Playing a leadership role without playing much
Giambi, Tejada among those whose value has evolved as career winds down
CLEVELAND -- Jason Giambi strode toward a table in the middle of the Indians clubhouse and dropped a piece of paper on it.
"Hey, guys," he said to his teammates scattered around the room, "I need everybody to write down their name and number."
One by one, the members of the Tribe did as instructed, the phone list filling quickly.
"Everybody should have everybody's number," Giambi would say later. "You're like a family in here, six months out of the year. So there shouldn't be any excuses for why you didn't call a guy or why you didn't invite somebody to dinner or why you didn't get invited to dinner. I like everybody to be on the same page and to spend time together."
That Giambi is still spending time on an active roster at the Major League level is a testament to two things -- his willingness to put ego aside and serve as a role player in a sport in which he once starred, and the value some clubs, like the Indians, place on chemistry and veteran input even in an era of increasingly sophisticated statistics.
Roster spots are precious, after all, so careful consideration is given even to the 25th men on those rosters. At this point in his career, the 42-year-old Giambi, who is 13 years removed from his AL MVP heyday, might provide production at a replacement level. In other words, his offensive numbers -- and, to be clear, his viability at first base is extremely limited at this juncture -- might equal what the Indians could expect to get out of your average Minor League call-up or bench player (last year, in primarily a pinch-hitting role with the Rockies, Giambi contributed a minus-0.2 Wins Above Replacement stat, according to Baseball Reference).
Giambi's value, therefore, rests largely in moments like this, when he's attempting to improve the chemistry component on a team that is simultaneously trying to win and rebuild.
"When Giambi has something to say," said staff ace Justin Masterson, "everybody listens."
No data point can be found to assess this impact. The only data we have on Giambi thus far in 2013 is that he went 0-for-4 in his Cleveland debut Sunday, after sitting on the disabled list for the first two weeks of the season with a so-called back injury while the Indians navigated through some starting pitching complexities that ate up his roster spot.
Some suggestions have been made for pseudo-scientific means to evaluate the impact of a guy like Giambi. Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus wrote an interesting piece earlier this year that suggested surveying players in a clubhouse to determine how their social network within the clubhouse impacts their happiness and, ergo, their performance.
Really, though, we'll never be able to evaluate off-the-field impact the way we do on-the-field performance.
"You don't quantify it," said Indians general manager Chris Antonetti, "you just enjoy it."
Giambi is still enjoying it, and he is a bit of a rare breed: the superstar turned role player. While there have been many notable players limited by injuries later in life, there aren't many who have willingly signed on with a team knowing they'd spend more time on the bench than off it.
A few, somewhat recent examples: Rickey Henderson faded into the sunset with the Red Sox and Dodgers, Tim Raines signed on to be a pinch-hitter for the Marlins in 2002, Jim Thome did the same 10 years later with the Phillies and Andruw Jones spent the past two seasons in a backup role for the Yankees.
Interestingly, the Athletics' two Most Valuable Players from the early 2000s now both reside in the American League Central: Giambi with the Indians and Miguel Tejada with the Royals.
"He's taken a few guys under his wing," Royals manager Ned Yost said of Tejada this spring. "Coming in, the report on him was that he was always a good guy in the clubhouse and a good teammate. What a good teammate does is make his teammates better. That's what he strives to do every day."
That's all Tejada and Giambi can reasonably strive to do at this stage of the game, and the first key is acknowledging as much.
"I was on top of the world, winning the MVP and then playing in New York," Giambi said. "But deep down, I always just loved to play the game. That's why I'm still here. I was lucky when I got to the big leagues, because guys passed on knowledge to me. I feel I have to pass it on to the next generation. If you think about it, that's how you keep your name in this game."
Giambi was actually a legitimate managerial candidate at the end of 2012, going through the interview process with the Rockies, for whom he served a part-time playing role the previous three-plus seasons, before they decided to bring Walt Weiss aboard. It is a credit to Giambi's reputation in the game that he has overcome, by virtue of simple honesty, the stigma of his admitted steroid use to become a potential manager-in-waiting.
Said Antonetti: "He will impact whatever organization he's with, in whatever role."
If you referred to Giambi today as a sort of "player-coach" for the Tribe, he'd wear the label with pride.
"He's been through so much," said third base coach Brad Mills. "So if we need to reach a player, we can say to [Giambi], 'Hey, how do we reach this guy?' Because he's in that locker room with him, he's on the field with him, he's in the hitting group with him."
He has the guy's phone number, too.