PHOENIX — Josh Hamilton received the largest free-agent contract in average annual value last winter, and Zach Greinke was given the longest yearly commitment, but Eric Chavez is making a strong case as the most valuable bang-for-the-buck signee of the offseason. His numbers are that good.
Chavez has worked his way into the cleanup spot in the Diamondbacks’ batting order over the last two weeks with production that calls to mind his remarkable days in Oakland in the early 2000s, when he was he was a regular in the MVP and Gold Glove conversations.
Chavez is hitting .343 with five home runs, 19 RBIs and a .984 OPS, and the only reason he is not listed among the National League leaders is because he has done all that in just 109 plate appearances, about two-thirds as many as an everyday player. A broken hand suffered by second baseman Aaron Hill five weeks ago caused a position shuffle that led to more playing time for Chavez at third base, and it is safe to say that his performance has greatly mitigated Hill’s loss.
The D-backs have seen the value of Chavez’s steady, veteran approach to the game already.
“He understands the trials and tribulations of a long season and postseason as well as anybody certainly in our locker room, coaches included,” manager Kirk Gibson said before the D-backs left on their current road trip.
“He’s been through that. He doesn’t get too excited. He doesn’t get too disappointed. He doesn’t try to over-figure things out. He has confidence. You just keep pushing ahead.”
Chavez’s one-year, $3 million deal pales when compared to those signed by Hamilton (five years, $125 million) and Greinke (six years, $147 million). But money isn’t everything.
Chavez’s batting average, slugging percentage (.586) and OPS lead NL third basemen, and he has provided the ultimate protection to No. 3 hitter Paul Goldschmidt since first hitting cleanup on May 10. Chavez is 13 for 27 with four extra-base hits, a home run and seven RBIs in the stretch. He has four multi-hit games, including a four-hit game in Miami on Friday and a three-hit game in Colorado on Monday
As good as Chavez’s numbers are, his story of perseverance may be better.
Chavez has been through so many injuries that a less motivated player might have called it a career. He missed the second half of 2007 with a back injury the eventually required surgery, the beginning of a series of his body’s small acts of rebellion that limited him to a total of 122 games from 2008-11. He missed time with injuries to both shoulders, his back and his as well as a fractured left foot.
“He had brutal years when he was hurt. That tells you a lot about the guy, that he has a great determination, a great love. He loves to compete,” Gibson said.
When Chavez’s body got right and he was able to get back on the field in 2012, he showed that the ability had never left, as he put up 16 homers and 37 RBIs in 113 games with the Yankees. The long, frustrating recovery process was over.
“I felt like the tools were still there. If I could just fix the machine, so to speak, fix the engine, I could run in the race,” Chavez said.
The hand-eye coordination remained, as did the agility to play third. It was a matter of getting past the injuries, although he still undergoes almost daily rehab work, even this year.
“You body plays Ping-Pong,” said Chavez, a left-handed hitter.
“I’ll wake up one day and the right side of my neck hurts. The next day, it will be my left side. It never stops. That’s the toughest part. You know what? You find a way to deal with it. Everybody told me with my back, when I am 50, 55, you are going to need something (operation). You just try to enjoy it while you are here. There is still a lot of hard work that I have to put into it, but when I get on the field of play, it’s worth it.”
Chavez, 35, has been forced into some concessions. For one, he believes it is best that he does not play every day.
“I’m not shy about that either, just because it keeps me healthy. If I play every day, I’ll break down, and I know that. That’s been proven. My role in New York and coming here. … I’m playing more here now than I thought I was going to, but I can’t play every day. I’m OK with that,” he said.
“I like being fresh. If I run out there every day, I’m risking injury and I’m not going to feel as good. And I want to continue to play. I don’t want to go back into that rut again.”
It has been a great fit for several reasons. Chavez has played in 33 games and started 23, mostly against right-hander pitchers, and he’s hitting. 360 against righties. Also, his family has been able to see it first-hand. Chavez lives in the Valley, and he has the names of his three children tattooed on his right forearm in Japanese.