From 1999 through 2006, the Athletics were settled at third base. Eric Chavez was installed at the hot corner in 1999, and though his rookie season was merely adequate (.247/.333/.427, 98 OPS+), it also came when he was all of 21 years old. From 2001 through 2005, Chavez hit .278/.351/.506 with stellar defense, averaging more than five wins above replacement per year. Injuries got in the way in 2006, but Chavez still managed to play in 137 games, post a 105 OPS+, and 3.7 rWAR thanks to that wonderful glove.
The Athletics were known for letting their star players walk as free agents or giving them a boost by trading them off before their contracts expired. Chavez was different. The A's signed him to a six-year, $66 million extension that began in 2005, a deal that looked like a bargain for the A's at the time, given how consistent Chavez had been on both sides of the ball. We shouldn't be surprised this is the guy that general manager Billy Beane decided to target, though:
"The only thing that will stop Chavvy is if he gets bored," he says. "People don't understand that. He continues to frustrate people who take him out of context. He is twenty four years old. What he's done at twenty-four, no one has done. Health permitted, his whole career is a lock."
That's from page 248 of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The last line, in hindsight, is the most important. Chavez wasn't healthy as early as year two of his new long-term deal, and that destroyed the rest of his career as a star at third. From 2007 through 2010 with the Athletics, Chavez hit a combined .233/.290/.399 and collected just 628 plate appearances. His glove didn't collapse as much as his bat, but he was still essentially replacement level for a four-year period.
Chavez's replacements were better, but not by much. Athletics' third basemen hit .242/.311/.379 from 2007 to 2010, a significant drop from what the A's were used to getting from the position. Of the Athletics players who spent at least half of their playing time at third base, not one was above-average at the plate for more than a season:
Hannahan and Kouzmanoff were both quality defensive players, but they hit like injured Chavez, leaving the A's with little in the way of production at the position. Scott Sizemore brought hope to the position, but on Monday he was diagnosed with a torn ACL, and is now out for the season.
The A's are now without a third baseman. Josh Donaldson is a former catcher who has converted to third recently, and while he has decent minor league numbers, he's no sure thing. According to Susan Slusser, Oakland feels good about Donaldson:
The team not only likes the fact that he took it upon himself to go to the Dominican to play third, but that he also has improved his defensive metrics there enough to be considered for a big-league spot. They believe, too, that he will hit better when out from behind the plate.
If his defense is tolerable as he learns the ins and outs of the position, the A's might not get a Scott Sizemore, but they could end up with something better than what they have thrown out there the last five years.
Donaldson has spent the last two years at Triple-A, and hit .252/.331/.454 there. The average Pacific Coast League hitter posted a .286/.359/.448 line, but they also didn't have to contend with Sacramento. A's prospects at Triple-A get a good taste of what life will be like in the majors in that park, as it's one of the few PCL stadiums that kills offense -- especially homers.
The projection systems aren't optimistic, though. ZiPS has Donaldson at .210/.289/.356, and PECOTA projects him to .227/.306/.374. Amazingly, due to the poor offensive conditions in Oakland, PECOTA's line isn't that far below-average -- he's projected for a .252 True Average, whereas the average third baseman last year sat at .257. It's not pretty, but considering he entered camp as either a bench player or on his way back to the minors, it's not awful, either.
Not awful would be a step up over what the Athletics have produced at third the last half-decade. And, if Donaldson fails, the A's can always make a trade, or just wait for Sizemore -- who has five more years of team control -- to get healthy and save their future at the position. It's not a very promising outlook, but that's just how things have gone for the A's at third since the plans Beane had for Chavez went awry.