After losing Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada and Keith Foulke to free agency over the last few years, the Oakland A’s locked up one of their stars yesterday, signing Eric Chavez to a 6-year contract extension worth $66 million.

Any time a small-market team signs a player to this type of a contract, it is interesting. This deal is especially noteworthy because of those players the A’s haven’t re-signed in recent years. The question that I think comes up immediately is “Why Eric Chavez?”

Well, for one thing, he’s younger and plays a much more important defensive position than Jason Giambi. Chavez will be 27 years old in the first year of the new deal (2005), whereas Giambi was 31 in his first season out of Oakland. I can’t imagine Oakland GM Billy Beane giving out a massive long-term contract like the one Giambi got from the Yankees to a player already in his 30s. Chavez’s deal takes him right through all the typical “peak” years and into the very start of the normal “decline phase.” In the sixth and final season, he will be 32.

As for why the A’s would choose Chavez over Miguel Tejada, that’s a tougher question, but one that can still be answered. First of all, Tejada is older than Chavez, which makes a difference. Tejada will be 28 this year and, like I said, Chavez will be 27 in the first year of his new deal. Of course, one year isn’t such a huge issue. However, I’ve heard some rumors that the A’s know Tejada to be older than his listed age.

Perhaps most importantly, the A’s have a very capable replacement for Tejada at shortstop in Bobby Crosby, whom I just ranked as my #6 prospect in all of baseball. As far as I can see, the A’s didn’t have any great options in their system to play third base in 2005, should Chavez have left.

Eric Chavez, to me, is one of the most interesting players in baseball. He’s a great player, no doubt about it. He plays phenomenal defense at third base, he has big power, and he has been one of the most consistent hitters around for the past four seasons.

Check out his yearly totals:

          AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
2000     .277     .355     .495     .850     .284
2001     .288     .338     .540     .878     .287
2002     .275     .348     .513     .860     .285
2003     .282     .350     .514     .864     .286

That’s pretty remarkable, really. Some years he has had a little more OBP and some years he’s flashed a little more power, but the end result is essentially identical each year.

Of course, you can take consistency like that from a young player in two ways. One is that he is a good player and consistently good production is a great thing to have. The other way is that, despite being 22 years old in 2000 and 25 years old last year, he hasn’t really gotten any better offensively.

Chavez’s main weakness as a player is his inability to hit lefties. The remarkable thing is that, even breaking down his performance against righties and lefties, he has been extremely consistent.

vs RHP
          AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
2000     .303     .388     .551     .939     .312
2001     .304     .356     .602     .958     .311
2002     .301     .379     .571     .950     .313
2003     .312     .387     .567     .954     .316

Obviously his numbers versus righties are huge. He hits .300+ every year, he walks quite a bit and he hits for a ton of power. To put his numbers against right-handed pitching into some context, Bill Mueller had an absolutely amazing offensive season in 2003, winning the AL batting title and leading all major league third basemen with a .312 GPA.

Then you look at Chavez’s numbers against left-handed pitching and it’s a whole different story.

vs LHP
          AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
2000     .197     .244     .320     .564     .190
2001     .257     .299     .415     .714     .238
2002     .209     .261     .362     .623     .208
2003     .220     .271     .403     .674     .223

Well, I suppose that’s fairly consistent too. There have been multiple times over the past few years when it looked as if Chavez was making some strides against lefties, but the end results have been similarly poor each season. The tough thing is that, while you would normally platoon a guy who hits like Chavez does, he is young enough that the A’s obviously want to see if he can improve against lefties at some point.

For a left-handed hitter who is being platooned, it makes sense to look at what he did against right-handed pitching, but for someone like Chavez, who is playing everyday, his value is determined by his season totals.

Using Lee Sinins’ Runs Created Above Position (RCAP), which shows how many runs a player was worth offensively over the average player at his position (while adjusting for ballparks), we get the following leaders among third basemen since 2000…

(I only used players who have played third base on a regular basis in all four seasons. In other words, no Chipper Jones.)

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
Scott Rolen               132
Troy Glaus                120
Eric Chavez               114
Corey Koskie               84
Mike Lowell                69

Not bad. Chavez probably moves ahead of Troy Glaus when defense is accounted for, so it’s very likely he’s been the second-best third basemen in baseball since 2000.

Now let’s take a look at Offensive Winning Percentage, which is a Bill James stat that shows what a team’s winning percentage would be if they had an entire lineup full of one player and a league-average pitching-staff. In other words, how good would a team be with nine Eric Chavezes in the lineup?

Scott Rolen              .636
Troy Glaus               .616
Eric Chavez              .612
Corey Koskie             .579
Mike Lowell              .569

That list is essentially the same as the one for RCAP, but obviously OWP is a “rate” stat, while RCAP is a cumulative number. Again, I definitely think that shows Chavez as the second-best third basemen in baseball.

So is Chavez worth $11 million a year? Well, let’s compare it to what Scott Rolen, the #1 guy on both those lists, is getting. Rolen was set to be a free agent following the 2002 season, but he signed a long-term deal with the Cardinals. The Rolen/Chavez comparison isn’t quite a perfect one, however, because Rolen was a year older in his first year of free agency, but it’s close enough.

Rolen’s contract runs from 2003-2010, covering his age-28 season to his age-35 season. For those eight years, he will be paid approximately $90 million, or $11.25 million per season.

I think Rolen has been a small step above Chavez since 2000, but would you rather pay the #1 third baseman $11.25 million per year until he’s 35 or the #2 third baseman $11 million a year until he’s 32? I would take the latter option (Chavez), although I think both contracts are good ones for the teams.

Outside of the world of third basemen, Chavez ranked 28th in RCAP among all major league hitters last year and also ranked 28th among position players in Win Shares. From 2000-2003 combined, Chavez, amazingly, also ranked 28th among all hitters in RCAP. I guess that is a tribute to his consistency from year-to-year. Either that or he has some special connection to the number 28.

Add in his great defense and I think he definitely moves into the top 25 position players since 2000 and potentially into the top 20. Plus, of the 27 guys with higher RCAP since 2000, only Albert Pujols is younger than Chavez.

All of which is a long way of saying that, over the next six years, there are very few players I would rather have on my team than Eric Chavez. And, when compared to what Scott Rolen is getting from the Cardinals, Chavez’s new deal looks like a nice one for Oakland.

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