We’re only a few weeks into Spring Training and we’ve already hit all the highlights we’ve come to associate with baseball in February and March. Writers are waxing poetic about baseball and rebirth, players are in the best shape of their lives, and perennially hapless teams are optimistic about the impending campaign. All the while, a creaky veteran or two tries to convince management that they can coax one more year out of their beat up body.
One such player is Jason Giambi. The forty-two year old, fresh off of a bizarre offseason that nearly saw him hang up his spikes to manage the Colorado Rockies, is trying to latch on as a part time DH with Cleveland. And with this being Spring Training, everybody has pleasant things to say about the experiment. In the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Paul Hoynes quoted Terry Francona saying that Giambi “is everything you want in a ballplayer” and that he’s “the veteran of veterans.” Giambi for his part seems willing to embrace his role as clubhouse papa: “When I broke in… Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach, and Dennis Eckersley… really helped me through my learning curve. I’d like to do that here.” All in all, Giambi comes across as a man in peace with his place in the game and content with the fact that his career is nearing its end.
That said, he does want to play this season. He never saw the field all that much in Colorado and his playing time bottomed out last year when he started just eighteen games. Rooted in his desire to stick with Cleveland is his hope that he’ll get more chances to hit: “I told (Francona) 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… I’ll take it.”
If he does make the team, Giambi might get his wish. For all of their off-season upgrades, the Tribe still have several weaknesses and there are a few personnel decisions they can implement that would get Giambi in the lineup regularly. Francona might not want Mark Reynolds (101 career wRC+ against righties) hitting as a DH every day, and if Drew Stubbs doesn’t rebound from his horrible 2012 season at the plate, Giambi might find himself an indirect beneficiary on days the skipper opts to move Nick Swisher to right and shifts Reynolds to first. In a weak American League Central, the Indians will be fighting tooth and nail to nab a playoff spot, and if Giambi can still hit, he’s going to find himself in the lineup.
But for better or worse, Giambi’s unlikely to significantly contribute to the Cleveland lineup. Since 1960, there have only been twenty-four instances where a first basemen or DH forty-two years old or older received at least 100 plate appearances. (Julio Franco, amazingly, accounts for seven of them himself.) Here’s how that group has performed:
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that aging ballplayers without much athleticism tend to be done by age forty-two, but it doesn’t bode well for Giambi this season. Just eleven of these players posted a wRC+ better than league average and Carl Yastrzemski’s 2 wins above replacement in 1982 lead the group. Worse, only nine of those players in the sample slugged above .400, a paltry figure for the position.
At best, the former Oakland and Yankee slugger could eek out a win or two with smart platooning, a decent amount of rest, and perhaps most of all, some power. Thump was noticeably absent from Giambi’s game last season, when he slugged just .303 with one homer in 113 plate appearances while playing in Coors Field. If he can’t demonstrate more power than that, he has no business breaking camp with the Indians.
There is reason for hope: he did bash thirteen bombs while slugging .603 over 152 PA’s in 2011, and even during his dismal campaign last year, he maintained a healthy 17.7 BB%. Provided that Giambi’s power outage was the product of a small sample accumulated mostly against hard throwing relievers in inconsistent doses, there’s reason to believe he’s worth a gamble. But history shows that even the players who are still earning a pay check in the game at age forty-two are usually unable to hit with pop. Giambi will have to be the exception to the rule to last a full season in Cleveland.
Filed under: Digging Deep - Analysis Tagged: | Mark Reynolds, Willie Mays, Drew Stubbs, Pete Rose, Nick Swisher, Cleveland Indians, Terry Francona, Darrell Evans, Jason Giambi, Julio Franco, Graig Nettles, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Perez, Andres Galarraga, Hank Aaron, Dave Winfield, Willie McCovey