Back when I was covering the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team, the Huskies had almost every player coming back from an NCAA Tournament team one season but recruited a junior college guard to create competition in the backcourt.
I asked assistant coach Howie Dickenman why the staff decided to change the look of what had been such a successful roster.
“You don’t want it to get stale,” he said. “Even the best teams need a little new blood.”
That has stayed with me since and I believe it to be true for teams in any sport. Every season is different and recreating what worked one year is not always possible the next.
Which brings us to the Red Sox and Michael Chavis, a young man who is most definitely not stale.
The 23-year-old Chavis started his fifth consecutive game on Thursday night and hit a two-run homer in the second inning to help the Sox beat the Detroit Tigers, 7-3.
The Sox were not necessarily intending to use Chavis every day when he was called up last week. But the Georgia native changed those plans. He has reached base in 9 of 23 plate appearances and driven in four runs.
“Dude, I’m having the time of my life,” Chavis said.
Chavis is a character, in a good way. He starts sentences with “Dude” and “Bro” a lot and is successfully working the beard-without-a-mustache look. His comments to the media are honest, unscripted and peppered with laughs.
Chavis engages his 14,320 Twitter followers in topics that include everything from his religious beliefs to how best to prank your neighbor by ringing their doorbell and running.
His enthusiasm is genuine and the stagnant Sox needed a dose of that instead of more glum looks and “We’ll be fine” comments.
But most importantly, Chavis can hit. He belted a 441-foot home run on Tuesday night that was the longest hit by a Sox player this season.
As the Red Sox work to recover from their slow start, Chavis is giving them some of that new blood.
“Everybody’s excited when he swings hard,” manager Alex Cora said. “It’s just a threat. He’s very quiet in the clubhouse; he’s playing the part of the young kid trying to get information. I think he’s just a good player who’s going to help us out in whatever role we use him.”
For now, that’s at second base with Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez and Dustin Pedroia on the injured list.
Chavis has shown he can make the routine plays and that’s really all the Sox need. But his long-term defensive position is probably first base or third base.
Mitch Moreland Steve Pearce will become free agents after the season and the Sox could save roughly $12 million by playing Chavis at first base. Or maybe Chavis plays third base and Rafael Devers moves to first base.
How 24-year-old corner infielder Bobby Dalbec develops will be part of that equation, too. For now, the Sox will find somewhere for Chavis to play.
“We’re comfortable with him,” Cora said.
Hitting coach Tim Hyers was a minor league coordinator in 2015 when Chavis was the organization’s first-round draft pick. He left to work for the Dodgers and returned last year.
“I saw how much Michael had changed,” Hyers said. “He had a lot of body movement in his swing. Now it’s more compact and balanced from start to finish.”
That Chavis drew four walks in his first five games impressed Hyers even more than the long home run.
“He’s taking those breaking balls and they’ll keep throwing them to him,” Hyers said. “Hitting is Michael’s thing; he likes to talk hitting. He understands you can’t hit every ball out of the ballpark and not all strikes are created equal. You have to get your pitch and he’s done a good job of that.”
At 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, Chavis is not a classically built slugger. But he had 23 extra-base hits in 46 games last season after serving an 80-game suspension following a positive test for an anabolic steroid. Then he had four home runs in 22 at-bats with the major league team during spring training.
“It’s a quick engine,” Hyers said. “He’s not lacking for bat speed by any means. He has shown us that from his first at-bat in the majors. You have to be able to hit the fastball and he can.”
Cora initially portrayed Chavis as a temporary roster solution until the Sox got some of their injured infielders back. But his name keeps popping up on the lineup card and the Sox are playing better.
Don’t get stale. It’s still good advice.