For a very long time, first baseman for the New York Yankees has been one of the most prestigious and productive positions in all of baseball. Outside of a few short blips and blurs, it has seen only four regular starters over a period spanning 32 seasons. In that stretch, Don Mattingly, Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi - who at 43 is still technically a Major League Baseball player - and Mark Teixeira - who is plodding closer to that technically distinction every day - have combined to slug 765 home runs, win 12 Gold Gloves and earn 11 All-Star berths. It hasn't always been a bed of roses, though, for the latter two members of the group. Together, Giambi and Teixeira cost the Yankees $300 million to sign and neither truly reached the gargantuan expectations heralded by their hefty contacts.
The parallels between Giambi's and Teixeira's Yankee careers aren't limited to their struggles to meet the high hopes that greeted them in New York. Both kicked off their pinstriped tenures with world class seasons. Giambi hit .314/.435/.598 in 2002. He finished fifth in the AL MVP race, and highlighted the campaign with his Yankees Classic-worthy walk-off grand slam in the rain on May 17th. Teixeira had a prolific year of his own in 2009. He batted .292/.383/.565, placed second for MVP and helped the team win its 27th World Series crown with an ALDS extra-inning walk-off homer against Minnesota.
But for both players, things began to slide after year one. Giambi's OPS dipped by nearly .100 in 2003 and his strikeout rate shot up to 20.3 percent, then a career worst by far. Teixeira saw a similarly drastic tail-off in 2010, putting up the lowest marks since his rookie year in wRC+, wOBA and ISO. Giambi and Teixeira each struggled to stay healthy throughout their time in the Bronx. Giambi lost half of 2004 to a non-cancerous tumor and half of 2007 to a plantar fascia tear and Teixeira has battled an unceasing array of nagging issues since 2010 (though they did not force him to miss significant time until 2012) culminating in 2013's torn ECU sheath in his wrist from which he still hasn't fully recovered. Giambi and Teixeira have both been knocked repeatedly for falling in love with Yankee Stadium's short right field porch and becoming too pull-happy, and for refusing to adjust their swings to hit away from the extreme defensive over-shifts that opposing infields have routinely harassed them with.
The numbers remind us that things haven't been all bad for Giambi or for Teixeira in New York. Here's a look at what they each did to earn their massive commitments from the Yankees compared with what they produced after signing those deals:
|Giambi (As NYY)||897||3,693||145||.398||.261||16.8||20.9|
|Teixeira (As NYY)||723||3,168||123||.362||.233||11.6||15.4|
Giambi's offensive output pretty much dwarfs Teixeira's. He was a better hitter before joining the Yankees, despite playing in a much less favorable park for hitters and he managed to maintain a level much closer to his prior standard even as he aged. After looking dead in the water in '04 and '07, Giambi rose from the ashes each time, slugging his way to a 156 wRC+ and .414 wOBA in 2005-2006 and a 131 wRC+ and .378 wOBA in 2008 at age 37. Teixeira has suffered through a much steadier decline. His OBP, wOBA and wRC+ have dipped each year between 2008 and the present to form the maddeningly pedestrian numbers we see before us today. Teixeira did start off decently this year, posting a .241/.341/.464 triple-slash in the first half, but he's crumbled since then, crawling to a hideous .581 OPS after the All-Star break. He still has two years left on his contract to turn things around, as much as the Yankees probably wish he didn't. The first half numbers do suggest there's something left in the chamber and a fully functional off-season could yield a return to health, as Teixeira himself has publicly wished, but it's getting harder to believe that a late-career resurgence is actually in the cards.
On the defensive side, the pendulum swings in Teixeira's favor. The should've-been-a-DH Giambi owned a UZR/150 of -7.7 in 3,958 1/3 defensive innings as a Yankee first baseman, whereas Teixeira's in 5,979 innings is 5.2. That difference isn't quite as stark as one might expect, but UZR doesn't tell the full story here. UZR judges range on balls hit but not on balls thrown, and corralling errant passes from fellow infielders has always been one of Teixeira's strengths. Derek Jeter, for example, has committed 25 throwing errors in the five seasons where Teixeira has manned first regularly compared with 38 in the five years when Giambi made 68 or more starts there. Giambi's complete inability to throw the ball - anywhere - allowed runs to score from third on poorly-hit grounders and it made pick-offs and 3-6-3 double plays incredibly daunting tasks. The fact that Giambi's career wRC+ was 115 as a DH, compared with 150 as a first baseman, coupled with the Yankees' inability to find a suitable backup from the likes of Nick Johnson, Travis Lee and Doug Mientkiewicz, forced his glove into action far too often. Giambi played first - or attempted to - in roughly 56 percent of his Yankee games.
From a financial standpoint, Giambi's seven-year $120 million contract seems somewhat puny next to Teixeira's eight years and $180 million, but when adjusted to reflect the team's overall spending, the two deals actually cost the Yankees close to the same. Giambi's salary accounted for just over nine percent of the $1.26 billion that the team spent on its Opening Day payrolls between 2002 and 2008, while the $133.9 million that they've paid Teixeira so far has been worth around 10.6 percent of the $1.24 billion they've tossed around since 2009. For all that money, Teixeira's done a better job of serving as a model representative of the brand, outside of his sometimes bizarrely-worded statements regarding the health of his wrist and his preference to not switch his approach to fight the shift. Before the eternal melodrama of Alex Rodriguez took the stage, Giambi was a major culprit when it came to embarrassing Yankees brass, particularly during the BALCO PED scandal that broke in 2003. Though he's now one of the most respected older players in the game and seen by many as a future manager, Giambi will always be known, fairly or not, as one of the early faces of steroids in baseball. Then there's the Foul Territory web series, possibly Teixeira's greatest contribution to the Yankees so far, which totally trumps this atrocity of a deodorant commercial.
Which first baseman was a better investment for the Yankees? It really depends on your perspective of team-building. Do you take the great bat and the defensive flaws that come with it, or do you accept the offensive cliff dive in exchange for the better all-around skill set? In either case, what the Yankees might learn from this exercise is that seven and eight year deals for first baseman nearing or past thirty in the post-PED era are maybe not such a great idea.
The Rockies, Angels and Rangers might agree with that sentiment given their respective experiences with Todd Helton, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and for the Reds, the nine years left on Joey Votto's deal are suddenly looking a bit sketchy. MLB first basemen tend to be big, tightly muscled hard swingers--they're prone to strains, pulls and tears that can limit their effectiveness and bring a deadly loss of bat speed. Early dividends can make up for bad seasons toward the tail ends of contracts, but neither Giambi nor Teixeira stayed at the top of their game long enough to fully justify the Yankees' huge commitment.