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Sign of the times

Chavez extension bodes well for A's -- and everybody else

Posted: Tuesday March 16, 2004 1:29PM; Updated: Tuesday March 16, 2004 1:29PM
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The Oakland Athletics' impending signing of third baseman Eric Chavez is a major win for the franchise. Keeping Chavez stops the talent drain that's been going on there and betters Oakland's chances of signing pitcher Tim Hudson to a contract extension after this season.

As for other owners, sure, some will be disappointed not to see a 26-year-old third baseman on the free-agent market. But if the A's corral Chavez for about $11 million per year for six years, other teams might be encouraged by what owners are calling the further "stabilization" of player salaries. Consider that Chavez is a near statistical twin of Scott Rolen when Rolen was entering his sixth service year (potential walk year) with Philadelphia. Rolen also was 26 then, before Opening Day 2002. Here are Chavez's numbers compared to Rolen's numbers then:

Chavez 744 2,627 414 727 134 466 .277
Rolen 744 2,750 481 783 133 493 .285

Also, both were superb fielders and had never made an All-Star team. What did the Phillies do a little more than two years ago? They offered Rolen $140 million over 10 years. Rolen, who wanted no part of playing for manager Larry Bowa in Philadelphia, declined the offer. Traded to St. Louis, he eventually signed an eight-year, $90 million contract. Oakland will have Chavez for very nearly the same average annual value two years later. Moreover, they will be guaranteeing fewer dollars and fewer years, a continuing trend in baseball.

Eric Chavez
Eric Chavez has won three consecutive Gold Glove awards at third base.
Peter Read Miller/SI

Eight-year deals are virtually unheard of now. Some baseball executives point to the increasing difficulty of obtaining more than three years of insurance on multiyear contracts. Some point to commissioner Bud Selig's new debt rules, which affect a team's guaranteed future payments. Unlike last season, when few top potential free agents signed extensions, several players already have signed off their free-agent rights by signing short-term extensions, such as Roy Halladay (who gave up two free-agent opportunities by signing for four years, $42 million), Javier Vazquez (four years, $45 million) and Kerry Wood (three years, $31 million). One GM called the Wood signing "the best contract of the winter, getting that guy held at three years."

Then there is the statistical lookalike trio of Trot Nixon, Derrek Lee and Geoff Jenkins, who signed three-year contracts in that order. Nixon turns 30 in April, Lee is 28 and Jenkins is 29. All of them were first-round picks, with Nixon taken seventh overall in 1993 (13 picks in front of Torii Hunter), Lee going 14th the next year and Jenkins ninth the next. None of them ever have driven in 100 runs in a season, though they all have come within at least eight RBIs of doing so. Who's worth more? You decide:

Nixon 696 2,347 651 106 381 .277 .366 .496
Lee 866 2,884 760 130 421 .264 .353 .467
Jenkins 650 2,348 663 122 391 .282 .349 .516

Lee, the first baseman, has been a more durable regular than the two outfielders. He's played at least 150 games for four straight seasons -- Jenkins and Nixon have one 150-game season combined. Jenkins has endured a slew of injuries, some major. Nixon has lost some playing time in his career to his ineffectiveness against left-handed pitching. He has been plagued by back trouble this spring, an ominous injury for any ballplayer but especially a short-limbed one (he has Erubiel Durazo arms) who has weighed as much as 230 pounds.

As it happened, the value of the contracts increased in the order in which they were signed: Nixon ($19.5 million), Lee ($22.5 million) and Jenkins ($23 million). Whom would you rather have for the next three years? I'd rate Jenkins, who is also a good left fielder, as the best player of the three, but his injury history is scary. (Do the Brewers remember Jeffrey Hammonds?) I figure that the Red Sox got the best bargain of the three, especially because Nixon's numbers track those of Jenkins so closely, including career OPS (.862 for Nixon, .865 for Jenkins). But Nixon's back, while not yet close to a serious problem, looms as a red flag, not to mention his body type as he finishes the extension at 32. That leaves Lee, who is the safest pick, especially after a season in which he posted career highs in slugging and RBIs. The bottom line is they are very similar players, and their clubs did well to keep the term in each case at three years.

Selig and Big Mac

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read in USA Today that Selig told ESPN's Jim Gray "I don't think at this point I will do anything relative to Mark McGwire's records" unless "some day there's a lot more relevant knowledge." "At this point?" "More relevant knowledge?" What is the world is this man talking about? Why is he speaking as if the file on McGwire is open and McGwire is on some sort of double secret probation?

Here is what we know about McGwire, relative to Selig's comments: He took a legal, over-the-counter supplement, andro, during the 1998 season to help him get through workouts. There was no need to be discreet about it. He kept it in plain view of anybody willing to look into his locker. He soon stopped taking it because of adverse public opinion. I know of at least three other players who personally told me they, too, tried andro (no doubt there were others), with one of them telling McGwire it wasn't fair that McGwire happened to be the only one criticized for it.

Now, no one is pretending to be naive. Andro is a little stronger than Flintstone chewables. It is often called a steroid precursor because of the way it metabolizes in the body, raising testosterone levels. But what matters here is that McGwire was perfectly within the rules of baseball and the laws of this country by taking a supplement that was available to absolutely anybody who walked into their local vitamin and health food store. He broke no laws and violated no ethics. (Why isn't Selig yapping about bat-corking Norm Cash's 1961 batting title, or admitted steroid user Jose Canseco's accomplishments?)

And if some day the federal government decides to classify andro as a controlled drug, there is no way Selig or anybody else can hit the rewind button and apply legal standards retroactively. Everybody should understand the facts of the steroid problem in baseball. Seventy to 100 players tested positive for steroids last year when they practically knew when the test was coming. Five percent of minor league tests came back positive. Two players flunked the strict IOC-standard steroid tests. There are four federal indictments pending in San Francisco relative to steroid distribution to athletes, and it so directly affects baseball that the government wants the urine samples taken last year of prominent ballplayers. So condemn steroid use all you want. But you cannot condemn individuals because no ballplayers have been charged. No evidence has been presented.

Yes, baseball has a problem and it must deal with it, but we're dangerously close to hysteria when people start calling out individual players for using steroids just because of body type or increased performance. And please, save the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the media for that kind of behavior. The finger-pointing and name-dropping is being done by players and ex-players (Turk Wendell, Jeff Kent, Andy Van Slyke, Jim Palmer and, if you can read between lines, Reggie Jackson). McGwire's name doesn't belong anywhere near the raging issue of steroids, which are illegal to possess and use without a prescribed medical purpose and are, for the first time this season, banned in baseball with a penalties attached to any such violations. And unless Selig has some irrefutable, cold, hard facts as they relate to "relevant knowledge," the only time he should open his mouth about McGwire is to give the man an apology.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.