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The AL Central Report #16

The Detroit Tigers finally are showing signs in the past week of emerging from their first-half malaise, and outfielder/DH Marcus Thames has been a big part of their resurgence. Thames has eight hits in the Tigers’ last seven games, which wouldn’t normally be that unusual, except for the fact that all of those hits have been home runs.

(Ed. Note: Marcus Thames actually hit his eighth home run in this streak as this article was being posted.)

The Tigers have won six of their past seven and nine of their last eleven, vaulting themselves back into the picture in the American League Central. They now stand at 33–38, six and a half games behind the Chicago White Sox for first place, but only two games behind the Minnesota Twins for second.

As a right-handed hitter with limited defensive value, Thames (pronounced “Timms”) has carved out a niche as a lefty-masher with an all-or-nothing outlook at the plate. He is now hitting .250 for the season, with 13 homers and 29 RBI, but his .595 slugging percentage would be good enough for second place in the American League if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

Thames has had an interesting career path, one that shows that overlooked players on one team’s roster can be turned into useful parts for another squad given a change of scenery and an opportunity for playing time. After being drafted by the New York Yankees in the 30th round of the 1996 draft, Thames spent five full seasons in the minor leagues before making his big-league debut in June 2002 when the immortal Juan Rivera went down with an injured kneecap. Despite becoming the 82nd player in baseball history to hit a home run in his first major league at bat, Thames only got 12 more plate appearances before being sent down to the minor leagues for the rest of the season.

He struggled the remainder of the year for the Columbus Clippers, and got off to a cool start in 2003 before the Yankees exchanged him for aging Rangers slugger Ruben Sierra on June 6, 2003.

(Side note: This trade would set the stage for one of my most painful moments as a baseball fan. In October 2004, Sierra would effectively end the Minnesota Twins’ season with his three-run home run in Game 4 of their divisional playoff series at the Metrodome. Ruben Freaking Sierra? Although Sierra’s bomb only tied the game at 5–5 in the top of the eighth, it was clear from that point forward that the game would belong to the Yankees, and they eventually won in eleven innings. This is the only playoff game that I have ever attended in person. With the Twins leading 5–2 entering the eighth, rumors began circling in the crowd that Twins pitcher Brad Radke had already left on a flight for New York to prepare for the deciding fifth game, which he was slated to pitch the next day. That turned out to be a bit presumptuous.)

The Rangers called him up to their major-league team in July and kept him around as a bench piece the rest of the season. He didn’t do enough to impress, though, and being a seven-year minor league veteran, was able to become a free agent at the end of 2003. The Tigers signed him in that off-season, and he spent 2004 and 2005 absolutely crushing the ball for the Toledo Mud Hens and struggling mightily in Detroit as the Tigers slowly worked their way back to respectability. In 2006, both the Tigers and Thames had breakout seasons, as the team made it to the World Series and Thames blasted 26 homers and drove in 60 runs in less than 400 plate appearances. 2007 both Thames (sub-.300 OBP, 18 homers) and the team (missed the playoffs) took a step backward, and the team’s prognosis for 2008 has gone from “epic fail” to “maybe there’s still a chance” as we move through June. Thames took a while to get warmed up, too, hitting only 2 homers through mid-May, before his recent Dave Kingman impression.

Thames will likely never be an everyday major leaguer, but Jim Leyland and the Tigers have done a good job of recognizing what he is able to do well and giving him an opportunity to succeed. He was a complementary piece of their last successful team, and his contributions will be valuable if the Tigers are able to compete in the second half.

Another unique aspect of Thames’ life is his family background. His mother, Veterine, was paralyzed from the torso down in an automobile accident over 25 years ago, and she raised Marcus and his four siblings despite not being able to walk. Here’s an excellent article from 2006 about Thames and his mother.

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