Jesse Chavez, who as the long man in the A's bullpen last season recorded a career-best ERA while turning 30 and pitching for his fifth major-league team, attributes much of his late emergence to "just being comfortable in a clubhouse ... where everyone gets along."
So when fellow right-hander Jarrod Parker learned in mid-March he needed Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his elbow and would miss the season, Chavez said the news came as "a kick to the gut."
“You lose 200 innings and at least 15 wins, just from what he’s done the last two years,” Chavez said of Parker, who was penciled in as the A’s Opening Day starter. “That’s a big kick.”
Around the same time, the A’s also announced they would start the season without A.J. Griffin because of elbow problems, leaving what had been a young but largely established starting rotation in flux.
Part of the solution is Chavez, who has pitched in 191 major-league games in his career – and started two of them.
After beginning the 2013 season with the River Cats, Chavez joined the A’s in late April and went 2-4 with a 3.92 ERA in 35 games, with perhaps his breakout moment coming in an 18-inning win over the New York Yankees in June. Chavez threw the final 52/3 innings in a 3-2 win, allowing no runs and one hit while striking out seven and displaying the kind of stamina required of a starter.
Needing to replace two-fifths of their rotation, the A’s have turned to Chavez, who made 54 starts in the minors, and left-hander Tommy Milone, who has 25 winsover the past two seasons but lost his rotation spot late in 2013. Sonny Gray, the 24-year-old with 12 big-league starts, will take the ball Opening Night, followed by offseason acquisition Scott Kazmir, Chavez, 25-year-old Dan Straily and Milone.
“This is where your depth is tested,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “Chavez is a guy that came a long way for us last year … and, if something like this popped up, is a guy we were going to target to start. And Tommy Milone’s done a good job for us the last couple years regardless, so we’re comfortable with him. But this is where your depth gets tested.”
Depth is a word used with pride around the A’s organization, which has shown plenty the past two seasons. Gray and Straily became key parts of the rotation in the second half of last season after spending all or most of April in Triple A. Parker and Griffin did the same in 2012.
“What’s lost is what’s gained,” catcher Derek Norris said. “As far as Parker, it’s a huge bummer and I feel for him. He works hard, he’s done a great job for us, and sometimes bad things happen and you can’t control them.
“But I think it opens the door for other guys that may have been left out to come up, and them having been on the outside looking in, I think it gives them that extra boost to do even better and prove themselves again. I think that’s going to play as big as anything.”
The injuries have returned Milone to a role he lost when the A’s sent him down to the River Cats in August after several shaky starts. A’s pitching coach Curt Young said the hope was Milone could improve command of his changeup – perhaps his best pitch – and do a better job of keeping hitters on the ground (he allowed a career-high 25 homers in 2013).
When he rejoined the A’s late last season as a reliever and spot starter, Milone had started to experiment with a two-seam fastball, which might better complement his changeup due to its similar spin and right-to-left fade. After throwing it “maybe 10” times last year, Milone said it has become his primary fastball this spring.
Young said having another pitch with movement could make Milone – who threw his changeup a career-high 28.2 percent of the time last season, according to the website FanGraphs – less predictable in certain counts. Norris said it’s simply “a new look for everyone to adjust to. And I think it’s going to play well for him.”
Having Milone as a fallback option certainly seems an enviable position. Despite being sent down, the left-hander was 12-9 with a 4.14 ERA in 28 games for the A’s. In the past two seasons, Milone is one of 34 major-league pitchers with at least 25 wins.
The bigger unknown, going by experience, is Chavez.
But Young said it was Chavez’s work as a starter in Triple A – over the past two seasons, he had 23 starts in 26 appearances for Las Vegas and Sacramento with a 10-7 record and a 3.53 ERA – that earned him a promotion to Oakland.
“Anybody that throws as hard as he does, 92 to 94 (mph) with a great cutter, a curveball and changeup which are high quality – his repertoire is really made for either position,” Young said.
Chavez was a starter early in his minor-league career but became solely a reliever in 2005 until the Blue Jays organization made him a starter again in 2012. He said the biggest adjustment then was “getting up and down six times, seven times a game. That took a lot of getting used to as far as pacing yourself, what kind of cardio to do to keep your stamina up. But it only took a couple times to get a program set.”
Now, Chavez said, he’s comfortable with longer outings. Entering his 12th pro season, he’s even excited about his first scheduled start Wednesday against Cleveland – “but only because it’s at the beginning of a season,” he said.
“I didn’t want it the way it happened, with Parker and Griffin going down,” Chavez said. “But all I’m going to do is try to hold it down for them until they get back.”
For Parker, that’s 2015 at the earliest. Griffin’s timetable isn’t defined, though it’s hoped he could pitch before the end of April. For now, the A’s will hope for good returns on their two-year investment in Kazmir, 30,who went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA for Cleveland last season only a year removed from pitching in independent ball, and that Gray remains the precocious talent who went from midseason call-up to starting Game 5 of the American League Division Series against Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
“(Parker) was going to be the guy at the front kind of leading us through everything, and to lose a guy like that, it’s a big blow,” Milone said. “But we feel like we have guys that can jump right in and fill a spot and be confident with that.
“It’s easy to kind of sit here and look at what we’ve lost, but it’s not going to help us any. So we’ve got to kind of move forward.”