Veteran Giambi Provides Leadership—Will he Provide Offense?
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the Spring Invitees with a chance to make the Tribe’s Opening Day roster.
By Steve Eby
It’s been 18 years since Jason Giambi broke into the league with the Athletics in 1995 and it’s been 13 years since his 2000 American League MVP award. Eight years have passed since his batting average broke .270 and it’s been five since he cracked over 20 homeruns. Obviously, Giambi hasn’t been at the top of his game for a few years…yet, the Indians saw enough in the 42-year old left-handed slugger to sign Giambi to a minor league contract on February 9.
Gone are the days where Giambi would play every day and probably gone too is any reason for Giambi to own any kind of infielder’s mitt. Never again will he gather a single MVP vote, an All-Star bid, or be looked upon as one of the most feared hitters in the game of baseball. As it stands now, Jason Giambi is an old, grey-haired man who is just looking for (as fictional Indian Jake Taylor would put it) one more year in the sun.
Giambi will be fighting for a job this spring with a lot of guys who are a lot younger than he is. Ezequiel Carrera, Yan Gomes and Chris McGuiness were seven years old when Giambi made his major league debut on May 8, 1995. Cord Phelps was eight and old men Ben Francisco and Ryan Raburn were 13 and 14, respectfully. Needless to say, Giambi has his work cut out for him in earning a gig for what would be his 19th major league season.
It is certainly not, by any means, impossible for Giambi to break camp with the Indians, however. In fact, Giambi may even be a favorite to hold down one of the bench jobs and fill-in as a DH between one and three games a week. What Giambi brings that none of the other candidates can is a veteran leadership and a reputation as being one of the most well-respected players in the game today.
“He’s like the veteran,” Manager Terry Francona said in his February 14 press conference. “This guy interviewed for a manager’s job and I don’t think it’s too far from reality that he was a manager.”
The job that Giambi interviewed for was the managerial job for the Colorado Rockies this offseason. When the Rockies decided to part ways with Jim Tracy after a 98-loss season, Giambi decided to make his first run at being a big league skipper with the team he would have been retiring from. Colorado ultimately chose to hire another former Rockie, Walt Weiss, and Giambi decided to try to give his playing career one more go.
“I want to give it one more shot and see what I have left,” Giambi said in a Paul Hoynes article from the Plain Dealer. If the veteran has almost anything left in him, it seems like Francona and the Indians are excited to give him a chance.
“I truly feel like it’s an honor to have him in our camp,” Francona said. “That’s how strongly I feel about this guy.”
Francona has been infatuated with the former third baseman since the beginning. “I go all the way back to the Fall League with this kid when he played third base,” Francona said. “I used to tell him, ‘you’re going to play for me someday.’”
Francona’s vision has finally become a reality, but that “kid’s” career has not been all of the glitz and glamor that an 18-year veteran with a lifetime .280 batting average, 429 homeruns and 1,405 RBI really should have been. In 2003, the FBI listed Giambi’s name as one of the players who received steroids in the BALCO investigation. Like all of the other names that have been associated with PED’s, HGH and other steroids, Giambi will never be looked at the same in the eyes of baseball fans or, if recent history is any indication, Hall of Fame voters as well. In Giambi’s view, however, all of the steroid talk is water under the bridge.
“That was almost 10-years ago,” Giambi said. “I hope it’s in the past. Major League Baseball has been incredible about (testing) and being diligent about it. If this would have been around when I was a young player, I wouldn’t have gone through that. Unfortunately, we didn’t have testing then.”
Regardless of his tainted numbers and stained past, Giambi remains as one of baseball’s longest tenured veterans and has a real shot to make a clubhouse impact on the Indians, hopefully in the same positive way that a 43-year old Dave Winfield did when he signed with the Indians back in Giambi’s rookie season of 1995. It’s the knowledge and willingness to help the younger players that could give Giambi a leg up in the battle for the bench spots.
“When I broke in with Oakland, I had a great opportunity with Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach and Dennis Eckersley,” Giambi said. “They really helped me through my learning curve. I’d like to do that here. I think that’s how you pass the game on.”
“He’s everything you want in a player,” Francona said. “He’s a good teammate, respects the game and wants to win.”
Still a team player, but obviously not stupid, even Giambi has his limits, however. “I told Tito as long as I can get four at bats in one game once, twice or three times a week and don’t always have to pinch hit against a guy throwing 100-mph in the ninth inning, I’ll take it.”
That outlook is probably a realistic one for Giambi to take. If he makes the team, Giambi will likely be seen as a pinch-hitter, backup designated hitter, emergency first baseman, veteran figurehead and honorary, “eighth coach”. It would take finding the Fountain of Youth for Giambi to crack the everyday lineup, and unfortunately for him, the Indians left Ponce de Leon-territory when they moved their spring training back to Arizona a few years back. As it stands, Giambi would fill his limited role on the bench and would likely take away a roster spot from one of the Tribe’s young bats.
It’s nearly a slam dunk that backup catcher Lou Marson and utility infielder Mike Aviles will take two of the four bench spots that will be available after the Tribe heads to Toronto for Opening Day. If Giambi makes the team, the fourth player would probably be an outfielder (most likely Raburn, Francisco or Carrera) and the Indians would have to send the promising young catcher/corner infielder Gomes to Triple-A.
It will not be the impossible hill that some may have thought Giambi would have to climb in order to make the Indians’ Opening Day roster, but the veteran slugger certainly will not have a job gift wrapped for him either. Francona speaks very highly of Giambi, but certainly owes him nothing and would not waste a roster spot on a player whose tank is on empty. If Giambi shows some life, hits a little bit, and takes the young Tribe players under his wings, he probably will make the team. If he proves to be too old or fragile, Francona may not have to look too far for another assistant coach.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Plain Dealer