The Mets' Christmas Signing That Keeps On Giving
FLUSHING, NY - It doesn't take a smart general manager to know that Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner were quality acquisitions. After all, the three players were All-Stars in past years and showed no signs of slowing down.
But Mets' GM Omar Minaya flexed his mind muscle on the smaller signings and trades this past off-season and many have paid dividends.
One, in particular, happened just before Christmas last year to little fanfare when former National and Phillie Endy Chavez inked a one year deal on December 23. The Mets, though, are very thankful this early holiday gift has kept giving this season.
The 28 year-old was coming off a very poor season playing down the turnpike. Chavez only hit .215 in the City of Brotherly Love after being acquired in mid-May from Washington for Marlon Byrd. The outfielder's defense was still sound, so Minaya, who had him in Montreal, was thinking the Mets were getting a good late inning replacement.
Yet, Chavez thought differently and worked on his hitting during the off-season in his native Venezuela.
"I practiced a lot on my approach," Chavez said. "I tried to work more on the strike zone and be more selective. I try to make a swing and not miss the pitch, but try and get a hit. When I started doing that, I made more contact and got more base hits. I just need to be more consistent in doing that."
During Spring Training, Willie Randolph saw Chavez taking big cuts and swinging for the fences. As former speed merchant himself, the manager made it a point to get the outfielder to play small ball.
"As a little guy, he swung from his butt and ended up popping up or missing," Randolph explained. "It has been proven to him that when he puts the ball in play, he has a chance to make things happen. Even the balls he doesn't hit well, in the 6-hole, he has a chance to get a hit. And he has 6 or 7 infield hits this year. Give him credit for buying in with what we want him to do and with two strikes putting the ball in play."
Starting off slow - and hitting only .255 in April - Chavez got hot in May when Xavier Nady and Cliff Floyd missed time due to injuries. The results are a .289 average with 2 home runs, 22 RBI in 194 at bats.
"When I got four or five at bats in a game, it helped me a lot," Chavez said. "Willie put me a lot in the lineup and I got action almost everyday. That helped me be ready anytime he calls on me. It helps me now with all the support he gave."
It also aided New York that the outfielder was not relied upon to be a focal point of the offense. When the Phillies traded for him, Chavez was thought to be their leadoff man, but with the Mets, anything he contributed was considered a bonus.
"[Jose] Reyes is the man here for leading off and the fast game," Chavez thought. "They have me here to play defense. They don't push me too much for my offense. That helped me relax when I was called on. I know I can hit and put the ball in play. That made me play comfortable. I am learning a lot from the guys to be a better player."
Two teammates the outfielder credits for helping him "find his way" are Carlos Beltran and Julio Franco, both of whom he says supported Chavez when he was struggling by taking him to get extra batting practice and working on his swing.
Besides making adjustments at the plate, Chavez also needed to learn a new outfield position. A centerfielder by trade, he only had five games in right field before this season.
Said Chavez: "In the beginning [of the year] I wasn't very comfortable [in right], because I didn't know the position. But it helped me focus and now I can help Beltran with balls in the gap. Now I feel fine with the position."
And Randolph feels fine with penciling this early Christmas present in anytime one of his regular outfielders needs a day off.
"He has been a real pleasant surprise," Randolph said. "I didn't know a lot about him the beginning of this year, but I knew of his defense. But he has given us a lot of offense.
He had done a lot of work with the bat this year with his approach and he certainly has become a very important part of our team.
"That's why I try to play him a lot."
And that's why Chavez is just another smart signing by the Mets general manager.