maris' left handed power and were looking to give their team a boost after a third place finish in '59. They sent World Series hero Don Larsen, their two starting corner outfielders from the previous season, Hank Bauer and Norm Siebern along with 25 year old first baseman Marv Thornberry to Kansas City in exchange for Maris, Joe DeMaestri and Ken Hadley.

As he did in his first game in Cleveland, Maris made a great first impression as a Yankee, smacking two homers and a double in his debut against the Red Sox. He went on to win the AL MVP that season, nudging out Mickey Mantle by a scant 3 points in the voting. They had similar years at the plate but Maris, batting behind Mantle, drove in 18 more runs in 66 fewer plate appearances.

While the writers were willing to recognize Maris' accomplishments, many fans refused to embrace him as a True Yankee®. The Bombers were still very much Mickey Mantle's team and Maris' icy relationship with the New York media only served to further extend that perception.

While some still hold Maris' single season record up as the all-time mark, 1961 was far from a normal year in baseball and comes with it's own share of caveats.

Before 'the 61 season began, the AL expanded from eight to ten teams, adding the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Senators by way of an expansion draft. Both teams selected Yankees with their first picks; the Angels took Eli Grba and the Senators claimed Bobby Shantz. The Yanks also lost Duke Maas, Dale Long, Bob Cerv, Ken Hunt, Bud Zipfel. The expansion draft weakened the overall talent pool in the league fairly significantly, but despite the pillaging, the Yankees were among the teams least affected.

That same season, the schedule was lengthened from 154 to 162 games. Commissioner Ford C. Frick, initially announced that in order to break Babe Ruth's record, it would have to be done in 154 games. He said:
Any player who hit more than sixty home runs during his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than sixty until after his club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154 game schedule and the total of more than sixty was compiled while a 162 game schedule was in effect.
This was met with strong media backlash. The Sporting News placed it at #15 of the "most shameful acts in baseball history" and columnist Leonard Koppett called the decision "a remarkably foolish thing".

The prevailing wisdom at the time said the decision was prompted by Frick's loyalty to Ruth which could be traced back to Frick's days as a newspaper man. Frick had ghostwritten for Ruth in the past, allowing Ruth to "cover" every world series from 1921-1936 and wrote glowing columns about Ruth during his time with the New York Evening Journal.

Regardless of his perceived bias, Frick was making a logical choice. The tag of single season is rather arbitrary and it was clearly easier to reach 60 home runs given 8 extra games to say nothing of the substantially thinner pitching that resulted from expansion. Frick was stuck with two difficult choices: keep two separate rule books for each season length or give all players who came after 1961 an unfair advantage in breaking counting stat records. It was popular at the time, but his choice of the latter allowed one of the most hallowed records in sports to fall under dubious circumstances.

Maris' pursuit of the record wasn't especially popular with some living legends of the game either. Legendary second baseman Rogers Hornsby said at the time, "It would be a disappointment if Ruth's home run record were bested by a .270 hitter."

Partially because of the controversy surrounding his quest for 61, Maris was heckled and even had objects thrown at him on the field. He received hate mail, death threats and claimed his hair fell out "in clumps" as the season progressed. He had 59 HR after 154 games and hit his 61st on the last day of the season in the home half of the fourth inning against the Red Sox.

Maris spent five more seasons with the Yankees but his peak had decidedly past. While he was an above average hitter each of those five years, Maris never hit more than 33 home runs in a season and missed large chunks of 1963 and 1965 with injuries. He was ultimately traded after the 1966 season to the Cardinals in exchange for Charley Smith.

Despite breaking one of the most hallowed sports records of all time, Maris remained sour about the experience. During an interview at the 1980 All-Star game, he said:

They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing.

He passed away 5 years later from Hodgkin's Lymphoma at the age of 51.

Maris was a victim of our casting. Despite the fact that sports are unscripted, we still expect the right characters to come out on top. Mickey Mantle was the former farmhand, Yankee legend, the Hall of Famer, the rags to riches story from Oklahoma. He partied with the rat pack, Joe D. and Marylin Monroe, and had the key to the city. He was supposed to be the one to break Babe Ruth's record. Maris was the ostracized Kansas City transplant, who should have came up short. But that's not the way life works and while Maris' peak was far too short to earn him a spot in Cooperstown, he has a place in Monument Park.

The Super Bowl Under The Stars

Every year for the past 27 years, my friend Frank's family has hosted a Super Bowl Party. Like most gatherings for the big game, it's well-attended and appointed with a fantastic array of food and drink. Unlike most Super Bowl parties - or other gatherings that take place during January or February in the Northeast, for that matter - it's staged outside.

You might think this is a pretty insane idea. And you would be right. Last night in Albany, the temperatures were somewhere in the teens but there was a steady breeze which made it feel even colder. People were decked out and layered, wearing hunting and skiing gear with heavy hats, gloves and boots, lined with hand and toe warmers. The chill was inescapable but the constant supply of grilled meat and alcoholic beverages was helpful in forgetting the fact that I couldn't feel my feet.

There were two large grills set up and piled with food starting at around 4:30. A large steamer behind them was loaded with clams. Across the yard there was a table with crock pots containing bear stew and venison chili alongside some Cajun shrimp which unfortunately froze solid before the game even began. There were rabbit legs with a honey mustard glaze, seasoned venison, bear and pork tenderloins, bison burgers with jalapenos and cheddar, Swedish meatballs made with bison and Italian sausage, skewers of venison wrapped in bacon and pastry pouches stuffed with minced venison, garlic and extra sharp cheddar cheese alongside sweet and sour Asian dipping sauces.

The most revered of all the cuisine was the Spedini. Or was it Spellini? Spinnini? I don't think I heard the name pronounced the same way more than once all night but whatever it was called was a thin piece of beef wrapped in a robust Italian cheese and grilled to perfection.

A vast array of microbrews were stuffed in a makeshift snowbank. Irish coffees were distributed during the 3rd and 4th quarters.

Unsurprisingly, the only female in attendance was a Newfie named Stella who was equipped with a bottle opener around her collar and one of these vests.

The party started back in 1983 when Frank's dad, his brother and his cousin were kicked out of his mom's house just down the street from where this party was held for being rowdy. In a moment of impromptu creativity and resourcefulness, they decided that they'd just bring a TV outside with them. While the first party was a born out of necessity, it's become a great tradition.

The part actually attracted a news crew from the local CBS affiliate who took a bunch of footage so they could pair it with a lukewarm voiceover and play it on the 11:00 news to give the Super Bowl coverage a "local angle":

The newscaster is clearly - and understandably - baffled by the fact that a large number of people would willfully stand outside in the dead on winter to watch a football game when they could just as easily huddle up indoors. I can't say I blame her, but if she was there last night, she would have understood why the crowd has grown so much over time.

9 Days Until Spring Training: Graig Nettles

Next week will mark the six year anniversary of the trade that sent Alex Rodriguez from the Rangers to the Yankees. Up until the time of the trade, A-Rod had been a shortstop, but with Derek Jeter entrenched in that position in the Bronx, A-Rod shifted over to the hot corner. In the years since, Rodriguez has established himself as the greatest third baseman in Yankee history. But before there was A-Rod, there was Graig Nettles.

Born in San Diego, Nettles attended San Diego State University, starred on its baseball team and spent the summer of 1964 playing in Alaska with future Major Leaguers Tom Seaver and Ricky Monday. He was selected by the Twins in the fourth round of the very first amateur draft in 1965.

Nettles began his pro career the following year in Wisconsin Rapids with the Twins Single-A affiliate. He had cups of coffee in Minnesota in both '67 and '68 but spent most of the '68 season with Twins top farm club in Denver. It was there that Nettles first played for Billy Martin.

The next year, both Nettles and Martin graduated to the Majors. Billy took over as Twins manager and he brought Nettles along with him. Neither would be there when the 1970 season rolled around. Unable to push the great Harmon Killebrew off third base, Nettles played sparingly, and saw most of his action in the outfield. The Twins won their division, but were swept by Baltimore in the very first American League Championship Series. Despite the team's success, Martin was fired for the first of many times as a manager. Nettles, still blocked by Killebrew, was dealt to Cleveland as part of a package that brought back former Yankee Stan Williams and future Yankee Luis Tiant.

The Indians installed Nettles as their everyday third baseman, and he blossomed. He finished 10th in the AL in walks in 1970, then repeated the feat in 1971 while finishing tenth in RBI, seventh in times on base, and fifth in home runs. Nettles also began forging a reputation as one the top defensive third basemen in the game.

Following the '72 season, Nettles was shipped to the Yankees as part of six player deal. He would spend the next eleven seasons as the team's third baseman, a potent bat in the middle of the line up, and a key a contributor on five division winners, four pennant winners, and two World Series champs.

Nettles joined the Yankees just in time for their final season in the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium as well as for the final year of manager Ralph Houk's thirty five years of service to the organization. Nettles tied Bobby Murcer for the team lead in home runs that season, led the team the following season, and then led the American League with 32 in 1976. He came back with 37 more dingers the following year, good for second in the AL and a fifth place MVP finish. With Brooks Robinson finally retired, Nettles also won his first Gold Glove in '77, and repeated the feat in '78 when he finished sixth in the MVP voting.

Perhaps Nettles' most famous defensive work came in Game Three of the 1978 World Series, when he put on a defensive clinic against the Dodgers. Nettles recorded two putouts and five assists over the course of the game, started a double play, and robbed numerous Dodgers of hits with diving, highlight reel stops.

Nettles remained with the Yankees through the 1983 season, staying productive into his late thirties. He was named Yankee Captain in late January of 1982. I always wondered how Nettles felt about that, given that the two previous Yankee Captains - Thurman Munson and Lou Gehrig - both met untimely ends. Thankfully Nettles avoided that fate, but his Yankee career did meet a premature end.

In early 1984, like many of his Bronx Zoo teammates before him, Nettles released his autobiography, the humorously titled Balls. It chronicled the entirety of Nettles' career, with a focus on the 1983 season, which was mired with the same level of dysfunction typical of Yankee teams of that era. Always known for his quick wit, Nettles didn't pull any punches in his criticism of the organization, of Steinbrenner, and of his contentious contract extension negotiations throughout the '83 season and into the off season. As excerpts of the book leaked prior to publishing, it became apparent that Nettles' days with the Yankees were numbered. Just days before the start of the '84 season the Yankees shipped Nettles to his hometown Padres.

There, Nettles rejoined long time teammate Goose Gossage, and the two helped lead San Diego to their first NL Pennant. After All-Star season in 1985 in which the 40 year old Nettles posted a 120 OPS+, he was all but finished. He spent one more year in San Diego, before rounding out his career spending a year each with Atlanta and Montreal as a pinch hitting specialist. He returned to the Yankees as first base coach for the 1991 season and has been a regular at Old Timers Day since his retirement.

Third base is the most under represented position in the Hall of Fame, with just ten men in the Hall being third basemen primarily. I don' think that Nettles is a Hall of Famer, but he is amongst the best fifteen or twenty third basemen of all time. He is tremendously under appreciated, and suffers comparatively by spending his defensive career in the shadow of Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, and his offensive career in the shadow of Schmidt and George Brett. Nettles still holds the AL record for home runs as a third baseman, and trails only Schmidt, Eddie Matthews, Chipper Jones, and Darrell Evans on the all-time third baseman home run list.

Nettles was the final Yankee to wear number nine before it was retired in honor of Roger Maris in 1984. Other prominent Yankees to wear the number include Joe DiMaggio in his rookie season of 1936, Charlie Keller for most of his career, and Hank Bauer for the majority of the Stengel years.

Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez

Good morning Fackers. How's your hangover this morning?

As we all know by now, the Saints won the Super Bowl last night, which of course is a victory for all of America, right Bill Plaschke?

I don't know about all that. I'm just happy it was a good game. And that football season is over, meaning baseball is right around the corner.

Anyway, I'm sure we're all a bit sluggish this morning. I've long felt that the day after the Super Bowl, as well as Opening Day, should be a holiday. But since that legislation has yet to be enacted, we'll just ease into to it today before he we get back to our regularly scheduled business. Here are three from my favorite New Orleans band.