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On the banks of Thames

Seven years ago, the Yankees made a thoroughly regrettable trade, dealing Marcus Thames to the Texas Rangers for Ruben Sierra. Now they’ve brought him back on a Minor-League deal.

It wasn’t at all surprising that Thames was dealt. Though he made a very memorable Major League debut, hitting a two-run homer off of Randy Johnson in his very first at-bat, there was little reason for the organization to have faith in him. He was a 30th-round pick (1996), which means he was just a name picked late in the draft, projected to be no more than organizational filler. After a terrific pro debut (.341/.389/.564 in 61 games in Rookie Ball and Low-A), he subsided to a level of production that just wasn’t going to cut it for a corner outfielder. He hit .284/.328/.409 in 1998, .237/.326/.404 in 1999, .241/.313/.407 in 1999.

His big breakthrough came in 2002 when he was repeating Double-A. Thames muscled up and hit .321/.410/.598 with 43 doubles and 31 home runs in 520 at-bats. He was 24, old for the level, and players who take a second swipe at Double-A often have a big year the second time around without it changing their prospects at all. This seemed to be the case with Thames, for he collapsed completely when he went up to Triple-A in 2002, hitting only .207/.297/.378. Nonetheless, he was called up when Juan Rivera had an unfortunate encounter with a groundskeeper’s cart. He stuck around for about a week. Thames failed to make the Yankees out of spring training in 2003. He was hitting .278/.332/.407 with just two home runs in 194 at-bats when the Yankees dealt him away.

Thames did little to impress the Rangers and became a Minor-League free agent at the end of 2003 and signed with the Tigers, where he’s been ever since. It took awhile for his one skill to be recognized and for him to establish himself: he doesn’t play defense, he doesn’t run, he doesn’t hit for average, he doesn’t walk. He just hits home runs. He’s a career .234/.291/.474 hitter against regularpaws with a home run every 15.2 at-bats, .256/.329/.516 with a homer every 15.5 at-bats against portsiders.

The Yankees would seem, then to have picked up a perfect platoon partner for Brett Gardner. There is, however, a catch. The 33-year-old completely forgot how to hit in the second half last season, batting just .233/.316/.368 after the break and failing to hit a home run in his last 84 plate appearances. Needless to say, a Thames who can’t slug is not going to be of much use. There were some exculpatory factors, such as erratic playing time -- it’s possible that Thames just got rusty as Carlos Guillen and Aubrey Huff kept him on the bench. Still, you can see where there’s still a chance for a Jamie Hoffmann to make the roster, because if Thames looks slow with the bat, he doesn’t have enough other skills to inspire confidence.

Parenthetically, Ruben Sierra hit .249/.295/.429 with 27 home runs in 651 at-bats in his second tour with the Yankees. In one of Joe Torre’s lower moments as Yankees manager, he cast ol’ Rube as the everyday designated hitter in September 2005. Sierra rewarded him by hitting .138. Joe surely did love his veterans. It wasn’t so much what they did but when they were born.

ONE SUPER BOWL NOTE
It worked out, but when the Saints came out of halftime with an onside kick, I jumped out of my chair, pointed at Sean Payton, and shouted, "It’s Coffee Joe! It’s Coffee Joe at the Super Bowl!" As Joe Girardi and now Payton have demonstrated, sometimes over-coaching can work out for you, but man, you try that ten more times, it’s going to backfire on you most every time out.

Of course, the best part of this Super Bowl was the best part of every Super Bowl: it is now baseball season. We are just days (and at least one more snowstorm) away from pitchers and catchers. That should be good news for everyone except Johnny Damon.