On December 13th, 2001 the Yankees announced the signing of Jason Giambi to a 7 year contract worth a reported 120 million. Giambi was at the time one of the premier sluggers in the game, leading the AL in OBP (.477) and SLG (.660) the prior year. He came in 2nd in MVP voting to Ichiro Suzuki, after winning the award himself in 2000. The Yanks were looking to continue their championship run of the late 90′s, and the 2001 group finished a disappointing 5th in runs scored. Giambi’s signing was a clarion call to the baseball world that despite coming off a World Series berth, that type of run production would not be tolerated by the Yankees. Jason grew up in a family of Yankee fans, and by his account coming to play in the Bronx was fulfilling his Dad’s dream. His father, who played a large part in Jason’s career and was a steady influence on and off the field, was a huge fan of Mickey Mantle. Jason’s choice of #25 was a tribute to Mantle, since the original #7 was obviously unavailable.
That’s the story, at least as it was reported in the newspapers at the time. The back story was that internally in the Yankee front office, Brian Cashman opposed the move. He preferred to bring back Tino Martinez, who was still just 33 and coming off a solid if unspectacular .280/.329/.501 campaign with 34 HRs that year. He preferred to bring Tino back on a short deal and allow his star minor league prospect Nick Johnson time to develop and be incorporated as the everyday 1B over the next few years. Long term thinking, retaining a lesser player and waiting for a prospect who may not pan out is the type of argument that one loses with the Yankees with George in his heyday. Especially when one of the top run producers in the game is available for nothing more than money, which the Yanks always have in abundance.
So who was right? Even with the luxury of hindsight and looking back over the past 10 years, it’s still hard to say. Giambi’s tenure in pinstripes was marred by steroid-induced injuries and his fielding liabilities required the Yanks carry a defensive caddy, which was an annual waste of a roster spot that could have been utilized elsewhere. But his bat was supposed to make those types of concerns small potatoes. Here’s what Jason produced in his tenure in pinstripes, courtesy of Fangraphs:
Season Team WAR Dollars Salary
2002 Yankees 7.0 $18.1 $10.4
2003 Yankees 5.0 $14.1 $11.4
2004 Yankees 0.1 $0.2 $12.4
2005 Yankees 4.3 $14.6 $13.4
2006 Yankees 2.9 $10.8 $20.4
2007 Yankees 0.5 $2.1 $23.4
2008 Yankees 2.1 $9.3 $23.4
For the first two years of the deal, George really looked smart. The deal was back loaded, so he got a whopping 32.2 mil in production for just 21.8 mil in salary. From that point forward, the deal became an albatross. In the remaining 5 years of the deal from 2004-2008, the Yanks got 37 mil of production and paid a whopping 93 mil for the privilege. After averaging 6.0 WAR the first two seasons, Giambi averaged just 1.98 WAR per year for the remainder of the deal. Looking at it in its entirety, you’d have to conclude it was a bad signing.
But what of Brian’s plan? Bring back Tino and let Nick Johnson work his way into the everyday lineup? Tino moved on to the Cardinals in 2002, and had a disappointing and unhappy 2 year run. It’s fair to speculate that he would have been better in the Bronx, with that level lefty swing tailored for the short porch in right. But Giambi’s OPS in 2002 (1.034) and 2003 (.939) blew away that of Tino (.776/.781) those two years. Nick Johnson spent 02/03 as a backup player on the Yanks, and posted some good seasons with the Expos/Nats. But as we all know, Nick has never been able to stay healthy and has broken more bones than I care to remember. Even if he was with the Yankees, and they stayed on top of him to keep that bad body of his in shape, it’s difficult to argue his track record of poor health would have been any different in pinstripes. But Jason Giambi wasn’t exactly a picture of health from 04-08 either, so that’s a wash. What we can say for certain is Brian Cashman would have had far more flexibility to correct the situation if the low paid Johnson would have went down in 2006 and missed the entire 07 campaign if he was with the Yankees, as he did with the Nats. For example, Paul Konerko was available that year.
The Giambi signing set off a chain of events, none of which went well. Since Nick Johnson had nowhere to play with the Yankees, he was traded to the then Montreal Expos for Javier Vazquez. Javy had a disappointing 2004, parts of which are etched in the minds of Yankee fans for all the wrong reasons. Vazquez was dealt after that season for Randy Johnson, who was also a big disappointment as a Yankee and was another deal that Brian Cashman opposed internally. It’s fair to conclude that the Giambi signing was a bad move, and set off a chain of missteps by the team, each seeking to correct the prior. Looking back, it’s probably one of the reasons they decided to give Brian the keys to the baseball ops, and simply let him do his job.
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