Once upon a time, Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu ranked among the game's elite hitters, known for their penchant for wearing down opposing pitchers by controlling the strike zone with surgical precision. Even with their best days long behind them, a couple of teams still believe the two players, both now over 40, can still contribute. On Monday, the Indians activated Giambi from the disabled list, while the Mets recalled Abreu from Triple-A Las Vegas.
Both players — teammates on the Yankees from mid-2006 through 2008, incidentally, and third and fourth in the AL in pitches per plate appearance in their final year together — are likely to be limited to riding the pine while waiting for the occasional opportunity to DH or pinch-hit. Indeed, it would be a surprise if either still owns a mitt, and an even bigger one if their managers were desperate enough to send them out to play defense. They're around based primarily on their abilities to swing the bat — or not — in high-leverage situations.
Once he gets into a game, the 43-year-old Giambi will supplant the going-on-42-year-old Raul Ibanez as the major's oldest player. A five-time All-Star who parlayed the 2000 AL MVP award into a seven-year, $120 million deal with the Yankees, he's hit .278/.400/.519 with 438 homers during a 19-year career that's seen its share of lows, including his implication in the BALCO scandal, a 2004 DL stint due to a benign pituitary tumor, and his failure to win a championship during his pinstriped period. Since leaving the Yankees at the end of the 2008 season, he's stuck around the majors due to his willingness to accept a part-time role and his reputation as a positive presence in the clubhouse, not to mention a potent bat off the bench.
After a less-than-fulfilling return to Oakland (for whom he starred from 1995-2001) that resulted in a mid-2009 release, Giambi joined the Rockies for three seasons and change, hitting a combined .248/.375/.452 with 22 homers in 518 plate appearances. In 2011, he bopped 13 homers and slugged .603 in just 152 PA. Under the wing of manager Jim Tracy, he even emerged as a managerial candidate, interviewing for the position in November 2012 following Tracy's resignation.
When the Rockies hired Walt Weiss instead, Giambi chose to move on so as not to be perceived as undermining the first-year skipper. He spent 2013 with the Indians in a DH/PH capacity (his last appearance in the field came in 2012), and while he hit just .183/.282/.371, he homered nine times in 216 PA. Five of the homers came in the eighth or ninth inning; two of them tied the game, and two were walkoffs, including one on Sept. 24 that gave the Indians a key victory amid the 10-game winning streak via which they secured a Wild Card spot. On track to make the roster this spring, he suffered a broken rib when he was hit by an Edwin Jackson pitch in early March. To activate him, the Indians sent reliever Blake Wood to Triple-A, leaving them with "only" seven relievers.
As for the 40-year-old Abreu, when he sat out all of last year, it looked like the end of a 17-year major league career that was criminally underappreciated. A lifetime .292/.396/.477 hitter with 2,447 hits, 287 homers and 399 steals for the Astros, Phillies, Yankees, Angels and Dodgers, Abreu combined power and speed with an expert batting eye by which he reached the 100-walk plateau eight times; among contemporaries, only Barry Bonds (14 times), Frank Thomas (10 times) and Jim Thome (nine times) did so more often; Giambi did so seven times himself. From 1998-2005, Abreu cracked the NL's top-10 in on-base percentage seven times, only once dipping below .400; additionally, he ranked ninth in the majors at .426 in 2006, when he was traded from the Phillies to the Yankees on July 30. Twice he stole at least 30 bases while tallying at least 30 homers; seven other times he went at least 20-20. For all of that, he earned All-Star honors only in 2004 and 2005, and won his only Gold Glove in the latter year.
Like Giambi, Abreu left the Yankees at the end of the 2008 season to ply his trade in California. Playing for the Angels from 2009 until early 2012, he hit well initially, but his declining defense eventually made him the odd man out in an outfield crowded by the emergence of Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout. In fact, it was Abreu's release on April 28, 2012 that opened up a spot on the 25-man roster for Trout, who had gone down to Triple-A to start the year. He caught on with the Dodgers and hit .246/.361/.344 in 230 PA as a part-time leftfielder and lefty pinch-hitter.
While Abreu worked out for the Red Sox in early 2013, he never signed with the team. The Phillies signed him to a minor league deal after he made a strong showing in the Venezuelan League this past winter, but they ultimately decided that even he couldn't fit into their lack-of-youth-movement, so they released him in late March; Abreu signed a minor league deal with the Mets and hit .395/.489/.579 in 45 PA at Las Vegas before getting the call. To activate him, the team sent down outfielder Andrew Brown, who homered off Stephen Strasburg on Opening Day but had gone 4-for-23 with just one double and a pair of walks since.
Of the two players, Giambi has shown the far greater affinity for pinch-hitting, batting .237/.362/.445 with 11 homers in 210 PA in that capacity during his career, with most of that action coming over the last five years. Abreu has hit just .207/.349/.264 with one homer in 106 PA in that role, though he did go .257/.395/.343 in 43 PA with the Dodgers in 2012. Keep in mind that the context for those numbers is such that major league pinch-hitters batted just .217/.292/.336 in the pinch in 2013, and .225/.304/.344 in 2012; it's a particularly tough job to do, one not made easier during the era of expanding bullpens and contracting benches.
What's appealing about both Abreu and Giambi in that capacity, and what managers Terry Collins and Terry Francona are hoping to tap into, is their ability to work pitchers in key late-inning spots, slowing the game down to wait for a pitch with which they can do business or taking their base if they don't find offferings to their liking. In that capacity, Giambi's lack of speed creates a problem, as he may necessitate a pinch-runner, while Abreu stole 21 bases as recently as 2011, and was 6-for-8 in 2012. In the end, neither player is likely to have a major impact, and within the limited sample size of opportunity, they may well slip back below replacement level. Still, their resumés are strong enough to merit one last look; even past 40, they're a pair for the ages.