The Phillies will decline Placido Polanco‘s $5.5 million option for 2013, buying him out for $1 million. The formal decision hasn’t come down the pipeline, but it’s essentially a foregone conclusion. This opens up a spot at third base that the Phillies will need to fill internally, via trade or through the free agent market. Internal options exist, and the team may well choose to mix-and-match utility players and defensive specialists until the de facto 2014 starter — Cody Asche — is ready.
Kevin Frandsen played very well in Polanco’s absence this season and likely enters the season as the positional frontrunner. Freddy Galvis is a superlative defender at a tougher position and should also see time at third base. Ty Wigginton is, well, just a human being currently on the roster, and we’ll simply leave it at that.
While it’s sexier to discuss long-term solutions like Chase Headley or external stopgaps like Wilson Betemit or any of those Angels infielders, the Phillies can solve their third base dilemma by pairing their internal options with a talented and inexpensive free agent.
Eric Chavez cannot play everyday anymore, but he still hits righties. Formerly a gold glove defender, he remains passable at the position. The Yankees may make Alex Rodriguez available, and may offer to pick up most of the tab. In that case, he will surely be linked to the Phillies, a big-spending team with a clear need at third base. However, the Phillies are better off pursuing Chavez, A-Rod’s backup, as the righty meat in a platoon sandwich.
Chavez was on a Hall of Fame path in his early years as a great defender who hit for plenty of power in a hitter-unfriendly environment. He became a full-time starter in 2000, and ranged between 4.0-5.5 WAR from 2001-05. His 25.3 WAR over that five-year span places him in a virtual tie with Chipper Jones for 3rd among the 53 qualified third baseman. However, the Fangraphs leaderboard is a bit misleading in that it includes Alex Rodriguez, who only played third base in two of those five seasons. For that matter, Chipper played left field in 2002-03 when the Braves signed Vinny Castilla, so his inclusion is also questionable. A case could easily be made that Chavez was 2nd only to Scott Rolen among full-time third baseman for the first half of the last decade.
Then came the injuries. He tallied 3.4 WAR over 137 games in 2006, and combined for just 212 games from 2007-11. His 113 games played this season was his highest total in six seasons. He wasn’t impervious to injuries this year, either, but the Yankees managed his playing time relative to his strengths, maximizing both his availability and productivity. He turns 35 years old in December and probably won’t ever be a full-time player again, but he can benefit teams as a platoon player still capable of fielding his infield position.
The Yankees deployed the lefty-hitting Chavez almost exclusively against righties this season. In fact, 273 of his 312 plate appearances came against righties. In those PAs, he hit a gaudy .294/.366/.545, with a .387 wOBA and 144 wRC+. The latter metric measures how much better or worse a player was than the league, with 100 representing the league average. In other words, Chavez was 44 percent better than the league against right-handed pitchers, who, by the way, account for approximately 70 percent of all pitches thrown in a season.
His wOBA against righties ranked 12th in the American League among the 108 batters to face righties at least 250 times. It was a great season that fell mostly under the radar, but the injury risk and the inherent risks of aging and regression, will prevent him from a hefty payday. Chavez might sign a two-year deal — I mean, if Ty Wigginton got one… — but he won’t cost very much or require a lengthy commitment. And he’ll provide more than your typical bench or platoon player, because his best quality is an ability to hit righties, which is much tougher to find than is a lefty-crusher.
Frandsen had a terrific 2012 season, albeit one largely fueled by an unsustainable .366 BABIP. He might retain some level of his productivity, but expecting another .380 OBP and .450 SLG isn’t fair. One way to mitigate his expected regression is to tailor his playing time to situations in which he has a better chance to thrive. Playing him against lefties — against whom he hit .400/.426/.554 in 68 PA last year, and against whom his pre-2012 numbers indicate a substantially favorable split — is the most logical solution.
Playing Chavez when Frandsen sits also seems quite logical. Assuming the Phillies could sign Chavez for two years and $6 million, they could potentially cobble together 2.5-3 WAR for just $5 million next year (Frandsen/Galvis at ~$1 million, Chavez at $3 million and Polanco’s $1 million buyout), without blocking Asche or preventing the team from exploring the market next offseason. The Phillies won’t be the only team in on Chavez, but for all the talk about A-Rod potentially fitting here if he’s made available, it’s his backup that is probably a better fit and definitely a more realistic fit.