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October 31, 2003

Looking forward: First Base
by Larry Mahnken

After the Yankees lost the fourth game of the World Series, Joe Torre juggled the lineup, benching Alfonso Soriano and playing Nick Johnson instead of Jason Giambi. When David Wells had to leave after one inning, the bullpen gave up six runs, enough to hold of New York for a 6-4 win. Soriano and Giambi came in to pinch hit in the later innings, though Giambi was inexplicably sent to the plate with nobody on in the ninth, instead of the bases loaded in the seventh. After the series, some of the blame for the loss was directed towards Giambi, who some claimed "begged" out of the lineup--although other reports are that Torre pulled him after seeing him limping. Jon Heyman and Mike Lupica have played this up as a character flaw, Lupica wrote that an another Yankee said that Paul O'Neill would have hidden the injury from Torre. Therefore, Jason Giambi is not Paul O'Neill, and thus is not a winner. Gotta dump him.

Jon Heyman actually suggested that. He also said that Giambi went from "zero" to "sub-zero" this postseason. Because he didn't actually hit those two home runs off of Pedro.

Giambi didn't have a bad postseason by any standard except the one he's set for himself. He only hit .237, but he had a .357 OBP and a .849 OPS--including those 2 HRs vs. Pedro. Derek "Clutch" Jeter had an .856 OPS this postseason. Giambi did fine. But he usually does better. Hell, he was better last season, with a 1.071 OPS in the ALDS.

Why didn't he do better this postseason? Well, it wasn't his character, it was that knee, which has been bothering him all season, and contributed greatly to his worst offensive season since 1998. Of course, he was still one of the five best hitters in the league, but if he had been healthy, his batting average would have been closer to .300, and his OPS would have been around 1.000. Perhaps Giambi might have had surgery on the knee earlier in the season had Jeter, Johnson and Williams not been injured, and perhaps have come back strong for the postseason, but it wasn't an option that they could afford (and he probably wouldn't have fully recovered this season, if ever).

The media needs to label someone as the goat when expectations are not met, and I guess Aaron Boone and Alfonso Soriano weren't enough for them. But not only is Jason Giambi not one of the things that's wrong with the Yankees, he's one of the things that's right with them.

Sure, it would be nice if he wasn't locked up through his decline, but if that's the price you need to pay to have one of the best hitters in the game in the middle of your lineup, I think it's one worth paying. Unless the injury to Giambi's knee is much worse than currently believed, his OPS should be above .950 again next season.

Problem is, Giambi isn't a very good defensive player--not so much with catching the ball, but with throwing it. Defense isn't a crucial asset for a first baseman (although Shredder at Baseball Primer has pointed out that winning teams seem to usually have good defensive first basemen, but it's probably just a coincidence), but it makes it likely that Giambi will be the Yankees' designated hitter as long as Nick Johnson is on the team. In yet another unexplained correlation, Giambi's career OPS is .116 higher as a first baseman than as a DH, and was .205 higher in 2003. I don't claim to know why this is, or if it's real. Nick Johnson was better at first base than at DH this season, too, so I don't think it's worth playing Giambi at first base to find out.

As for Nick Johnson, I think he is going to be a great, great hitter, and he's already a pretty damn good one. His .894 OPS was third among American League first basemen this season, behind only Carlos Delgado and Jason Giambi, and his .318 EqA was ninth in the league, tied with Jorge Posada and Frank Thomas, better than Magglio Ordonez, Bret Boone and David Ortiz.

And Johnson is only 25, he's likely to get better than that. Earlier in the season, he was better than that, leading MLB in walks, and prompting Billy Beane to call him "another Jason Giambi". But then he broke a bone, and missed nearly 2½ months. The injury didn't seem to affect him, he was dominant with a 1.024 OPS in August, but was dreadful after that, putting up a dreadful .708 OPS in September and a .634 OPS in the postseason. But as terrible as that was, it doesn't concern me tremendously--good player have bad slumps sometimes--what does concern me is his odd proclivity for getting hurt, especially in the hands. He's missed time in three of the past four seasons with hand or wrist injuries, and I don't know whether it's bad luck or a harbinger of things to come. If Johnson stays healthy, I think it's likely that within the next two seasons, he'll be putting up numbers similar to those that Jason Giambi has put up in the past five. And even if he doesn't improve, he gets on base more than 40% of the time. I think I can live with a decade of that.

If the Yankees want to add a bat on the bench (and I think they should), they should keep switch-hitting International League MVP Fernando Seguignol on the roster. His huge numbers in AAA probably had a lot more to do with having mastered the minors rather than anything else, but he's a pretty good hitter--probably better than Ruben Sierra--has good power, and can fill in adequately in case Nick Johnson does get hurt again. He's certainly be better than last year's backup first baseman, Todd Zeile.

The Yankees don't need to make any moves at first base, and there's probably not any moves they can make that would make them better there, anyway. If the Yankees could get Carlos Beltran for Nick Johnson (they can't--Mike Sweeney), then I'd say claim Manny Ramirez and make that trade. It's unlikely the Yankees will get equal value for Nick in a trade, so I'm against them making any moves with him other than that one, and I don't think they will.