Eric Chavez, A Sleeper Option for the Rays at First Base

By Robbie Knopf

As it stands right now, the Rays have several balls in the air as they hope to secure their first baseman for next season. On the free agent front, they hope James Loney‘s price comes down to the point where they could sign him and they hope Corey Hart does not have his heart set on returning to the Milwaukee Brewers. Meanwhile, the Rays have been connected to Mitch Moreland, Logan Morrison, and Ike Davis for the possible trades, and any of three could be interesting options if acquired at the right cost. But while five players seems like plenty to target, what if all of them fall through? The Pittsburgh Pirates could sign Loney and the Brewers could re-sign Hart. Then if the asking prices are too high on the three trade candidates and they end up staying with their current teams or dealt elsewhere, suddenly the Rays will be desperate for an answer at first base as their options whittle away. Where would the Rays turn if such a situation turned into reality? One possible answer could be Eric Chavez, and he may be more than just a worst-case scenario.

Jon Heyman noted the Rays as a suitor for Chavez, who just turned 36 years of age, and it make sense because of his performance the last two years and the low price he will command. In 567 plate appearances the last two seasons, the lefty-hitting Chavez put up an outstanding .281/.341/.488 line (123 OPS+) with 26 doubles, 25 homers, and 81 RBI, not ending up all that far away from the numbers he put up per season for the Oakland Athletics in his prime. Obviously, though, a lot has changed since then. Oblique and knee strains limited Chavez in 2013 as he stayed under 315 plate appearances for the sixth straight year. He is a constant injury risk, and whichever team that signs him has to expect a DL stint at some point next season. Chavez also no longer hits lefty pitching–it is no coincidence that he has batted 85% of the time or higher against righties the last four years–and his once spectacular defense at third base is not nearly what it once was. The only thing still the same about Chavez from his glory days is that he his right-handed pitching extremely well, managing a .908 OPS against them in 2012 and a .827 mark in 2013. Aside from that, he is injury-prone and lacks flexibility both at the plate and in the field. The thing about those deficiencies, though, is that they should keep the price for Chavez low once again.

Chavez parlayed his strong season with the New York Yankees in 2012 into a one-year, $3 million deal from the Arizona Diamondbacks, but after another injury-plagued year, he could end up with even less than that this offseason. A low-risk gamble on Chavez would be well within the Rays’ budget and they could be rewarded with a solid contributor to their 2014 effort. The priority would be to keep Chavez as healthy as possible, and having him see little time at third base while getting ample opportunity to be a designated hitter could be a way to do just that. Despite all his flaws, Eric Chavez has continued to hit righty pitching extremely well, and he could be a strong option against such pitchers at both first base and DH. The Rays will seek a more reliable option at first base this offseason, but they do as good of a job as any team in baseball sorth through players’ weaknesses to harness their strengths, and that could make Chavez a real possibility.