Last week, the A’s made their first major contract commitment since the ill-fated Jermaine Dye signing, agreeing to a six-year, $66 million extension with Eric Chavez. The deal is the biggest in franchise history, and coming on the heels of the departures of Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada, is being hailed as a sign that Steve Schott is intent on keeping the core of his team.

While conceding that the commitment to Chavez is probably a necessary one for a franchise whose on-field success has translated to higher, but not still not impressive, attendance, I just don’t think it’s a great baseball deal. The obvious comparison is to the Cardinals’ Scott Rolen, the National League’s best third baseman and a player who also signed with his current team without testing the free-agent market.

             Eric Chavez                        Scott Rolen
      Age   AVG   OBP   SLG   WARP      Age    AVG   OBP   SLG   WARP
2003   25  .282  .350  .514    8.9      28    .286  .382  .528    8.4
2002   24  .275  .348  .513    6.7      27    .266  .357  .503    9.1
2001   23  .288  .338  .540    8.6      26    .289  .378  .498    8.8
2000   22  .277  .355  .495    3.7      25    .298  .370  .551    6.8

Rolen’s contract, signed before the new Collective Bargaining Agreement changed the landscape, pays him $90 million for his age 28 through 35 seasons. Chavez’s deal pays him $66 million for his age 27 through 32 seasons (the contract is an extension beginning in ’05; Chavez will make $5.2 million this year). Because of the change in the system, it’s hard to compare the two deals; while both players will make $11 million a year, Chavez’s deal is further from current market norms than Rolen’s was from his. On the other hand, the A’s are out from under the deal before Chavez gets too deep into his career’s decline phase. Rolen is the better player so far, but we’ve yet to see Chavez’s 26-28 seasons.

The common denominator between the two third baseman is great defense. According to Clay Davenport’s system, Chavez saved 35 runs more than replacement level fielder last year with his glove and was similarly spectacular in ’01. Rolen hasn’t had Chavez’s defensive peak, but has been worth a solid two wins a season with his glove. Ultimate Zone Rating, a play-by-play based system developed by Mickey Lichtman and considered to be a top-tier defensive metric, rates Rolen and Chavez among the top eight third baseman over the past four years. The performance record matches the opinions of observers, as well. These two can pick it.

Great numbers aside, I find Chavez to be a frustrating player to watch. Like his now-former teammate Tejada, Chavez seemed to have his worst at-bats in game-critical situations. I don’t mean just by outcome, but by approach, going up hacking against a pitcher who’d had trouble controlling the strike zone to the previous hitter or hitters. I don’t think this makes him a bad player, or reflects a lack of “clutch” ability, but in choosing a player to make a commitment to, it seems an odd choice for an organization that so values the strike zone. It’s effectively the opposite of the Scott Hatteberg deal, where the A’s rewarded a player whose plate approach set a standard, even though the player was well below average at the plate.

To be fair to Chavez, his plate discipline has been improving over the last couple of years. His K/BB ratio, after intentional walks, has moved from 3.1 to 2.3 to 1.7 since bottoming out in ’01. Given that he’s still just 26, it makes more sense to look at that trend than to judge him based on observational evidence.

A more pressing concern is that Chavez has yet to show himself to be worthy of a full-time job. He hit .220/.271/.403 against southpaws in ’03, and is .229/.278/.395 in a season’s worth of playing time against them since 2001. That’s awful, and unfortunately, it’s a weakness that hurts more than is reflected in our metrics. Because Chavez has such a large platoon split, and isn’t removed from the game in favor of a pinch-hitter, opposition managers can turn a $66 million player into a cipher at the game’s most critical moment.

According to Keith Woolner, Chavez faced 35% more left-handed pitchers when the game was late and close last year than the average left-handed batter did. So when he’s at the plate in high-leverage situations, he’s much more likely to be the 680 OPS guy than the 1000 OPS guy he is when he’s facing a right-hander. That’s not about being clutch; it’s about having a weakness that can be exploited at the worst times. It means that his VORP or WARP or whatever you prefer is overrating his performance; he’s getting a disproportionate number of his high-leverage plate appearances against pitchers he can’t hit.

It wasn’t just last year. Since 2000, Chavez has faced 27% more left-handed pitchers in late-and-close situations than the average lefty batter has. When he’s at the plate in an important situation, he’s forced to face southpaws, which makes the A’s less likely to win. And as he gets better against right-handers while not developing more against lefties, that situation is going to be more and more the norm. Quite frankly, there’s no reason to let a right-hander pitch to Chavez if his at-bat means anything late in the game.

Let’s be honest, though. The baseball arguments against this kind of signing pale in comparison to the real reason the A’s put their money on the table. Chavez wasn’t signed just to cover third base; he was signed as the opening salvo in the negotiations with the big three of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, who begin reaching free agency after next season.

Is it worth it to make this kind of commitment in an effort to keep the more important parts of the team happy? I’m not sure, and as much as I understand that the pitchers were pleased by the signing, I’m more inclined to believe that their eventual status will have more to do with their performance over the next two years, and the direction of the market for baseball players, than their joy about having Chavez as a teammate.

If Chavez develops into a threat against left-handed pitching–and there’s still hope that he will–the A’s will get their money’s worth out of him. If he continues to be a .200/.300/.400 guy against lefties, though, he’ll continue to have less impact on the A’s success than his raw numbers would indicate.