DUNEDIN, Fla. — Jesse Chavez was sitting in his backyard in Pomona, Calif., this November tediously assembling a wicker sofa set when his phone rang. It was Oakland Athletics GM David Forst delivering a message Chavez had received four times already since becoming a professional ball player in 2003 — he’d been traded.
“Hey, it’s the first of seven teams I’ve played for to want me back,” Chavez says standing in front of his new stall in the Toronto Blue Jays’ Dunedin clubhouse. “That’s something that got me excited right away.”
True, Chavez was once a Blue Jay in 2012, although very briefly as he made just nine major league appearances before being traded the A’s for cash considerations, who gave the nomadic right-hander a consistent home for the next three years. This winter that stability was disrupted once again, but for Chavez, who spent the first ten years of his career bouncing between six different organizations, finding out the destination was a welcome surprise.
“This is the team that gave me my first opportunity to get lengthened out as a starter and really reinvent myself as a pitcher,” Chavez says. “So when I found out where I was going I was all smiles. I’m glad to be back and glad to help in any way I can.”
How exactly Chavez will help the 2016 Blue Jays remains to be seen. He’ll be stretched out during spring training and compete to be the club’s fifth starter with Aaron Sanchez, Drew Hutchison and recently signed veteran Gavin Floyd. But many see him also providing value as a swingman in the bullpen, a role he’s filled for major league teams in the past. Even Blue Jays manager John Gibbons sounds conflicted about how Chavez might be used.
“Jesse’s got some good experience in the big leagues. He’s been successful. He’s a strike-throwing machine. He could be very valuable coming out of the pen or he could be a good starter for us,” Gibbons said. “So, who knows? We’ve got some flexibility.”
If you ask Chavez, he’ll tell you he wants to be in the rotation, as almost all pitchers do, but it means something extra for the 32-year-old who has been honing his craft as a starter over the past five years.
Chavez’s transition began during his first stint with the Blue Jays has required some serious upheaval to his repertoire and approach as he’s laboured to convert himself from a bullpen thrower who relied on velocity to a rotation pitcher who relies on finesse.
He’s learned to throw a cutter and a sinker, moved almost entirely away from the four-seam fastball he relied heavily upon early in his career, and began pitching with less velocity to allow himself to hold up over a full season. It’s been a long process, and Chavez thought he might finally get the chance to put all the pieces together the last two seasons in Oakland, but each time something got in the way.
In 2014 he began the year in the rotation for the first time in his life, and had decent success through the end of July, posting a 3.44 ERA in 21 starts, striking out nearly a batter an inning while limiting his walks to less than three per nine frames. But the team added Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester at the trade deadline as they made a push for the post-season, which bumped Chavez into the bullpen.
“I thought I was doing well that year. I thought it was going to be my first year as a full-season starter,” Chavez says. “But when you pick up a guy like Lester and you’ve got five aces, there’s not really much you can do.”
Chavez got a chance to return to the Athletics rotation early on in the 2015 season and once again provided good dividends, putting up a 2.38 ERA in his first eight starts, but as the season wore on he began to battle his mechanics and tried to make adjustments to correct them, which he felt led directly to struggles he suffered over the second half.
His hands had begun moving too far away from his body during his delivery, which flattened out his cutter and caused it to move side to side instead of staying tight and sharp. He stopped using his curveball entirely and began using a slider instead with the hopes of making his cutter bigger, a strategy that actually ended up having an adverse effect as his cutter lost its sharpness. By September he was shut down for the year with a fractured rib and a 5.72 ERA over his final 13 starts.
“I feel like in a lot of ways I’m still figuring this whole starter thing out because I’ve still got to put a whole year of it together,” Chavez says. “I’m still learning. Being here with Toronto, I’m going to pick all these guys brains. All the younger guys that we have in camp and the guys that have been in the majors doing this for a while. You’re never too old to stop learning.”
Chavez feels that if he’s going to have success this season it will have a lot to do with his ability to throw an effective cutter. He started learning it during his first stint in Toronto and has developed it since into a 91-mph offering that he’s leaned on more than any of his other pitches over the past four seasons. In 2014, when Chavez had his best success as a big leaguer, he was throwing it nearly 40 per cent of the time, while mixing in a sinker, curveball and changeup for good measure.
“Earlier in my career, before I started throwing it, if I couldn’t give you a good breaking ball for a strike, you were getting a fastball. It wasn’t very hard to pick my brain as a pitcher,” Chavez says. “I was a thrower and a lot of the time the ball ended up right down the middle of the plate.”
Chavez has kept close tabs on the Blue Jays since he left three years ago, staying in touch with Hutchison, who he bonded with quickly in Toronto, and watching his Oakland teammate Josh Donaldson join the club and win an MVP award in 2015.
He watched every playoff game Toronto played last fall; watched the camera lens shake as the sold out crowds at Rogers Centre erupted with every Blue Jays home run and inning-ending strikeout. He remembered back to when he was playing in that building, pitching before crowds of 25,000, and daydreamed about what it would be like to take the mound before twice that. This season he just might.
“It’s always going to make you hungry when you’re sitting at home in October and watching the team that you were once on doing something like that. You want to be there. You want to be helping them get to that next level,” Chavez says. “So I’m just here to show what I’ve put together since I’ve been gone, and to help this team go as far as we can.”