Don't Expect Chavez to Lead the A's
What’s the difference? The Braves have Andruw Jones. The A’s have Eric Chavez. Both are their team’s best players, but they’re really only comparable with their defense; Jones is a superb center fielder and Chavez is the best third baseman I’ve seen since Brooks Robinson, who is the gold standard.
Scouts often put good players in two categories: Those who can carry the club over a period of time and those who can contribute to a team’s success if others play well, too.
Jones is definitely a “carrier.” With the Braves needing veteran leadership this year, he’s stepped up his offensive game big-time, with career highs of 51 homers and 128 RBIs; his previous bests were 36 homers and 115 RBIs.
Chavez? Going into tonight’s game he’s at .269 with 26 homers and 98 RBIs. Definitely a contributor but never a carrier.
It was sad to hear his teammates talk earlier in the month about their hopes that Chavez would hit the kind of hot streak that would carry them through to the playoffs. He’s never been that kind of player and, though he’s still only 27 (28 in December), it’s clear he never will be.
Ever since Chavez came to the majors at 20 in September, 1998, and hit .311 for the month, extravagant claims have been made about him, some by me. Manager Art Howe said in Chavez’s first full season, 1999, that he had more power than anybody on the team, including Jason Giambi.
Players who show the ability to hit major league pitching at such an early age typically develop into great hitters and great players – Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr., to name a few. They also typically develop more power as they get older, as their bodies mature and they become more selective about pitches they can drive. Knowing that, I predicted that Chavez would have multiple 50-homer seasons.
I’m still waiting for the first one. In fact, Chavez’s high was 34 homers in 2002. This year, when the A’s really needed him to step up his power game, he’s fallen back; his homer total probably won’t equal the 29 he hit last season, when injuries limited him to 125 games and 475 at-bats.
He’s become a Rafael Palmeiro type of player, without the steroids, of course. Palmeiro has amassed impressive career statistics, but he never made the All-Star team and was never a player who could be the team leader. That, unfortunately, describes Chavez perfectly.
WITHOUT THAT one hitter who could consistently lead the charge, the A’s had to depend on a well-balanced lineup. At their best, when they had that great 2 ½-month run, the A’s got contributions throughout the lineup. The bottom of the order could win games, as well as the top or middle.
But there was a delicate balance there, and when Bobby Crosby went out with a broken bone in his ankle, it upset the whole balance. From that point on, the A’s offense was woefully inconsistent, with some really big games but too many in which they just couldn’t scratch out enough runs to win.
Perhaps general manager Billy Beane can pick up a good hitter who can be the DH next season (I’m anticipating that Scott Hatteberg will not be re-signed) but it’s unrealistic to expect too much. After a 15-year period of hitting dominance, the pendulum has swung the other way in baseball. The few really good hitters who might be available through trade or free agency have high contracts and long-term deals. The A’s won’t be going after them.
That means the biggest improvement must come internally. Crosby, when he was healthy, showed a hitting improvement from his rookie year. I think he’ll continue to improve, and he does seem to be the type of player who would welcome the role of leader.
Dan Johnson had a very nice run when he first came up. Then, pitchers adjusted and started throwing to the outside corner. Still trying to pull the ball, Johnson hit a bad slump. He must learn to make his own adjustments, but I think he will. Nick Swisher also struggled as a rookie, but he’s also shown that he could hit 30 homers a season.
Beane should definitely keep Jay Payton, a midseason acquisition. Payton was probably the A’s most reliable hitter in the clutch.
THE A’S PITCHING is still their strength, but that balance was upset when Rich Harden was injured. Joe Kennedy was put into the rotation, which was a mistake. Kennedy was valuable in long relief but he’s not a starter.
Hopefully, next spring, the A’s will take a long look at Juan Cruz as a starter. Cruz has not looked good in relief for the A’s, either early in the season or late, but his success as a starter at Sacramento suggests that should be his role. If he were able to take a spot in the rotation, Kirk Saarloos could be put in the bullpen, available for emergency duty if a starter were injured. Please spare us the sight of Kennedy out there again.
With so many young players – Swisher, Johnson, Joe Blanton and Huston Street were all rookies this season – natural improvement should mean that the A’s will make a stronger run next season.
Just don’t expect Eric Chavez to lead the charge.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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