The third base market continues to clear. Eric Chavez is now off the market, as the Diamondbacks signed the veteran to a one-year, $3 million deal Wednesday.
As the contract suggests, Chavez is unlikely to be a full-time player in Arizona. However, given the myriad struggles the club experienced at third base last season, we can expect Chavez to play a significant role. He hit .281/.348/.496 last season with the Yankees and could form the meaty side of a platoon in Arizona — 273 of Chavez’s 313 plate appearances came against right-handed pitching, and he hit them for a sharp .299/.366/.545 (144 wRC+) line. Arizona third basemen posted just a .240/.293/.382 in 2012.
Chavez’s bat hasn’t showed up like this since 2004, when he hit .276/.397/.501 with the Athletics and led the American League in walks with 95. Chavez managed just 803 plate appearances and a .239/.296/.390 line from 2007 to 2011. Injuries were a constant, and although he showed some power (.151 ISO), his walk rate dropped off and his strikeout rate rose.
Chavez will be 35 years old in 2013, and so the Diamondbacks are certainly assuming some risk he reverts to the limbo of his career we saw in the five years prior to his breakthrough in 2012. The performance Chavez gave the Yankees, however, was worth much more than $3 million — he posted 1.8 WAR in 313 plate appearances.
Top Diamondback third base prospect Matt Davidson is still some time away from the major leagues. He posted a .261/.367/.469 line in Double-A last year but struggled in the Arizona Fall League; he’s likely to begin the season in Triple-A and could be ready for 2014, and so the Diamondbacks needed a short-term fix. With Jeff Keppinger already getting a multi-year deal and Kevin Youkilis receiving multi-year offers, Chavez’s willingness to take a short and low-cost contract is worth assuming his inherent risk.
Ostensibly, Chavez will platoon in Arizona much like he did in New York — beyond just his wide splits, Chavez isn’t the kind of player built to handle everyday playing any more. Chavez’s most likely partner is Chris Johnson, the 28-year-old who settled into the third base job after coming over from Houston. Johnson hits the ball hard, as he owns a .155 ISO and has posted a line drive rate of at least 23 percent in each of his three major league seasons. However, plate discipline issues — a 25 percent strikeout rate against just a five percent walk rate — have limited him to just an average bat (100 career wRC+). It would play just fine, except Johnson rates poorly in defensive metrics and reputation.
The other problem: Johnson has exhibited reverse or even platoon splits throughout his career, never hitting lefties for better than a 92 wRC+ even in his sharp rookie season. Johnson only has 1300 career plate appearances — 333 against lefties — so plenty can change, but 42 strikeouts in just 151 plate appearances against southpaws in 2012 is not encouraging.
Unless the Diamondbacks make a trade, bring back Mark Reynolds (given it was current Arizona GM Kevin Towers who dealt him away, an unlikely option) or sign a free agent like Brandon Inge, the Diamondbacks are likely stuck with the Chavez/Johnson platoon as they head in to spring training. It may not be the most palatable solution to the third base issue, and they may not be done dealing. But Eric Chavez gives the club solid odds to fix the problem against right-handed pitching at the least, leaving the Diamondbacks much closer to a full solution than they were 24 hours ago.