Chavez is practicing his exit line
By Stan McNeal - SportingNews.com
You know the drill: A's draft player; player develops into a star; star leaves for monster money at first opportunity.
Two years ago, it was Jason Giambi. Miguel Tejada's time is coming soon. Next year will be Eric Chavez's turn, and the Big Three after that.
Chavez, for one, would just as soon stay in Oakland. He grew up with the A's philosophy of emphasizing on-base percentage over batting average, and his star has risen steadily since he was chosen in the first round of the 1996 June draft. He has manned third base for the past five seasons, and he's only 25. He seems to match the team, too, because, like his team, Chavez traditionally doesn't heat up until the second half. There's even a sentimental reason in his favor, seeing as how he went to the same San Diego suburban high school as A's general manager Billy Beane.
But does any of that matter? Is there reason to believe the A's will commit their future to Chavez, who is eligible to become a free agent after next season?
"I don't get that sense at all," Chavez says. "But I'm not worried. There's a team out there somewhere."
Yes, at least one or two clubs will be interested in a two-time Gold Glove winner who hits with power from the left side. Former Mariners G.M. Pat Gillick, one of the game's best talent evaluators, ranks Chavez behind only Albert Pujols among the game's 25-and-under hitters.
But in the key first game of the A's Division Series against the Red Sox last week, Chavez showed how he can help a team even when he's not batting.
With the score tied in the 12th inning of Game 1, the Red Sox had runners on first and second with two out when Gabe Kapler hit a rocket down the left field line. Chavez backhanded it on one hop and dived toward third base, reaching it just ahead of the baserunner. He saved at least one run and possibly the game.
With two out in the bottom of the 12th, Chavez caught righthander Derek Lowe in a brain cramp and stole third without drawing a throw. Lowe then walked the bases full, and Chavez scored the winning run on Ramon Hernandez's squeeze bunt, which ended a classic playoff battle and gave Oakland a 1-0 lead in the series.
"It was probably the best game I've ever been involved in," says Chavez, who likes to point out how this A's rely more on baserunning and defense than in recent previous seasons. "We've struggled offensively much of the year, but when it comes time to move a guy over, we're more aware of that now. I just hope we keep playing good, solid defense. The keys to this are pitching and defense, then hitting."
With his contract year coming, Chavez plans to change his offseason routine with the hope he'll come out hitting in April like he usually hits in July. He plans regular visits to the batting cage through the winter instead of limiting his offseason work to the weight room. Because of his slow starts -- as well as his struggles against lefthanders -- Chavez never has hit higher than .288 for a full season in the majors.
That's underachieving, says an A.L. scout. "He should be a .300 hitter, but he'll be stubborn," the scout says. "He's good at going to left-center but he will get pull-happy."
Chavez says patience is key to his success. "I have very good hand-eye coordination," he says. "When I struggle, I'll put anything I can reach in play, but what I need to do is shrink my (hitting) zone."
Knowing the problem is one thing. Fixing it is another. And being around to show off the solution to A's fans is something else again.
Stan McNeal is a managing editor for Sporting News. Email him at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated on Monday, Oct 6, 2003 2:25 pm EDT