A's eye first-base upgrade in Giambi

A's eyeing first-base upgrade in Giambi

LAS VEGAS -- Intentionally vague Monday night while discussing what he'd been up to since arriving at the Winter Meetings, A's general manager Billy Beane did offer a few specifics.

He mentioned that team officials had recently seen rehabbing third baseman Eric Chavez, whom Beane fully expects to be healthy enough to man the hot corner in 2009. In the same breath, he added that 23-year-old Daric Barton, who struggled mightily as a rookie in 2008, is the club's starting first baseman -- "as of now."

Not exactly the most assuring qualifier for Barton, who posted the third-lowest batting average (.226) and slugging percentage (.348) among American League regulars last season. And based on the interest the A's have shown in other first basemen this offseason, "as of now" might not last long.

Free agent Jason Giambi is undeniably on Oakland's radar and appears all but packed up for a return engagement in the East Bay. And Beane has had preliminary talks with the Nationals about trading for Nick Johnson, a player with whom he's been enamored for years but would be taking a huge risk in bringing aboard.

A source familiar with the Nationals' offseason plans on Tuesday said the club is eager to move Johnson, who has one year left on a contract that will pay him $5.5 million in 2009, and the source confirmed that Beane's request to look at Johnson's medical records was granted last month.

Beane, who does not comment on potential trades or free-agent targets, couldn't have liked what he saw. Johnson, 30, has spent time on the disabled list in each of his seven big league seasons, and he missed the final 4 1/2 months of 2008 with a right wrist injury that required surgery.

Johnson, whose patience at the plate -- his career on-base percentage is .396 -- has been a big part of Beane's interest in him over the years, was cleared to start baseball-related rehab activities in late October.

"The wrist is getting there. I can do a little bit more now. I do therapy three days a week," Johnson told MLB.com. "I'm starting to push it a lot more. I'm starting to do some stuff under water with the bat. It's real light and I'll work my way up from there.

"I'm going to take it slow. ... I'm planning to come to Spring Training early, anyway."

The chances of Johnson reporting to Spring Training with the A's are slim. Oakland has used the DL 47 times in the past two seasons and is extremely leery of acquiring players with a recent history of injuries.

The chances of Giambi, who will be 38 in January, joining the A's are considerably greater.

Coming off a strong season with the Yankees, for whom he hit 32 homers with 96 RBIs, a .373 OBP and .502 slugging percentage in 145 games, he's also been linked to the Blue Jays and Rays. But Giambi spent the first seven years of his career in Oakland and is said to be hoping to rejoin the team that drafted and developed him.

Should Giambi return to the A's, with whom he won the 2000 AL MVP award and was the unquestioned leader in the team's collegiate-vibe clubhouse, he'd be welcomed with open arms by Chavez, the only current Athletic who played with Giambi in Oakland.

"Everybody knows how I feel about Jason. I love the guy," Chavez told MLB.com late last month. "For everybody across the board, Jason's one of those team leader, clubhouse guys who everyone would want on their team, and it'd be great to have him back."

Chavez, if healthy, would be part of a formidable middle of the Oakland lineup should Giambi return to the A's, who could put Giambi, recently acquired Matt Holliday, Chavez and Jack Cust in the 3-4-5-6 spots.

"Over the past couple years, watching him with the Yankees, he's still that guy who comes up with big hits," Chavez said. "He's just a clutch hitter, and a productive hitter at that."

There's also an Oakland tie for Giambi in Toronto, whose interest in Giambi -- as a designated hitter -- was the subject of great speculation last month. But Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, who was on Beane's staff when Giambi was in green and gold, has been charged with trimming his club's payroll, and he told MLB.com last month that Giambi is not a priority.

The Rays also see Giambi as a DH, and while they haven't ruled out adding the five-time All-Star, he's a left-handed hitter and the Rays already are loaded with lefties.

Given that the A's appear committed to Cust as their full-time DH, Giambi, who played 113 games at first base last season but was the Yankees' DH in 368 games over his six seasons in New York, would bump Barton into a backup role -- if not to Triple-A Sacramento for more seasoning.

"I do think [Giambi's return] might benefit Daric, but it's always up to the player, depending on what happens, whether he handles it one way or the other," Chavez said. "Daric's gonna be a great player, too, but everything's timing in baseball."

The timing of any offer from the A's to Giambi -- it would have to be a fairly short-term deal with Oakland for considerably less than the $23-plus million he made in 2008 -- is expected to be later in the offseason.

Beane seems intent on making at least one more big move before adding Giambi, who could prove to be the capper to a highly productive offseason.

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.