Even before Matt Davidson was shipped to Chicago for Addison Reed, it was reported that the D-backs were closing in on a new deal with 3B Eric Chavez. Once Davidson was indeed traded, Towers quickly came to terms with Chavez on a one-year deal worth $3.5M in guaranteed salary with games played incentives that could see him earn an additional $1M.
That’s a good deal for the D-backs. Chavez comes at a very reasonable price, at or just above the major league average. More importantly, Chavez gives a heavily right-handed lineup a boost from the left side. We wondered last week whether the Mark Trumbo trade was going to end up asking a lot of Miguel Montero in the lineup, assuming Kirk Gibson would be uncomfortable batting Aaron Hill, Paul Goldschmidt and Trumbo in a row (with Martin Prado around there, somewhere, as well). Now, we might see Chavez hitting cleanup behind Goldy at least some portion of the time.
Last year, Chavez hit in every spot in the lineup (thanks largely to double switches), but he hit more in the cleanup spot (135 PA) than the other spots combined (119 PA). Overall, Chavez was the third-best hitter on the team with at least 200 PAs (per Chavez’s 114 wRC+), with a triple slash of .281/.332/.478. He was better in the cleanup spot (.285/.343/.480) than out of it. Unless Chavez is struggling or Montero is on fire, when we see Chavez in the lineup in 2014, chances are pretty good we’ll see him in the cleanup spot.
The question, though, is how often we’ll see him in the lineup at all.
In 2013, Chavez was a perfect complement for the roster despite missing time to injury. Martin Prado played almost every game and was second on the team in PA (664, to Goldy’s 710), but he filled in at second base for a long stretch of the season (27 starts at 2B), and entered the left field rotation as well (26 starts at LF). As a result, Chavez was essentially a half-time player, a rarity in baseball, where playing time generally gets split on a starter/backup or platoon basis. It may be that Chavez is best-suited for a half-time role like that going forward, a fit that’s only really possible when there’s a starter with position flexibility like Prado, or for a team that’s willing to trot out a somewhat non-traditional platoon.
The roster for next season is unlikely to yield plate appearances to Chavez as regularly. He may still end up in the 250 PA range overall (if he avoids the DL), but a larger slice of that would be pinch hit appearances. Assuming no major injuries, Trumbo is the everyday LF, Prado the 3B, Hill the 2B and Goldy the 1B. While it’s possible that each of those players will get rested a little bit more frequently than they might otherwise be, all four could start more than 90% of the time.
Put aside for a moment the starts that Chavez will almost certainly get in AL parks (he would likely DH, or start at 3B if Trumbo is the DH). Chavez’s other starts will come primarily from Prado rest days (less than 10% of games), and in games in which Prado is playing at another position. If we pretended for a moment that Cody Ross does not exist, Prado might start an additional 10% of games in left field, covering for Trumbo on Trumbo or Goldy rest days (less than 10% of games). I’m not sure what the alignment would be on a Goldy rest day, but both versions (Trumbo at first, or Chavez at first) do mean Chavez starts. Chavez could start an additional 5%-10% of games if Prado is also Hill’s primary backup — but that is an unlikely scenario if Didi Gregorius, Chris Owings and Cliff Pennington are all on the roster.
That means that in the absence of injury, Chavez could start as little as 20% of games in 2014, a far cry from the 45% or so he started last season. And since Chavez is unlikely to get started more than two or three consecutive games, DL stints for other players will not bump up that percentage very much; a very long term injury for one of Trumbo, Goldy, Hill or Prado could bump up Chavez’s playing time back to the 45% range, but a DL stint lasting fifteen days would only garner Chavez another 10 games, at most, and even a longer stint like Hill’s missed time in 2013 might still leave Chavez starting less than a third of D-backs games overall.
Starting less than a third of games could mean being available to pinch hit in about 80 games next season, but I do have some doubts about how that might work. It’s possible that the D-backs will be open to some double switches next season that take Martin Prado out of the game, but while the D-backs lineup will be RHB-heavy overall, there will be lefties at or near the pitcher’s spot in the lineup most nights (Gerardo Parra, Didi Gregorius). Late in games, opposing managers may be more likely to try to have a lefty in there when the pitcher’s spot is coming up, which could make pinch hitting appearances for Chavez a little less appetizing or likely.
I like Eric Chavez a lot, and I really like this signing as a great way to spend $3M over the major league minimum. The D-backs will be comfortable adjusting to certain injuries, and having Chavez available to hit from the left side is extremely helpful. It also might mean that one less roster spot goes to a true backup; instead of using Matt Tuiasosopo, Arizona could simply make sure that Cliff Pennington takes enough reps at third base in the spring to be the backup there if Chavez or Prado end up missing time. I don’t see any version of events that sees Chavez start more than 50 games, however, and even if Chavez adds a greater number of games as a pinch hitter than he did in 2013 (22), it would be almost impossible for Chavez to hit either of last two games-played incentives on his new contract.
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