One of the downsides to Wednesday’s rainout against Minnesota in New York was that fans were prevented from getting their first glimpse of the new Yankee bench, particularly Eric Chavez. Fortunately Chavez got the nod today at DH and took advantage. As of post time, Chavez was 3 for 4 with two doubles, an RBI and a run. Brian Cashman signed Chavez this offseason to be a backup infielder, and his role on the team is to stay healthy and spell Rodriguez at 3B whenever Alex needs a day off. He can also DH, a role he took on today against Boston. When the Yankees signed Chavez, some criticized the move based on his extensive injury history. It’s hard to argue with these critics. Click here to navigate to Baseball Prospectus’ player card for Chavez (free for non-subscribers), and scroll down to his Injury History. It’s incredible. Regardless, no one can deny the fact that Chavez managed to stay healthy throughout Spring Training and now occupies a role on the 2011 New York Yankees. Indeed, not only is Chavez healthy but Mark Prior is currently healthy as well. Cats, dogs, living together as one. Presuming Chavez can stay healthy enough to play 1 or 2 games a week an interesting question arises: are the Yankees better on the days in which Chavez plays 3B and Rodriguez DHs than they are on the days in which Rodriguez plays 3B and Posada DHs? The answer is no, but it’s probably closer than most realize.
There are two questions that must be answered. The first is how much value the club receives, if any, by replacing Rodriguez on the field with Chavez. Chavez has long had the reputation of being a defensive wizard. As Mike noted when the Yankees brought him to camp on a minor-league deal, his best days in Oakland were days of double-digit UZRs at the hot corner. Now, whether some of this defensive skill has eroded over time due to injury, age or loss of flexibility remains to be seen. It’s logical that he won’t be as agile as he’s been in the past, or have the same arm strength. He at least has the pedigree. Rodriguez, on the other hand, doesn’t grade out particularly well at 3B. He’s shown increased mobility this spring, likely due to his hip injury finally healing all the way, but even before that they only time he showed a positive UZR at 3B was in 2004. Every year since then the grades have been below-average. This isn’t a case in which the defensive metrics disagree with what fans see, like how UZR and fans disagree on Teixeira. Most fans would likely agree that Rodriguez’s defensive pedigree is more or less average. Certainly none would label Rodriguez a plus defender. In the past, Chavez has been a plus defender. If he’s able to regain some of that defensive form at third, it’s likely going to be a bit of a defensive upgrade when Chavez is in the game.
The second question is how much value the club loses, if any, by replacing Posada at the plate with Chavez. In his heyday, Chavez was a very productive hitter. From 2000 to 2004 (arbitrary start/endpoint alert) Chavez hit .280/.357/.513, averaging exactly 30 home runs per year. Unfortunately, his offensive production and his ability to stay healthy started to decline after that. In 2005 and 2006 Chavez put together an OPS of .791. This would be the last time Chavez would play over 100 games, and since then his inconsistent health has prevented him from getting back on solid offensive ground. He is fully healthy, for now, but it remains difficult to know what to expect from him offensively. His playing-time adjusted PECOTA projection is .231/.300/.379, a line that not-coincidentally mirrors his 2010 line of .234/.276/.333. Marcel has him at .237/.292/.365. Given how these systems are constructed, weighting past performance heavily, such a pessimistic projection isn’t at all surprising. Yet, there’s considerable upside there. As Mike put it back in March, the number one question is the health:
His 3-or-3 effort in yesterday’s game bumped his admitted small (18 PA) spring line to .471/.500/.529, and based on the radio broadcasts, many of his outs have been hard hit as well…
Anyway, as good as the early camp stats are, the bat really isn’t the question with Chavez. I mean yeah, it kinda is since he’s hit just .233/.290/.399 in 628 plate appearances spread out over the last four seasons, but the biggest challenge he has to overcome is his health.
Chavez has a gigantic platoon split. In his career against lefties he has batted .237/.305/.392, but he’s hammered righties to the tune of .279/.359/.514. While no one expects him to regain his .875 OPS form, if he’s used exclusively against righties it perhaps wouldn’t be a surprise to see him settle in around .750. For his part, Jorge Posada can likely outproduce that by a decent margin. He’s a lifetime .855 OPS hitter and doesn’t have to bear the physical toll of catching this year. Posada can focus exclusively on his craft. He’s slumping right now, and spent today’s game on the bench, but would anyone be surprised if he cleared his 2010 OPS of .811 in 2011? It’s a reasonable bet that Posada will outproduce Chavez at the plate this year. By how much largely depends on proper usage (Chavez should face only RHP), whether the two of them will stay healthy, and whether Chavez’s lefty swing can take advantage of the dimensions of Yankee Stadium.
Ultimately this is a moot point. It’s not as if Chavez is going to suddenly supplant Rodriguez as the every day third baseman, forcing Rodriguez to the DH position and Posada to a bench role. However, thanks to his past defensive prowess and skill against right-handed pitchers Chavez has the potential to be better than your average defensive replacement. Yankee fans have become accustomed to bench players who either can’t hit (Pena, Nunez) or can’t field (Thames). In Chavez the team has a guy with the potential to do a little of both. Of course, potential has always been and will always be the operative word with Eric Chavez. But hey, hope springs eternal.
Note: I’ve had this post in the hopper all week. As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m well aware that it probably looks like I wrote it in the past hour after Chavez’s big day today. You’ll just have to take my word for it :)