March 13, 2004: According to Commissioner Alan H. "Bud" Selig, the Oakland Athletics' home ballpark "cannot produce enough revenue for [the] team to be competitive and keep the players that they want to keep. That's just a fact of life."
Competitive? Over the last three seasons only one team (the Yankees, and just barely) have won more games than the Athletics. Only two other teams (the Yankees and Braves) have reached the postseason in each of the last three years (all three clubs are actually working on four-year postseason streaks). In 2004, the Athletics are considered (at least) co-favorites to win the American League West.
So being competitive doesn't seem to be a big problem. And that second thing? Keeping the players they want to keep?
March 18, 2004: Athletics third baseman Eric Chavez signs a six-year, $66 million contract extension that will keep him in Oakland, barring a trade, through the 2010 season.
But you know, it's never enough with these media guys. In the same column in which I read about Chavez signing, I also read a prosaic hand-wringing about the A's imminent loss of their great starting pitchers ... even though Tim Hudson is bound to the A's for the next two season, Mulder and Zito for the next three seasons.
In the short term the A's financial picture actually looks fairly rosy. This year they're still on the hook for Jermaine Dye's contract, which paid him $11 million last season and pays him another $11 million this season. But this is the last year of that deal (the sides have a mutual option for 2005 at $14 million, and Dye would get a $1.5 million buyout if Oakland turns it down), which means the A's should have some money to fool around with next winter.
It's also worth mentioning that "keeping the players they want to keep" often isn't all it's cracked up to be. The Kansas City Royals have, over the last few years, lost two players they wanted to keep: Johnny Damon and Dye. But are either of the teams that currently have Damon and Dye happy about it? Hardly.
Typically, a good player reaches the majors when he's 22 or 23. You can pay him peanuts for three seasons, then you have to pay him good money for the next three (though if you're smart enough to identify real talent, you can often sign him to an extension covering those second three years and get yourself a bargain, which is what the A's did with their three aces). So finally the six years are up, and your player is 28 or 29.
And you know what? Most players aren't particularly good values once they hit their early 30s. And most teams with reasonably productive farm systems are better off letting high-priced players go after those first six years. Granted, all that is more the case with hitters than pitchers. In fairness to the hand-wringers, it's true that in 2007 the A's might have some problems, because theoretically they might have lost all three of their established (as of 2003) aces, and as talented as Rich Harden and Joe Blanton are, you can't assume that they (or other Athletic farmhands) will develop into Cy Young-caliber starters. But then, isn't that the way it's supposed to work? Let's assume that the A's reach the postseason in just one of the next three seasons ... that's still five out of seven, and how many franchises in 2007 will be able to claim the same?
Commissioner Bud, in wailing about the Athletics' home grounds, is just doing what he thinks is his job. But that doesn't mean you and I have to believe him. And nor should the politicians and taxpayers of the East Bay.
How good is Eric Chavez? Well, we know that he's a great hitter, and most observers now consider him the best defensive third baseman in the American League. Looking at the last three seasons, there are only two serious candidates for the title of Best Third Baseman, Major Leagues: Chavez and Scott Rolen.
Chavez has 76 Win Shares over those three seasons, Rolen has 83. But Chavez is 2 1/2 years younger than Rolen, so going forward there's probably nobody you'd rather have than Chavez (unless you think Alex Rodriguez really is a third baseman).
But -- the question has been posed -- why did the A's let Miguel Tejada slip away so easily, then make the big push to retain Eric Chavez? Here are their Win Shares over the last three seasons:
2001 2002 2003
Chavez 26 25 25
Tejada 25 32 25
Amazingly similar, aside from 2002 when Tejada enjoyed (what was likely) his career year. Even with that, over the three seasons Tejada's got an edge of only six Win Shares, which is roughly two wins. And while we've probably seen Tejada's best, there's a very good chance that Chavez, who just turned 26 this winter, has at least one monster season ahead of him. (Also, the A's have Tejada's replacement on hand; there aren't any third basemen in the system who can take Chavez's place.)
There is one knock that keeps coming up, though: Eric Chavez can't hit left-handed pitchers. Or rather, he hasn't yet.
OPS 2003 2001-2003 Career
vs RHP 954 954 922
vs LHP 674 673 648
Breaking down those career numbers against lefties, we get a .374 slugging percentage (which isn't terrible) and a .274 on-base percentage (which is). But do these extreme splits make Chavez worth less than his overall numbers might suggest?
Let's run a short thought experiment ... Suppose you had an outfielder who hit a home run every time he faced a right-handed pitcher (intentional walks notwithstanding), but batted just .100 against left-handers. Wouldn't you still be thrilled to have that player, and pay him top dollar? Because while he's obviously going to hurt your chances when there's a southpaw on the mound, he's even more obviously going to help your chances when a righty's pitching. And of course you face more righties than lefties.
What's more, Chavez's career splits are anomalous. At least a few analysts would argue that someone with that sort of ability against right-handed pitching simply can't be so terrible against left-handed pitching. So what happens if Chavez continues to murder right-handers, but lifts his performance against lefties to where he's got a more "normal" split? Well, then you've got a few monster seasons, and a player who's a bargain for $11 million.
Sure, it might make sense to give Chavez the day off against the occasional tough left-handed pitcher. But come to think of it, 1) the A's have most of the American League's tough left-handers, and 2) if you have to play Eric Chavez every day to keep him happy, then you let him play every day.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.