"You have to combine the two," Beane said. "Jason brings it on the field and in the clubhouse. That's unique."
A true leader in this sport, at least in the estimation of Billy Beane, is a guy that can provide both a presence in the clubhouse and production on the field. In Beane's estimation, and in mine too, that type of leadership is special and worth pursuing and paying for. A true leader in this sport is a guy, like Jason Giambi, who might, statistically, make the 2009 A's 1 to 1.5 win(s) better based entirely on his production...but who might also make the guys around him raise their games via his presence and who's true impact to the team might be more in the range of 2 to 3 wins.
Recent A's history seems to indicate that veteran "presence" or even "production" alone can't lead a team to success. Take, for instance, Mike Sweeney from last season. Mike was universally acknowledged as being one of the best all-around human beings in baseball for the past decade or so. Part of that reputation was him being a positive, upbeat clubhouse presence. Yet, Mike was never able to stay healthy and produce for the A's last season, and while his clubhouse niceties and character-building gestures were noble, they unfortunately didn't translate to a better team on the field. On the other side of the ledger, it's difficult to pinpoint a guy who got it done on the field, but didn't in the clubhouse, since the clubhouse part of the equation is so subjective. Even so, an argument could be made that someone like Rich Harden was much more production than presence. When he was on the field, Harden was great. But, mostly due to his health concerns, he just wasn't able to be a consistent leader for the pitching staff and really help to elevate the games of his cohorts - that isn't to say that Harden was a bad guy or "clubhouse cancer" or anything, it's just saying that it's mighty hard to be a leader when you're not able to take the field consistently.
Monty Poole, in his latest Oakland Tribune column (see above hyperlink), touched on this "presence + production" argument. He focused on the impact that Frank Thomas had on the 2006 A's. While it was true that Thomas, former MVP and World Series winner, was a veritable encyclopedia of hitting information in the clubhouse, he was also able to put this information into practice by having a remarkable year at the plate. Thomas' production and presence in the lineup helped the entire A's team...none more than young Nick Swisher, who went on to post, by far, his most productive season hitting in front of Thomas. Nick has yet to duplicate his production from that season, and while luck and/or BABIP might explain some of that, none can argue that Nick is an especially emotional player and human being and that having Thomas back him up (both in the lineup and in the clubhouse) might just have pushed him to another level that he has found elusive outside of that unique situation.
While the verdict is still out about whether Giambi can have that same type of impact on the 2009 A's, it's hard to argue that the stars have aligned in a similar pattern to facilitate such an impact. Giambi has been around the league almost as long as Thomas had in 2006 and, like Thomas, will bring a distinct American League savvy to the table for the A's. While Thomas's hulking frame swinging a lead pipe in the batter's box was a unique and terrifying form of intimidation to opposing pitchers, the prospect of having to face the ultimate "at-bat-grinder" in Giambi will also likely stick in the heads of opposing pitchers when they are deciding whether to pitch-around Cust or Holliday or Chavez. Giambi has also been healthy and productive for 3 of the past 4 seasons, so you're looking at a guy who has a good chance of remaining in the lineup day-in-and-day out.
Ironically, while his playing time might be cut due to the addition of Giambi, I'm thinking that Travis Buck might be the guy most positively impacted by Jason's presence. I think Buck, personality-wise, is somewhat like a less-garrulous Nick Swisher. A guy who plays with a lot of heart, but who is also susceptible to letting his emotions and/or outside pressures affect his performance. Travis basically admitted to as much earlier last season when he indicated that "being a face of the franchise" made him put too much pressure on himself and in turn led to a deepening of his season-opening slump...
Well, with Giambi in-tow and bound to be the
new recycled face-of-the-franchise, Buck doesn't have to worry about the "presence" side of the equation anymore and will be free to focus on "production" instead. Time will tell if that environment will allow Travis to break-out like Swisher did behind the Big Hurt, but even if he doesn't, it's hard to argue that re-creating such an opportunity for him (and for all the other young A's for that matter) is a bad idea, regardless of how many statistical wins it might add to the Pythagorean formula.