He's been loved and hated, feared and written off, a masher and a mercenary. He's been a great clubhouse presence and a symbol of everything wrong with the game of baseball. He's been an MVP and a disgrace. But as Jason Giambi enters his 20th year of professional baseball, the one thing he's always been is a guy who, by sheer force of personality, brings something special to whatever locker room he's in.
The Rockies inked Giambi to a minor league deal on Monday, although all indications are that he will eventually make the big league roster out of spring training. It would be Giambi's third season as a Rockie after he joined the club for the stretch run in 2009. At this point, Giambi's an American version of Matt Stairs, only less nomadic and with even less reason to own a glove. Though no longer the home-run hitting monster of the past, and no longer able to turn on the game's best fastballs, he can still take a walk and yank a slider into the home bullpen at Coors Field. The (literal) graybeard is Jim Tracy's trump card off the Rockies bench, and thanks to the versatility – real or imagined – of the other projected members of the position player portion of the 2011 Rockies roster, there's a space for the big man to fill.
It's rare that big league players have more than one act to their careers. In Giambi's case, his Rockies career represents a third act for a player who's been as high and as low as the game will allow.
Act 1: The New Face of Baseball: Giambi made the big leagues with Oakland in 1995 and quickly became a reliable power threat, hitting 20 homers in each of his first two big league campaigns. That number jumped to 27 in 1998 and then 33 in 1999, the first of his great years. Giambi hit .315 and drove in 123 runs for the best A's team in nearly a decade. It was the beginning of a three year run in which he was arguably the best hitter in the American League:
99: .315/.422/.553, 33 HR, 123 RBI, 105 BB, 153 OPS+
00: .333/.476/.647, 43 HR, 137 RBI, 137 BB, 187 OPS+ (MVP)
01: .342/.477/.660, 38 HR, 120 RBI, 129 BB, 198 OPS+ (MVP runner up)
Giambi was the biggest name on the most surprising team in baseball – the upstart A's won the West in 2000 and won 102 games and the Wild Card in 2001. You, of course, know these as the 'Moneyball years'. Giambi looked like the baddest dude in the league, but he led one of the loosest clubhouses in the game as fans of baseball who had tired of the dominance of the free-spending Yankees warmed to the A's as the plucky alternatives.
Then, of course, Giambi became a free agent.
Act 2: The Regretful Yankee: It's not as though Giambi was a failure in pinstripes. His batting average dipped to just .260 in those seven seasons, but his OPS+ as a Yankee was only one point off of his OPS+ in Oakland (143 to 144). He hit 41 homers in each of his first two seasons with the team and drove in over 100 runs three times. But Yankee fans expected MVP awards and World Series trophies when Giambi signed his seven year, $120 million contract, and they got neither.
Worse, Giambi became embroiled in the burgeoning steroid scandal, which marred his 2004 season as the feds investigated his ties to BALCO and his grand jury testimony, in which he admitted steroid use, was leaked. A humiliated Giambi apologized prior to the 2005 season, and again during the 2007 season.
Giambi's skills, now in question due to his ties to performance enhancing drugs, began to deteriorate. He batted .247 with 32 homers in his last year as a Yankee, suggesting there was something left in the tank, but in 2009 a return to Oakland flopped as he batted .193 and posted a .697 OPS in 328 AB. It looked like the end of a fine career.
Act 3: The Elder Statesman: When the Rockies signed Giambi to a minor-league contract in August of 2009, it barely registered. But the Rockies had a need for an experienced bench bat as they made their playoff push, and Giambi provided exactly that. He batted .292 with a pair of homers in 31 plate appearances with the Rox, including decisive pinch hits in two of his first three games with the team. Last year Giambi returned for a full season and saw himself pressed into extended duty due to Todd Helton's injury woes. He batted .244 with a .378 OBP, adding six homers and 35 driven in in 222 PA. Though the bat didn't thunder often, it did so in some memorable situations, such as his game-winning two-run homer off Boston's Jonathan Papelbon in Denver on July 23rd and his walk-off two-run blast to beat Arizona on Sept. 12 for a 10th Rockies victory in a row.
Away from the shadows that covered him in New York, Giambi became a fan favorite in Denver. It's difficult not to enjoy the experience of Giambi lumbering out of the dugout in the late innings with the "nWo Wolfpack" theme playing over the Coors Field speakers. He only batted .235 in pinch situations last year, but he remains a trump card, particularly with his ability to work a walk and keep an inning alive in addition to the power he's still got left. The players love him, too, and he seems destined for a role as a hitting instructor someday.
Is he a great fit for the 2011 Rockies? That's debatable. His presence on the roster is based on the idea that players like Ty Wigginton, Jonathan Herrera and Eric Young Jr. could handle the outfield – which, well, I can pick up a stick and wave it in the air, but that doesn't mean I should conduct the Boston Pops. But the players and his manager will enjoy having Giambi around, and when he deposits a pitch into the right field seats to win a game, the fans will too. After all, this third act wouldn't be complete without the one thing that's eluded him his entire career – a ring.