Chavez eyes more versatile role with A's
Third baseman looking forward to spending time at first in '10
OAKLAND -- Eric Chavez has no interest in painting a perfectly pretty and pain-free picture of his future.
If he did, green and gold colors would likely stand out among the rest. Diamonds -- the four-base kind, of course -- would sparkle all around. Gold Gloves would surely add a nice touch.
The harsh reality, though, is that Chavez knows said picture isn't just a brushstroke away. In fact, the A's $66 million man realizes the chances of any of those things actually coming to life are slim.
So Chavez is done thinking about plans, let alone making them. And he's done promising anything -- to fans, teammates, employers and, most importantly, himself -- until his body gives him permission to do otherwise.
"I'm going to go about it intelligently in Spring Training, but as far as I'm concerned, I want to know that I can do everything and not have to worry too much about how my body is going to respond," he says. "I don't want to have that injury factor in the back of my mind."
Chavez simply can't pinky swear a seventh Gold Glove or even a minimum number of plate appearances. After all, his surgically repaired right shoulder and back do most of the talking these days, leaving Chavez little to say about his baseball career without starting a sentence with "if."
And "If I'm healthy..." doesn't exactly ease any sort of planning process.
Thus, the one-time A's franchise player is throwing out the plans and sticking with options -- optimistic but realistic options catered toward his body's ever-changing health. And playing first base has recently become one of them.
Now, with fresh trade acquisition Kevin Kouzmanoff entrenched at third base, Chavez's longtime coveted territory, it has potential to be the best one.
"It's a good situation for me," Chavez says. "Kouz is the third baseman, no question, and that provides me the chance to make it through the year. It's not like third base or bust, and that's the way I see it. My biggest concern this year is obviously to be healthy. My second concern is to be productive offensively. And third is whatever I can do on the field.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity to not just have to be playing third base -- because that's kind of the pressure that I felt, that I was the third baseman and they had nobody else. Now we have positions that are filled all over the field, and there's opportunity for me to play first, split some time with Jack [Cust] at DH, maybe some short and some outfield."
General manager Billy Beane has no problem seeing Chavez spell probable starter Daric Barton at first base. The idea amuses the 32-year-old Chavez, who is promptly asked about his feelings toward playing a position where his experience adds up to "once or twice."
"I don't know, to be honest with you," he replies with a laugh.
His honest answer may seem apathetic at best, but don't think for a second Chavez isn't serious about the notion nor willing to learn the position. He's already one step ahead.
"I just ordered some first baseman gloves from my agent the other day," he says. "So I'm just going to try to make the adjustment as best I can."
Right now, that's all anybody can ask of a guy who has played in only 121 games over the past three seasons. And that's really all Chavez can ask of himself.
Don't worry, his shoulder and back have responded quite well to the little baseball action he's been able to do at his Phoenix home. His back makes for bad mornings, but once in the gym stretching and exercising, "I feel like I can do anything," Chavez says. Furthermore, he can throw, hit and take ground balls on a steady basis. Whether he can maintain those exercises at a Spring Training pace, though, remains to be seen.
"This Spring Training is going to be the biggest Spring Training of my life," Chavez says. "It's going to direct my career where it's going to go, or it's going to end my career.
"Physically, I'm going to know whether I can handle it or not. If my shoulder's not feeling well or my back can't handle the ground balls, then I pretty much know where I lay."
Chavez has already repeatedly relayed much of this information to Beane, who has wholeheartedly stood by his injury-plagued player.
Says Chavez: "I told Billy, 'Look, without even talking myself out of feeling good, I really feel like the chances of me recovering and being healthy this year are really good.' But I told him I really can't give him any exact answers until I start playing."
And so the "if" game continues.
Former tutor Ron Washington, who was largely instrumental in Chavez's development as a Gold Glove defender and has since taken the managerial reigns in Texas, is more than happy to play along with the game. He easily sees Chavez conquering a corner-infield switch.
"If he stays healthy, he will perform," Washington says. "I think if anyone could make that switch and get a Gold Glove at another position, it would be Eric. He simply has the hands, and he has the knowledge of ways to be a good defensive player. It all comes down to what I told Eric when I was with him. It's up to him. It's up to Eric. If he wants to do it, he will be very good at it."
Chavez sees himself more than ready for the challenges that come along with playing first base -- well, almost.
"Everybody I've talked to before has said, 'You just gotta remember when the ball is hit to go to first base,'" he says. "So that's going to be the biggest adjustment because when you're at third and the ball's hit, you just kinda watch and look at what's going to happen with the play. At first, you're involved in every play, so that's what I have to get to my head. That's going to be the biggest change for me."
He says this with a laugh and is quickly reminded that if remembering to go to first base is his biggest worry of the spring, then that could very well be an excellent sign of a healthy season ahead.
"That's true," he says. "If I'm out there pain-free, I'll manage finding first base."
Chavez would rather not think about the "if it doesn't work out" scenarios, explaining that he's excited for that next step in his life, but still eagerly wants to fulfill his current one.
"I'm still with the A's, and I'm still in the process of ending my six-year commitment to them, and it's important to me to fulfill that," he says. "My mind's focus is completely to get healthy, to enjoy myself, and to be a productive Oakland Athletic this year.
"They've obviously afforded me the luxury of being financially set for life, so I'm not really looking toward that next step yet. But if it comes, I'm definitely ready for it. Baseball's been a big part of my life, but I know that it could all come to an end, so I'm prepared for that if it happens to come this year."
Boy, what a story it would be if it's not for a couple more, though -- especially considering Chavez's strong desire to give back what he's been taught during his 11 Major League seasons.
"I feel like I've climbed so many hills now that I've gained so much knowledge, not only from just being successful in the game, but from having to work myself back from the bottom," he says. "At third, I really feel a lot of knowledge has been passed down to me from Ron Washington, and it really soaked in with me, and it's really helped me become one of the better third basemen in the league.
"Because of that, I feel like there's a lot of knowledge to pass on, and in the infield, it's all pretty much the same stuff, and there's a lot of stuff you can pass on, whether you're at third base or first base. I've really had to work hard at becoming a real good defensive player because it didn't come easy to me. I feel like it's now time for me to start passing that on. If the guys are wanting to talk to me, I'm definitely willing to help for sure."
Never mind his smaller role as a utility player -- if healthy, of course. His larger role will come as a mentor, Washington assures.
"When you are a teacher, you need to apply what you've been given," the Rangers skipper says. "Eric worked hard at it, and so I think all the credit of what he accomplished definitely goes to him. He'll be wonderful with the younger guys.
"That's what you do. Everything in this game of baseball is always about someone who's influenced you, and you want to take what they gave to you and continue to pass it on. That's how you keep the game moving."
All this talk, though, forces Chavez to pause before taking reality's hand again.
"None of it matters if I'm not healthy," he says. "You can't be an influence when you're only playing in 20 games during the season and spending three quarters of the year at home. So my presence won't even matter unless I'm on the field playing."
Only time will tell if Chavez's career takes a small step forward or a permanently large step back. Both prospects obviously present outcomes on two very different spectrums, but Chavez is ready to finally know which direction he needs to take.
"I've definitely been more nervous about it in the past, but I think the fact I'm pretty realistic with myself -- knowing that the odds are stacked against me -- helps," he says. "Baseball just hasn't been real too enjoyable for me over the last few years, so that's why my outlook on it is to just go out and have fun.
"I'm working my butt off to get healthy physically, and I want to allow myself to at least enjoy myself if it's going to be the last time I'm on the field."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.