Does Giambi Have One More Season Under His Belt?
Bob Toth | On 09, Mar 2014
The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who is in a roster battle to earn one of the Tribe’s last spots on the Opening Day roster.
When Jason Giambi signed with the Cleveland Indians prior to the 2013 season, most assumed it was one last fleeting attempt from the long-time slugger to hang on in the game of baseball.
With the holes of the previous season plugged with offseason additions Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs, Mark Reynolds, Mike Aviles, and Yan Gomes, there did not appear to be a place for a guy like Giambi, purely and just an occasional power-hitting option unable to hit his weight or play in the field at 42 years of age.
After making the roster, Giambi offered his share of memorable moments over the course of the 2013 season, even if his stat line lacked the impressive figures the back of his baseball cards once boasted.
Even more valuable than his contributions at the plate, and harder to quantify, was the veteran, playoff-tested leadership he provided to a young clubhouse in need of guidance.
Giambi is a future coach in the making. Few players can claim to have interviewed for a Major League managerial opportunity (Colorado after the 2012 season) before continuing on with their professional playing career.
Giambi is just that man.
The long-time Oakland A’s and New York Yankees slugger seemingly survived his association with performance enhancing drugs earlier in his career and disappeared from the spotlight of the Big Apple for parts of four seasons with the Colorado Rockies from 2009 to 2012. After the completion of the 2012 campaign, one in which he hit just .225 with one home run and eight runs batted in in limited pinch-hitting opportunities and 13 appearances as the team’s first baseman, it did not appear that Giambi had anything left in the tank to give.
Despite a pair of interviews in Denver, the Rockies elected to give the job to another former Oakland A’s player, Walt Weiss. The Rockies hoped to retain Giambi as a member of Weiss’ coaching staff, but he declined. It opened the door for him to resume his playing career, signing a $750,000 minor league contract with a spring training invite with Cleveland.
He won the job out of camp and became a pseudo-coach on the bench of manager Terry Francona.
Giambi appeared in 71 games last season, the most game action he had seen since 2010. He hit a career-worst .183 with a .282 on-base percentage. He led the Indians in appearances at designated hitter.
His ability to lead by example became apparent in his seventh start of the year, a 14-2 ball game against the Philadelphia Phillies at home on April 30th. In the eighth inning, Giambi ripped a shot to first baseman Ryan Howard, who knocked the ball down. Giambi hustled the entire way, despite the 12-run cushion, and with the possibility of a close play at first, he dove head first into the bag.
What was notably different for Giambi last season was the return of the long ball. After hitting 13 home runs in 2011 for the Rockies, he managed just one bomb in 2012. For the Indians, he slugged nine, including three pinch-hit shots, two walk-off blasts, and one season-saving home run that will go down in Indians’ lore for years to come.
On July 29th at home against the Chicago White Sox, Giambi entered the game in the bottom of the ninth of a 2-2 tie game. Pinch-hitting for Reynolds to lead off the frame, Giambi drove a 1-1 pitch into the trees beyond the center field wall. It was his ninth career walk-off home run and made him the oldest player in Major League history to hit a walk-off shot. It pushed the Indians’ home winning streak to eight straight games at the time.
One of the biggest hits in recent Indians’ history came on September 24th. The Indians were still in the thick of the American League Wild Card race and coming off of a four-game sweep of the Houston Astros at Progressive Field. With two final home games on the card, struggling closer Chris Perez allowed a pair of solo home runs to Chicago’s Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza, sandwiched around a pair of swinging strikeouts, to blow the save and give the White Sox a 4-3 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth.
Chicago closer Addison Reed struck out Gomes before Michael Brantley singled to right. Aviles struck out and with injury-replacement Matt Carson coming to the plate, Giambi entered the game as a pinch-hitter. Again, on a 1-1 pitch, Giambi swung on and belted a hanging 80 miles per hour breaking ball into the Cleveland skyline.
A bat flip at the plate. The ball sailing into the lower reserve in right field adjacent to the visiting bullpen. A mob scene at home plate.
Now, an image emblazoned on the walls in the underground confines of Progressive Field.
The monstrous shot seemed fitting of a man wearing the number 25 for Cleveland. The fans in attendance erupted, hugged, gave high fives, and stood in awe, unable to leave the ballpark.
The shot was the eleventh walk-off of the season for the Indians and the tenth such home run of the 19-year career of Giambi. The win propelled the club to five more victories and the opportunity to host a playoff game in Cleveland for the first time since 2007.
Giambi finished the season with eight doubles, nine home runs, and 31 runs batted in from his bench role.
The Indians re-signed Giambi to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training at the start of the free agency signing period.
It remains to be seen if the former AL MVP has one more season under his belt. Whether or not he is able to, though, could play a big role in the makeup of the 2014 roster.
“There is no better way to start our offseason than to re-sign Jason Giambi,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti was quoted following the move. “He made such a huge impact on our team. He embodies everything we’re looking for in our players.”
The versatile lineup assembled by Antonetti and company seems to provide Francona the luxury of carrying a player of Giambi’s ilk without sacrificing from the club. Many of the outfielders are interchangeable. Swisher can fill in at first base, right field, or designated hitter. Carlos Santana can now claim both corner infield positions in his repertoire in addition to handling part-time catching duties. Bench guys like Ryan Raburn and Aviles can wear multiple gloves as well.
While Giambi’s statistics last season were nothing to brag about, his clutch performances make him a threat and a dangerous left-handed stick, even at 43 years of age. Given Francona’s admiration of Giambi and all of the intangibles he brings to the team, he may have a home in Cleveland for at least one more year.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer