Our Yankees by the Decade series continues today with a look at first base. After talking about the decade of Derek yesterday and Jorge’s time behind the dish on Wednesday. Today, we have an actual debate.
For this one, because the Yankees used 42 players at least once at first base, I limited our analysis to the guys who played at least 10 games at first over the decade. At some point or another, the Yankees decided to give these players somewhat regular playing time. It’s quite the list.
For the Yankees, finding a suitable first basemen took up a lot of resources in the 2000s. The 1980s belonged to Donnie Baseball, and the 1990s were split between a fading Mattingly and Tino Martinez. As the 2000s rolled around, Tino’s days in the Bronx were numbered. He hit an admirable .280/.329/.501 with 34 dingers and 113 RBI in 2001, but heading into his age 34 season, Tino was given his walking papers.
The Yankees turned their attention to the big fish that off-season: Jason Giambi. Coming off of some stellar years for the Oakland A’s, the Yankees desperately wanted to add Giambi’s bat to the lineup. For seven years and $120 million, they did just that. After hitting .330/.458/.617 over his final three years in the A’s, Giambi would be playing on the world’s biggest stage.
At first, he struggled in the Bronx. He didn’t homer until the Yanks’ ninth game of 2002 and didn’t appear to be the feared hitter the Yanks thought they were getting. That is, until the flood gates opened on May 17, 2002. That night, Giambi blasted a walk-off Grand Slam in the 12th inning as the Yanks downed the Twins 13-12. The Giambino had arrived. He would end the year with a .314/.435/.598 with 41 home runs and 122 RBI.
For Giambi, though, 2002 would represent his peak in the Bronx. The power would begin to tail off in 2003, and although the batting eye would remain stellar, Giambi began to break down. He missed half of 2004 with a variety of injuries and much of 2007 as well. He found himself in the eye of the steroid hurricane and could not escape controversy. He rebounded nicely in 2008, but with Mark Teixeira looming, Giambi was gone.
So is Jason Giambi then the first baseman of the decade? Offensively, he makes a strong case for himself. As a first baseman only — not as a DH — he hit .280/.420/.567 with 129 home runs in 28.44 percent of the Yanks’ first base ABs. Tino, who made a Bronx return in 2005, came in second in team first base ABs but hit just .262/.325/.452 and blasted just 64 home runs.
Yet, the Yankees spent much of the decade trying to find someone who could actually play defense at first. The team learned early on that Giambi was ill-equipped to handle the glove. He wasn’t confident in his throws and generally had poor range. His cumulative UZR at first during his Yankee years was a -18.8. Only once in his Yankee career did he play more than 92 games at first and that was in 2008 when the Yanks had no better options. From 2004-2007, he played just 204 of the Yanks’ 648 games in the field. He was, in other words, a very highly paid designated hitter who could be stuck at first base when need me.
To that end, the Yanks tried just about everything. They used Nick Johnson for much of 2003 at first and brought back Tino in 2005. They tried the all-glove Doug Mientkiewicz; they begged Andy Phillips to do anything with the bat at the big league level; and they even gave Miguel Cairo enough chances to accrue nearly 100 ABs as a first baseman. The situation was that dire.
As we sit here in 2009, we’re on the precipice of the decade of Mark Teixeira. Already third on the list of Yankee first baseman of the ’00s by plate appearances, Mark’s contract ensures that his glove and bat will occupy first base for much of the 2010s. It will be a stark contrast with the ’00s, a decade that belongs to Giambi’s bat but not his glove and one that saw many players try to man first with varying degrees of success.