With Jason Giambi Retiring, Who Will Lead Tribe Clubhouse?


Big G’s Retirement Leaves Hole in Locker Room

For the first time since Terry Francona became manager of the Cleveland Indians before the 2013 campaign, the Indians will break camp without a clear veteran leader in the clubhouse. Jason Giambi had assumed that role for the two previous seasons, contributing mainly in pinch-hit and fill-in DH scenarios, his defining moment coming on a clutch walk-off homer down the stretch in 2013 that ultimately helped push the Tribe into the Wild Card game.

However, Tito and the Tribe raved about his ability to make an impact in the locker room. Locker room presence is an abstract concept that seems illogical in today’s analytical, data-flooded baseball world. Yet, teams continue to hold spots on the 25 man roster for the likes of Giambi despite diminishing physical skill and limited ability to contribute in a tangible way.

In 2013 and 2014 respectively, Giambi contributed -0.5 and -0.4 WAR respectively per Fangraphs. Last year, he played in only 26 games, slashing .130/.133/.257. Certainly, at least on the surface, the Indians could have made better use of that roster spot, perhaps seeing 26 more games of a young power bat like Jesus Aguilar. So, what led Terry Francona to continue to lean on a 43 year-old veteran with little left in the tank?

The answer deals with Giambi’s presence in the locker room. Veteran presence, though unquantifiable, is nonetheless a reality in Major League Baseball. In 2013, without the clutch, storybook walk-off homer against Addison Reed on that memorable September night, Jason Giambi looks like a total waste of a roster spot on the stat sheet. The same can be said of the last two seasons for new Indians front office assistant John McDonald, who contributed roughly -1.0 WAR in 146 games in that span, mostly with the LA Angels.

The reality is neither the 2013 Indians nor the 2014 Angels would have made the postseason without the contributions of their timeless veterans. Guys like Giambi and Johnny Mac can be real stabilizing forces in clubhouses, reaching players in ways managers are unable to. Especially when the roster expands late in the season and young players flood locker rooms, veterans become fountains of knowledge. Players and coaches rave about veteran presence for a reason, tangible or not.

The bottom line is that the Indians will miss Giambi in 2015. They will miss his knowledge of the game, his calming presence, and his fearlessness as a pinch hitter late in games.

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But most of all, they will miss Big G for his selflessness. My favorite Giambi moment in Cleveland was not the walk-off homer against the White Sox. Instead, it was when he came out of the dugout the night the Tribe retired Jim Thome’s No. 25 jersey. Giambi approached Thome at home plate and vowed to never wear the number again, signing his name on his No. 25 jersey and handing it over to Thome.

Giambi was a model of class, and for me, that moment epitomized what he meant to the team. His shoes are certainly not fillable by just one member of the 2015 Tribe. It will take a concerted effort by the veterans on the team to become a new, strong voice for the younger players.

Big G was a fantastic mentor for emerging leaders and stars Kluber, Brantley, and Yan Gomes. The Indians were lucky to have him, and now guys like the aforementioned trio will need to step up and revive the locker room come the inevitable tough stretches in the grueling 162 game campaign. Though there is no explicit position battle for locker room leader in Spring Training, who steps up and takes on that role is certainly something to watch as the team reports to Goodyear this week.