GOODYEAR, Ariz.: Is there any doubt that Jason Giambi will leave spring training in possession of an Indians roster spot?
Manager Terry Francona has announced no such thing, and the club has made no official announcement about Giambi’s status. As of today, he’s just another 42-year-old former All-Star who’s laboring in camp on a minor-league contract.
But don’t be fooled by such formalities. It is clear by Francona’s words that he wants Giambi on the team, because the manager believes he can still hit and that he will light up the clubhouse with his charismatic aura.
These are some of the things Francona has said about Giambi since the outset of spring training:
• “He’s not just a veteran guy, he’s the veteran guy. The guy interviewed for a manager’s job, and I don’t think it’s too far from reality to think he could have gotten it. I truly think it’s an honor to have him in camp.”
Francona said those things on Feb. 13, only a few days after camp opened and five days after Giambi signed with the Tribe.
• “He’s not going to play against left-handers.”
By inference, Giambi is going to play against righties, and it’s unlikely that Francona was talking about spring exhibition season exclusively.
• “He doesn’t swing at bad pitches ever, and he still has his bat speed, so I’ve been impressed.”
• “He’s always out there taking grounders at first base. Sometimes I’ll wave him off [the field]. He’s 42. We didn’t get him to run a marathon.”
• Wednesday, Francona repeated the words about Giambi being “the veteran guy” and added, “He’s not just helping the young guys. He’s helping the older guys and me. I think I’ve gone to him three times.
“He commands that kind of respect. When he walks into a room, guys want to talk to him. He has a lot of knowledge, and he has a good way of conveying it. The fact he interviewed to be a manager speaks volumes about the way people look at him.”
When Francona was asked if Giambi had reached a point where he had to play himself off the team to blow a roster spot, he said: “There’s no denying we love him. But I don’t want to talk about the roster, because it could upset other guys. If everyone stays healthy, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”
Keeping Giambi falls into that category, which is why it might not be a done deal.
Because Giambi isn’t likely to play in the field unless it is absolutely necessary, the other two utility players must be able to cover every infield and outfield position.
Mike Aviles, who signed a two-year guaranteed contract, already has made the team, though again, nobody has carved that in stone. Aviles has been an everyday shortstop, but he also plays third, second, left and right field.
The contenders for the other utility job are Ryan Raburn, Ben Francisco, Ezequiel Carrera and possibly Yan Gomes. Raburn has the edge on all of them, because he plays the outfield and second base. In addition, Raburn has been a steady big-league performer before enduring a season-long slump in 2012.
Francisco and Carrera are strictly outfielders, but there’s a catch that might work in Carrera’s favor. He is out of options, so if the Tribe wants to send him to Triple-A, he will have to clear waivers. Gomes, who has played little in the majors, plays several positions, but the Indians view him as a catcher, possibly an everyday catcher in the future.
Giambi is 1-for-13 in exhibition games, getting his first hit Wednesday on a fly ball lost in the sun and first two RBI, one on a well-hit sacrifice fly to the track.
But spring training is a notoriously poor place to evaluate players, and it isn’t likely that Francona will base his judgment on Giambi’s Arizona batting average. As long as the manager sees a quick bat, Giambi’s numbers won’t make much if any difference.
“The last thing we’ll look at is batting average,” Francona said. “He’s had a pretty good approach all spring.”
For the past four years Giambi didn’t make much of an impact with the Colorado Rockies and Oakland Athletics. Last year, he received only 89 at-bats and hit .225 with 14 doubles and one home run. But in 2011, it took him only 131 at-bats to produce six doubles.
The question is how much can Giambi contribute at the plate in a part-time role. Right-handed hitting Mark Reynolds will be the everyday designated hitter and probably see every left-handed pitcher plus most righties.
So whether there’s enough to keep Giambi busy will play into the decision to keep him.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.