Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – If you thought Frank Wren screwed up when he traded closer Rafael Soriano to Tampa Bay for reliever Jesse Chavez at the December Winter Meetings, well, you weren’t alone.
Plenty of critics thought the Braves GM should’ve waited a bit, rather than taking the best offer he got before leaving the meetings in Indianapolis. The numbing December weather in downtown Indy can make a man do desperate things, right?
Wren defended the deal at that time and said Chavez was far more than the any-warm-body some were portraying. In fact, Wren said, the Braves and their scouts really liked Chavez and believed he could play a big role in their revamped bullpen.
Well, guess what? It’s only the first week of camp, but anyone who’s watched Chavez would jhave to agree that Wren wasn’t full of it. This 26-year-old right-hander can really pitch, and it’s easy to see why the Braves expect him to be a cog in an upgraded bullpen.
“That Chavez — whew – he is good,” new closer Billy Wagner said. “Just from playing catch and seeing his stuff. I’ve never seen him pitch, but Bobby [Cox] told me, ‘Man, this guy’s the real deal.’ And watching him and being in the weight room and seeing how he carries himself – that’s important.
“He knows he’s got a chance to make this bullpen. He knows he’s got a chance to be a part of something, and he’s working hard. And you see that with a lot of these young guys here.”
As a Pittsburgh rookie, Chavez had a 4.01 ERA in a team-high 73 appearances in 2009, with 63 strikeouts and 31 walks in 67-1/3 innings. He was too wild too often, and left some balls up for big home runs. But he was a workhorse and he had nasty stuff. The potential was there.
The Pirates traded him in November for Rays second baseman Akinoria Iwamura when Tampa Bay was looking to dump a few vowels … err, looking to dump Iwamura’s salary.
Chavez has an explosive 94-96 mph fastball, but it’s his changeup that’s surprised Cox early in camp. “I remember the time he pitched against us in Pittsburgh, how hard he threw,” Cox said. “But I didn’t know he had that kind of changeup.”
As for Chavez, the Southern California native said he’s felt at ease in Braves camp. He sounds as if he’s thrilled to be here and happy the trade went down, now that he’s gotten to know the guys he’ll be playing for and with, and the pitchers he’ll be hanging out with down in the bullpen for the next nine months.
“I’ve just been going with it; I’ve been on Cloud 9,” he said. “The last time I got traded [from Pittsburgh to Texas in July 2006] was during the season, so I got to meet the new teammates right away. It took a couple of months [to meet his new teammates], but it’s been a blast. I get along with everybody. They treat you like family here.”
When told how impressed everyone has been by his stuff, Chavez seemed surprised. He said he didn’t do anything special this winter or so far in camp.
“I just grab it and throw it,” he said, smiling. “If [the ball] moves, it moves. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Then I’ll make the adjustment when the time comes. But the ball’s been coming out real well.
“To tell you the truth, I thought I was a little behind because of all the rain we got in Southern California, kind of pushed all my throwing back. But other than that, the ball’s coming out fine and I’m happy with the way it’s going.”
And what does he think of the bullpen arms the Braves have?
“Just awe,” he said, “at just how many, starting from the back end, from Billy [Wagner] to Takashi [Saito] to [Peter] Moylan to [Eric] O’Flaherty to all us down below, it’s impressive. I just can’t wait to get going.”