Angels pitcher Jesse Chavez poses for a portrait during spring training photo day on Feb. 21. (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)
Angels right-handers Jesse Chavez and Ricky Nolasco grew up in neighboring Inland Empire towns and competed against each other in high school, including a memorable matchup as seniors when each threw 10 shutout innings. The Chicago Cubs drafted them both in 2001.
It took Nolasco, now 34 and half a lifetime removed from Rialto High, fewer than five years to establish himself in a major league rotation. Chavez, 33, is still trying.
The Angels’ off-season addition didn’t reach the majors until 2008, and didn’t get his first big league start until 2012. By then, he’d been traded four times, and his delivery had been tinkered with at least twice as often.
“I’ve had so many reinventions throughout my career, by so many pitching coaches,” said Chavez, who will make his 2017 Cactus League debut Wednesday. “Five years ago, it took me [having] the initiative to say, enough’s enough. This is who I am, and if I’m going to have a job, I want to have a job for me, and not for another person. I think that helped me.”
He introduced a cutter and simplified his delivery, back to how it looked at Fontana A.B. Miller High.
“That was when I could throw strikes whenever I wanted to,” Chavez said. “I’m slowly getting back to that. It’s only taken 15 years.”
He was a pure velocity pick as a teenager, wiry but athletic and loose, as scouts say. Texas, the team that drafted him in the 42nd round in 2002 after he declined to sign with the Cubs, moved him to the bullpen. From 2005 to 2011, he pitched in 419 games between the majors and minors, and started only once.
He received his first serious starting chance in 2014, with Oakland, when two of the Athletics’ starters required elbow-ligament surgery in spring training. He logged a 1.89 earned-run average in April and a 2.71 ERA through 15 starts, but faded in July and lost his spot. He won the job again the next April, started strong, and broke ribs in September, resulting in a truncated, 26-start season, short of his longstanding goal.
“That’s the one we all shoot for, the coveted number 30,” Chavez said. “And then it would have erased that question mark that I have now, every second half.”
Before last season, the A’s traded him to Toronto, where he competed for the fifth starter slot against young right-hander Aaron Sanchez, just as he is now against the Angels’ Alex Meyer. Chavez lost out to Sanchez, who wound up receiving Cy Young votes, and went back to being a reliever.
The Dodgers acquired him as bullpen depth on Aug. 1, but rarely used him in high-leverage situations. They sent him to Camelback Ranch to stay ready while the team took on Washington in a National League division series. Before the NL Championship Series, Chavez said, he asked Dodgers officials if he had a chance to be added to their roster. They said he did not, so he went back home to Riverside.
Four weeks later, he signed with the Angels for one year and $5.75 million, with the ability to make a couple million more if he works as a starter.
General Manager Billy Eppler has said he envisions Chavez doing so.
Nolasco, Chavez’s longtime friend, has already made $70 million playing baseball. Chavez has made about one-10th of that. But, consistent with his reputation across the industry, he does not mind it.
“Forty-second round?” he asked. “I’m still surprised I’ve got a job. I’m still happy.”
At Tempe Diablo Stadium on Monday, Manager Mike Scioscia started the likely opening-day lineup for the Angels. The only exceptions were the absences of Albert Pujols at designated hitter and Martin Maldonado behind the plate. C.J. Cron and Carlos Perez started in their places.
Third baseman Yunel Escobar led off and Kole Calhoun followed, as was generally the case in 2016. After Mike Trout’s steady spot, third, were Luis Valbuena, Cron, Cameron Maybin, Danny Espinosa, Perez and Andrelton Simmons.
Scioscia has not ruled out batting Calhoun behind Trout and Pujols, once Pujols is playing. But this, for now, seems to be the favorite.
“I think there are some really good groupings that make sense,” Scioscia said. “We definitely want to see how we grow with this lineup.”
Left-hander Manny Banuelos will start for the Angels on Tuesday. After Chavez’s start, the club’s other likely starters should make their debuts this week, too. … Reliever Cam Bedrosian (groin strain) said he will throw a bullpen session Tuesday or Wednesday. He remains at least a week from appearing in a Cactus League game.