Occasionally, as Yankee fans, we can become spoiled when we grow accustomed to seeing a super-star at nearly every position around the diamond. When Joe Girardi hands the line-up card to the umpire before each game, usually it's full of household names, perennial all-stars and future hall of famers.
Just a cursory glance at the Yankee infield reveals two future hall of famers in Jeter and Arod, and two more super-stars with the potential to attain such status if their careers progress according to their early returns. The quartet of Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, and Arod will earn a collective $85,225,000 in salary during the 2010 season, or more than the entire roster of 16 teams.
Even with the clear financial advantage the Yankees hold over every team in baseball, the season doesn't always unfold according to the best-laid plans.
Injuries have the potential to ravage every team, especially with a veteran-laden roster such as the Yankees'. Teams filled with older players run the risk of portions of their squad aging simultaneously, delivering results inferior to those of their illustrious career standards. Some personnel decisions simply don't work out, or are short-sighted in nature, ignoring clear indications that a player may be declining in performance. I was trying not to name Jeter, Arod, Posada, Nick Johnson or Curtis Granderson by name, but there you go.
When any of the aforementioned circumstances befall a team, they must hope that they prepared accordingly.
Although they don't sign the massive contracts, adorn fans' walls in poster form, or pull in lucrative endorsement deals, specific role players can help to define a team's season.
Although the Yankees made several off-season moves of varying profile and level of expectation, they haven't all met with resounding success immediately. Bringing in brittle Nick Johnson to replace Hideki Matsui at DH worked out like so many predicted that it may. On paper, Johnson's patient eye and on-base prowess made him appealing, but anyone who has watched him over his career, knew that the likelihood of playing a full season was about on par with the Pirates' chances of winning the World Series this year.
The Javier Vazquez re-acquisition has garnered inconsistent results, helping to solidify the notion that success in the National League doesn't often equate to prosperity on the AL side of the league divide. While he has pitched well against the weakest of American League teams, as well as against his former National League opponents, he has fared very poorly against any top American League competition.
Randy Winn simply didn't work out, as he looked old with diminished bat speed. It may have been a poor performance in a small sampling size, but the Yankees quickly cut him and moved on. The recent deadline moves, the acquisitions of Austin Kearns, Lance Berkman, and Kerry Wood haven't had enough time to adequately evaluate their progress with the team.
Curtis Granderson, while a great personality and gifted athlete, has thus far proven to be an under-achiever in the Bronx. He is basically a platoon player, as his splits against left-handed pitchers have been embarrassing. His .555 OPS versus lefty pitchers indicates that he is nearly an automatic out in such situations, and makes one wonder what the Yankees were thinking when trading away a sizable haul of young players for an outfielder who only contributes part-time. As I mentioned however, he us a dynamic athlete, with a strong work ethic, adored by teammates and fans alike, so the hope is that his recent work with Kevin Long will help him rescue his dismal season.
Helping to temper the distress over Granderson's season-long struggles, is another player who joined the Yankees after spending the last six seasons with the Tigers. Marcus Thames, who has always been a platoon player himself, due to healthy offensive prosperity against left-handed pitchers and more modest results against right-handed hurlers, was brought in to compete for a job as a right-handed bat off the bench.
The one-time Yankee minor league product, who famously homered off Randy Johnson on the first pitch he faced in the big leagues, has developed into a much more valuable weapon than the team likely envisioned when they signed him in February of this year.
Possessing a career OPS of .846 versus left-handers, as opposed to a .771 mark against right-handed pitchers, Thames was viewed as a potential part-time outfielder, part-time DH and occasional pinch-hitter. He still hasn't played a significant amount of games this season, but in his limited role, he has proven a valuable contributor to the success of the 2010 Yankees.
Due to a variety of factors: the ineffectiveness of Winn, the injury and platoon struggles of Granderson, the frailty of Nick Johnson, an aging, injury-prone Jorge Posada, and the occasional desire to sit Gardner against tough lefties, Marcus Thames has found himself thrust into the Yankee lineup.
Of course, if the Yankees can avoid using him defensively, they'd like to. However, his bat has proven to be a formidable presence in the lineup, against hurlers of every type. In his 80 plate appearances against lefties, his standard batting line of .343/.413/.443 has been impressive, with an OPS of .855. Strangely though, despite having a career home-run rate much higher against lefties, he only has clubbed one home-run against southpaws in 2010.
The surprising aspect of Thames' success for the Yankees this year, has been his improved production against right-handed pitchers. His 283/.386/.500 line with an OPS of .886, all far surpass his career marks against righties. His three home-runs in 57 plate appearances actually fall short of his career hr rate, but his overall presence in the lineup has been more well-rounded this season.
He has not been a major run producer for the team, as his batting average with runners in scoring position has been a paltry .200, with an OPS of .662. Similarly, with runners in scoring position and two outs, he is hitting a meager .111, with an OPS of .311. These statistics should all be viewed with the knowledge that the sample size is extremely small and could be swayed significantly with success or failure in either direction.
However, Thames has redeemed himself in close and late scenarios hitting .467/.500/.933 with a massive 1.433 OPS and two of his four home-runs. Once again, a minuscule sample size, but that's what you're going to see out of a part-time player.
Clearly, when one of your season's four total home-runs is a walk-off shot against arch-rival Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox, you're going to endear yourself to Yankee fans. His recent performance, in the sweltering Arlington heat of August 11, when Thames belted an 8th inning solo shot to pull the Yankees within a run, then knocked in the eventual game-winning run in the 9th, to seal a crucial come-from-behind victory over the potential playoff foe Rangers, proved once again how valuable he has been to his team in 2010.
A few clutch moments and a Red Sox defeating blast don't win a player a Most Valuable Player award, but in an AL East battle as hotly contested as this year's version, every win can be critical. If the Yankees hope to repeat their performance as World Series champions, their division may come down to a game or two over the relentless Tampa Bay Rays.
If the ultimate margin of victory proves to be as close as it appears, the Yankees may have the crucial contributions of an unlikely hero, Marcus Thames, to thank for helping them towards their 28th World Series championship in 2010.