The Braves have made their first trade of the offseason…
Exclusive: Jesse Chavez Interview
SHANKS: Tell me how you found out about the trade.
CHAVEZ: I was sitting at home, on the couch, and got a text message from my agent saying, "Be ready. You might be traded again." My first response was, you know, "Where to, for who, and what will be my situation there, as it was in Tampa or in Pittsburgh." The next day more rumors came around, and I just really didn't look into it until I heard first-hand from my agent or Andrew Friedman (Tampa Bay's general manager).
SHANKS: So then did you just have to wait?
CHAVEZ: Actually it was like a day and a half of ongoing hearsay, and my agent kept saying, "Be ready. It might happen. It might not." They were doing the physicals, and it took a couple of days for it to go through. Then I got a call from somebody.
SHANKS: Then the Rays called you?
CHAVEZ: Yeah, Friedman called me and told me about it. He said, "I wanted to tell you. Sorry for keeping you out of the loop for so long. But it was something we had to keep under wraps. Our medical team was evaluating the papers and stuff." So that's pretty much what he said at the time.
SHANKS: So what did you think about this, since you had already been through this once this offseason?
CHAVEZ: I didn't really think about it (being traded twice) much. It's excited to be traded, to meet your new teammates, first and foremost, and just try to contribute to your new ball club.
SHANKS: Did you just believe that another team valued your potential and ability and they wanted you?
CHAVEZ: Yeah. It was good to hear that another team wanted me, not to say the Rays didn't. They got a trade that benefited them. And you know Atlanta tried to make it work out for them.
SHANKS: Let's go back a little bit. Where were you born?
CHAVEZ: Born in San Diego, California. I grew up in Fontana, California.
SHANKS: What was that like growing up there?
CHAVEZ: Lot of baseball. Lot of sports. We were really sports-oriented, obviously in southern California. I was constantly on the move, traveling to different states to play baseball. I played on a couple of travel teams, one mainly. That's how I got to know Jo Jo (Reyes). Growing up as a kid it was constantly baseball.
SHANKS: So where is Fontana?
CHAVEZ: It's about 45 to an hour east of L.A.
SHANKS: What kind of ball did you play with Jo Jo?
CHAVEZ: Travel ball and Pony (League) ball.
SHANKS: Tell us about your experience at Riverside Community College?
CHAVEZ: It was fun. Dennis Rogers prepared us for the next level - if you went to a four-year school or if you went on to play professional. He was a minor league coach before then. I actually got to play against him my first summer away from RCC in the Northwest League in Vancouver. That was pretty cool. He just prepared us mentally for the grind it's going to be.
SHANKS: Were you still a starting pitcher in JUCO ball?
CHAVEZ: Yes. I was a starter up until the 2005 season. That's when they converted me to a reliever.
SHANKS: So what was that like when they came to you about becoming a reliever?
CHAVEZ: I was fine with it. In my heart, I wanted to start at the time, because that's all I knew how to do. And it didn't take me long to get ready, so they thought I could be a reliever and that it would be an easy adjustment for me.
SHANKS: What was the biggest adjustment you had to make?
CHAVEZ: Staying in control of myself. I was talking to relievers before then, and they'd say, "You've got one inning, go out and blow it out. Let it all out." At first I started doing it, and I'd catch myself. Everything would be a lot flatter than it normally would be when I was a starter. So I kind of had to take a step back and learn and realize that 95, 96 can get hit real quick. It can get turned around real quick.
SHANKS: A lot of people think when a pitcher becomes a reliever they can just come in and chunk a ball. But did you find yourself becoming more of a pitcher when you made the transition?
CHAVEZ: The more I got into it, yeah. The more I became a reliever, yeah. Starting you have four days to prepare. When you're a reliever, you could be right out there the next day. So I kind of had to teach myself how to stay fresh and how to pitch and how to bounce back if you go back-to-back days. Pitching you can bounce back than just throwing. That's what I think.
SHANKS: Give me a little history about your stuff.
CHAVEZ: I've slowly seen my velocity increase over the years. It obviously can't go up forever, which I would like it too. It stays in the mid to upper-90s consistently. My slider was hit or miss last year, not like it has been in the past – upper- 80s, low-90s. And a changeup that is by far my best pitch, I think.
SHANKS: How has that changeup improved? Or has it always been good for you?
CHAVEZ: It's always been decent. It's gotten better with the more confidence I've gained in it. The more I throw it, the more effective I saw it was to righties, as it was to lefties. It made pitching different for me. Instead of having two pitches for each side of the plate, now I have three for both sides of the plate.
SHANKS: So that just gives you more confidence when you're coming out in a crucial situation that you can go to any of those three pitches?
CHAVEZ: Yes – at any given time.
SHANKS: You spent parts of three seasons in Triple-A. Were you ever worried that you might get stuck there? Or did you feel you were just waiting your turn before you would get to the big leagues?
CHAVEZ: I always felt I could pitch in the big leagues. Once I got to Triple-A and realized I could compete at this level, and Triple-A has guys on the cusp, and guys that have been there and that have come down. I always felt I could compete, but that it was just a matter of time.
SHANKS: And when you got your call-up in 2008 and pitched in 15 games , what was that like for you?
CHAVEZ: It was fun. It was part of a dream making it there, and now it's up to me to stick there. Those fifteen games I won't forget.
SHANKS: So after last year you had to sit back and reflect and be proud of what you had done in your first full season.
CHAVEZ: Yeah, from being a question mark, to not making the team out of spring training, and not supposed to make the team, and then to go on and had the year I had, I was really pleased with it.
SHANKS: Looking at your numbers, you struggled a bit against teams in the National League Central. Any reason for that?
CHAVEZ: No. Milwaukee has had my number since I got up.
SHANKS: And they have a lot of fastball hitters, don't they?
CHAVEZ: Yeah. The games I came in, I had to throw my fastball. I'm not going to back down because the team is on my fastball. The Reds, it might just be facing for three years in Triple-A and now the youth movement that they have going on, just noticing me and knowing what I throw, or it could have been me tipping pitches, that they caught on to me.
SHANKS: When Matt Capps struggled, you had more responsibility. How did that go late in the season, at the same time you were leading the team in appearances?
CHAVEZ: Yeah I started noticing it a little bit as John Russell got confidence in me toward the middle to the end of the ballgame. We traded a good chunk of our pen. We lost Tyler Yates at the end of the year. That was a big loss. Then we lost Craig Hansen. So it was kind of tough, for me being my first year, me and Evan (Meek) having to step in to fill those big shoes they had left.
SHANKS: Did you find yourself pitching differently in that different responsibility?
CHAVEZ: No. I learned, in talking it over with Joe Kerrigan, the pitching coach that you've got to pitch to the situation, and the ballpark, and take all of those elements into play. It's not just getting up on the bump and throwing the ball. He had a plan for all of us, with what we have, and what our role was, and what we saw our role being.
SHANKS: It sounds like it was a pretty good learning experience for you.
CHAVEZ: Yeah, I tip my hat off to Joe. I was fortunate to have him in my first full season.
SHANKS: Now as you look at the Braves, they have a rebuilt bullpen with Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito, and Scott Proctor, who will be back in May or June. What do you think about being a part of this bullpen?
CHAVEZ: I was looking at it the other day when I first found out, and I was in awe of how many good arms are in the pen, and even in the rotation. It's going to be fun to hand the ball off to Proctor, Moylan, Saito, and Wagner to finish out the ballgame. Hopefully, we don't have to use all seven of us down in the pen. I'm going to pick their brains, whether it's a starter or a reliever. The more information I have, the more of a weapon it is for me.
SHANKS: I know they had a priority of strengthening the bullpen to compliment that outstanding rotation. How important is it for a pen to have a strong rotation and that you will have guys that will log some innings as a starter?
CHAVEZ: It's a plus for a bullpen knowing that your starter can give you a quality start every day out. With what they have, I don't know see why they couldn't just go Saito and Wagner every day. (Laughs) That's how good the starters are. It eases us knowing you've got a starter that is going to go out and give you at least six every time out.
SHANKS: You played in Pittsburgh last year, a team that was not very good. Now you're coming to a team that is going for a championship. What's that like?
CHAVEZ: It feels great, going from the Pirates to the Rays… and the Pirates and the Rays are in a similar situation. They are both in a youth movement. I was looking forward to being apart of either one, and now I'm a Brave. It's going to be fun to help contribute to that World Series run this year.
SHANKS: And now you're going to be on Bobby Cox's last team. That might not hit you until you get to see him in Florida.
CHAVEZ: No. Actually I got to talk to him the other day, and I was still in awe about talking with him. Growing up as a kid, being a baseball fan, watching him manage the Braves during the run they had, and now to be a part of this organization is going to be really fun.
SHANKS: Bobby called you up?
CHAVEZ: Yeah, it was unbelievable. He just welcomed me, and said he was looking forward to spring training.
SHANKS: Who else called you?
CHAVEZ: Yeah, I talked to Roger (McDowell) and Frank Wren. They were just welcoming me to the organization and were looking forward to spring training.
SHANKS: Jesse, what do you think you need to improve on as you move along in your big league career? What's going to be a key for you?
CHAVEZ: Getting the lefty and righty (stats) pretty much even. That's what I want to do. That's my goal. Getting my righty (opposing) batting average down, toward what they are with the lefties. And just not make any many mental mistakes as I did last year, the ones I remember and I recall. Stay consistent with my mechanics.
SHANKS: Is that changeup why you were so tough on lefties?
CHAVEZ: I would think so, yeah. Once I started throwing it to righties a lot, I noticed a big difference than just a righty sitting on fastball and slider. Now it's fastball, slider, changeup to righties that they have to think about. They don't know when it's coming.
SHANKS: So you think throwing that change more to a right-handed batter will make a difference?
SHANKS: Tell us about your life there in California. You're married with a child, right?
CHAVEZ: Yes. We had our second one on November 4.
SHANKS: What's your offseason like? When will you start throwing?
CHAVEZ: I've been throwing for about three weeks now – nothing significant – 90 feet - just easy to keep the arm moving. I don't do anything extravagant. No long toss, don't throw it 250 feet. I just throw it nice and easy.
SHANKS: When will you throw off the mound?
CHAVEZ: I want to get off the mound by January, beginning or middle of January. And then I'll face hitters before I get to spring training.
SHANKS: Do you want to be a closer one day? Is that the goal?
CHAVEZ: Yeah. If I can help finish off a game, that'll be great. But right now I just want to hand it off to Wagner.
SHANKS: Some middle relievers are okay with that role of staying in middle relief, but do you envision yourself one day having the stuff and a chance to close?
CHAVEZ: Yeah. That's one thing I would love to do. Now that I'm a reliever… before it was trying to be an ace on a staff. Now being a reliever I would love to close one day.
SHANKS: So tell us about your velocity. What did it top out at last year?
CHAVEZ: I think I topped out at 98. I hit it a couple of times. It was usually 94-96, around there.
SHANKS: How did you handle the workload, being a power reliever?
CHAVEZ: Yeah, the only thing is I would feel my legs a little bit. That's one thing I'm going to address this offseason. They don't start breaking down from the 50 to 60 range of appearances. Then I get my second wind when I was in my 70th game. I didn't really feel comfortable like that. So I'm going to address my legs in my offseason conditioning program a lot different than I did.
SHANKS: Cox uses his relievers a lot. Is there anything you'll do differently this offseason to prepare for another heavy workload? Is it mainly about your legs?
CHAVEZ: That and keeping the shoulder and the upper back strong. The core. That's the biggest key during the season. But I like throwing. I like throwing a lot. As you can tell, I don't take much time off from throwing. Most guys I talk to start throwing in January. I can't do that. Talking with J.R. (John Russell) last year, I like throwing. The more I throw, the more consistent I can be and help the team win.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.