The Toronto Blue Jays acquired Jesse Chavez to be a depth arm. A journeyman expected to spend the season at AAA. But Toronto liked his live arm and gave him the chance to stretch out as a starter. Now, Chavez finds himself on the 40-man roster returning to Las Vegas fresh off a successful first appearance with the Jays. Let’s see how he got here and look at whether he can have continued success at the major league level.
The Chicago Cubs drafted Jesse Chavez in the 39th round, 1158th overall, in the 2001 MLB Amateur Draft out of AB Miller High School in Fontana, California. A late-round pick with little incentive to sign, Chavez instead chose to attend Riverside Community College and re-enter the draft in 2002. This time, the Texas Rangers selected him in the 42nd round, 1252nd overall, ultimately signing him in May of 2003.
He began his professional career that summer with the low-A Spokane Indians of the Northwest League, on a talented squad featuring, among others, John Danks and Ian Kinsler. Chavez served as a swingman across 17 games, starting 8 and going 2-2, 4.55 in 55.1 innings with good stuff but spotty command (48/31 SO/BB). He wasn’t highly regarded but held his own despite being the youngest arm on the team.
In 2004, Texas promoted him to the low-A Clinton Lumber Kings of the Midwest League. Pitching mostly out of the rotation, Chavez went 6-10, 4.68 in 123 IP with an improved 96/35 SO/BB count. The surface stats were mediocre but his velocity was impressive, often hitting 94-96, and his hard slider showed potential. He still gave up a lot of hits (10.8/9) and his strikeout rate dipped (7.0K/9) as the innings piled up. But Chavez also cut his walk rate dramatically (2.6BB/9). He still had a lot to prove but his arm withstood the innings increase and he appeared in line for another promotion if he could find a way to miss more bats.
The change of scenery came in 2005. With it, a change in role. Texas management shifted him to the bullpen and the early returns were outstanding. Chavez began with the high-A Bakersfield Blaze and went 0-0, 2.22 in 24.1 IP with only 16 hits allowed (.182 BAA) and an eye-popping 31/9 SO/BB. Chavez was still only 21 and now looked like he could advance quickly. For better or worse, it turned out. In May, the Rangers promoted him to the AA Frisco Rough Riders of the Texas League and Chavez hit his first real stumbling block. He got into 31 games for Frisco and went 4-3 with a 5.68 ERA in 57 innings. He got hit around and, worse, his command deserted him, resulting in a 27/25 SO/BB rate. More advanced hitters teed off on his straight fastball. But Chavez was again one of the youngest pitchers on the team. He’d obviously been rushed. But if he could stay healthy, there would be more chances.
Texas returned him to Frisco in 2006 and, this time, Chavez was ready. In 38 games, he went 2-5, 4.42 in 59 innings – but with great peripherals (only 54 hits allowed and a dynamic 70/28 SO/BB rate). By late July, he’d earned a promotion to AAA. But Chavez lasted 2 games there before another fateful move came. The Rangers were 4 games out of first in the AL West (they were also 2 games under .500 and sitting in last place), and decided to ship Chavez to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Kip Wells in a last-ditch effort to boost their beleaguered rotation. Of course, Wells was terrible in limited action. Mostly, he was injured – only pitching two games for Texas. Chavez was assigned to the AAA Indianapolis Indians. One phone call away from Pittsburgh. He pitched in 12 games, going 2-1, 4.24, in 17 IP with a 15/9 SO/BB line. Chavez was now consistently sitting at 95-96 mph and prospect evaluators were taking note of his live arm. The Pirates selected him to play for the Grand Canyon Rafters of the Arizona Fall League after the season and , there, Chavez really turned up the heat: 0.64 ERA, 14 IP, 1ER. The Pittsburgh pen was ripe with opportunity and Chavez now appeared closer than ever to his first taste of the majors.
Instead, 2007 tested his patience. Chavez spent the entire season in Indianapolis. He went 3-3, 3.92 in 46 games (and 80.1 IP) with a stout 65/17 SO/BB rate. He was hittable (10.5 H/9) but again showed improved control and used his slider and changeup to collect strikeouts. The Pirates’ decision to bury him in AAA seems indefensible. They were awful, again, losing 94 games. And any losing team willing to inflict dreadful, non-prospects like John “Way Back” Wasdin and Marty McLeary has no excuse for not rolling with a pitcher like Chavez. A guy who might be someone. It was typical of the team’s misguided decision-making. In the fall, Chavez returned to Arizona, this time with the Phoenix Desert Dogs, but struggled to a 6.00 ERA in 11 appearances. If he felt frustrated, you couldn’t blame him.
He began 2008 like the year before: in Indianapolis, this time as the closer. Only now Chavez displayed new resolve and, for the first time, indisputable consistency. He went 2-6, 3.80 in 68.2 innings with only 58 hits allowed and a strong 70/22 SO/BB rate. His 1.17 WHIP was a career-best as were his 14 saves. He was now undeniably ready to contribute in the Pirates’ pen and the team called him up, at last, in August. The results weren’t good: 15 total games, 0-1, 6.60 in 15 IP with a 16/9 SO/BB. But he’d made it. Few 42nd round picks do. If his fastball lacked movement, it at least had velocity. His other stuff was still fringy but could play with more consistency. To wit: Chavez flashed odd inverted splits (.217 vs. LHP, .395 vs. RHP) that betrayed his minor league numbers (.282 vs. LHP, .177 vs. RHP). But the sample size was small. And Chavez had little left to prove in AAA. It was obvious he might never be a late-inning fireman but he showed the qualities of a future middle reliever. He just needed more time. He again played winter ball with the Gigantes del Cibao. He was now 25 and hopeful his chance to stick would come again.
It did. Chavez made the Pirates out of spring training in 2009 and built on his gains bigtime. He led Pittsburgh (and all major league rookies) in appearances by a country mile, with 73 – totaling 67.1 innings. He went 1-4, 4.01 with a 47/22 SO/BB rate. The numbers were just OK. But at least Pittsburgh was trying to utilize a guy that could help them down the road. Still, Chavez faded down the stretch, likely from overuse ,and his ERA ballooned in the second half (3.19 vs. 4.99). He also generated another insane inverse platoon split, with his high-80s slider proving very tough on lefties (.227/.286/.391) but very hittable (.301/.359/.526) against normal people. A poor GB rate (39.3%) contributed to 11 unsightly home runs. But on a terrible Pirates team he was invaluable.
That is, until the offseason when they traded him to the Tampa Bay Rays for Akinori Iwamura, a Japanese import they hoped would fill their organizational chasm at the keystone. Instead, he deepened it. Chavez, meanwhile, never actually dressed as a Ray, spending barely a month in the organization before the Rays sent him to the Atlanta Braves for flame-throwing closer Rafael Soriano. He’d only become available after surprising the Braves by accepting their arbitration offer. Advantage Rays. Soriano became an All-Star, Iwamura was out of the league in a year and Chavez entered 2010 on his third organization of the offseason.
Chavez had decent peripherals for the Braves but was again susceptible to home runs and big innings. The result was an ugly 3-2, 5.89 line in 36.2 IP despite a quality 29/12 SO/BB rate. He was the seventh man in an excellent bullpen. Forgotten and expendable. Looking to add depth for a playoff push, the Braves dealt him to the Kansas City Royals along with former Jays farmhand Tim Collins and outfielder Gregor Blanco in exchange for Kansas City’s closer, Kyle Farnsworth, and useful spare outfielder Rick Ankiel. Chavez scuffled in Kansas City, going 2-3, 5.88 in 26 IP with a subpar 16/11 SO/BB ratio – including a one-inning, 7-run drubbing in August. The Royals had few obvious relief options and Chavez was still just 27. But he was seen as a throw-in to Atlanta deal and his hold on a major league job was slipping. He needed a strong spring to make the Royals’ Opening Day roster.
It didn’t happen. The Royals promoted an influx of young relievers who proved ready for prime time early and Chavez was one of the first pitchers dismissed from camp. He plunged down the team’s depth chart and spent most of the season closing for the AAA Omaha Storm Chasers. Chavez was effective: 2-4, 3.75 in 57.2 innings, with a quality 54/16 SO/BB ratio and 16 saves – very respectable numbers for the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. When he finally did get a shot in the majors, he was terrible, going 0-0, 10.57 in 7.2 IP, with 12 hits allowed, an 8/5 SO/BB and a ugly 2.22 WHIP. He appeared destined to play out his years finishing games in the high minors for other teams’ top prospects.
At a crossroads in his career, Chavez sought to reinvent himself. He played winter ball in Mexico and worked tirelessly to develop a new pitch: a cutter. The Royals weren’t interested and cut him loose. But the Blue Jays claimed him off waivers in October and got a pleasant surprise. After learning he hadn’t made the Opening Day bullpen, Chavez requested the chance to return to starting. Two months into the experiment, he’s been the Jays’ most consistent AAA starter. Better yet, he acquitted himself well in his Blue Jays debut and appears to have supplanted Brett Cecil as the team’s next go-to starter.
Incredibly, Jesse Chavez is now on the verge of returning to the majors to fill the rotation slot vacated by injured Blue Jays’ ace Brandon Morrow. If he’s tabbed, his first start will be first in the majors after 144 appearances in relief.
In Las Vegas, Chavez’s stuff has, perhaps surprisingly, held as he’s been stretched out. In 12 starts, he’s 7-2, 3.84 in 70.1 innings with a very strong 65/15 SO/BB ratio and a 1.12 WHIP. Most significantly, Chavez has limited his walks (1.9/9) more effectively than at any point in his career. He still profiles as a fly-ball pitcher so keeping runners off base is imperative for him. So far, the improvement appears real. He has decent velocity, now sitting between 92-94, and his split-change can be effective when he doesn’t overthrow it. The slider remains somewhat inconsistent, too, but he has a chance at 3 passable pitches when they’re all working.
Speaking frankly, Jesse Chavez is almost certainly not the answer to any long-term vacancy in Toronto. But as a spot starter or seventh man in the bullpen, he seems a likely to contribute more than the Dana Evelands and Jo-Jo Reyeses of staffs past. Toronto deserves credit for allowing him the opportunity to follow his heart. But Chavez who deserves his due most. His success story, so far, is the result of his commitment to the cut fastball – itself a product of his faith in his abilities.
If this isn’t his time, Chavez will still almost certainly return to the Jays’ bullpen at some point this season. When that happens, I’ll be rooting for him. As a 42nd-round pick for whom perseverance has meant more than even his pitching talents, Jesse Chavez is more like you and I than most players on your favourite team. Here’s hoping if his chance to start doesn’t come here, he’ll find an arm-starved team willing to give him a shot this winter.
Jesse Chavez, SP/RP
08/21/83 Bats: R Throws: R HT: 6-2 WT: 160
Victorville, California College: Riverside Community College
Drafted by Texas in the 42nd round, 1252nd overall, of the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft.
Acquired: Selected off waivers October 2011.
Contract Status: Not eligible for arbitration before 2013.
Service Time: 2.065