It was the second time in a decade the Atlanta Braves got burned by a player accepting arbitration. The precursor to the current – and still-flawed – system of extending qualifying offers in order to receive draft pick compensation, the arbitration system classified free agents into classes. If a player was offered arbitration and declined, the team could net a draft pick or, in some cases, two. This is not to be confused with the more commonly-known arbitration system of offering team-controlled players arbitration and working out a deal. In this since-replaced system, the player was a free agent.
After the 2002 season, the Braves were sure that they weren’t going to be able to sign Greg Maddux to a contract extension. As he hit free agency, the Braves extended arbitration. But, right before the deadline, which was weeks later than the current system, Atlanta was shocked when Maddux informed them he would return for his eleventh season in Atlanta. He was unable to secure the kind of long-term deal golfing partner Tom Glavine got ($35 million over 3 years). With the market limited, Maddux bet on himself and punted his pursuit for a long-term deal. The decision left John Schuerholz and the Braves in a lurch. They already prepared for the end of an era, waiving goodbye to both Glavine and Maddux, and bringing in Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, and Paul Byrd to join new ace, Kevin Millwood, and Jason Marquis. Maddux coming back presented a minor problem (too many pitchers) and a major problem (not enough money). Schuerholz scrambled, trading Millwood to the Phillies for catcher Jonny Estrada.
Ultimately, this didn’t hurt the Braves. Millwood settled into an okayish pitcher. He would not be the guy the Braves thought after finishing his age-27 season of 2002 with a 3.24 ERA and 178 K’s. After a 3.73 ERA in parts of six seasons with Atlanta, Millwood would only do better than that twice in his remaining ten years. Meanwhile, Maddux helped the Braves to another playoff trip and Estrada would be an All-Star in 2004.
Following the 2009 season, the Braves offered arbitration to Rafael Soriano. Acquired for Horacio Ramirez after the 2006 season, Soriano produced a pair of good seasons surrounding an injury-riddled 2008. In 77 games in the ’09 season, Soriano, in his age-29 season, secured 27 saves and struck out 102 in 75.2 innings. The sometimes homer-prone righty gave up just six, half as many as he yielded in 2007 in nearly as many innings. The duo of Mike Gonzalez and Soriano was deadly for other teams for the third-place Braves, who finished 86-76.
But, like with Maddux, the Braves had a money problem. Both Gonzalez and Soriano were free agents and Frank Wren acted quickly, replacing them with lefty Billy Wagner and righty Takashi Saito. The two were considered cheaper and, being older, wouldn’t demand the years Atlanta expected Gonzalez and Soriano would need to return. But just a few days after announcing the signings of Wagner and Saito, Soriano accepted arbitration. With Soriano’s lack of longevity paired with teams not anxious to sacrifice a first round pick for him, the market had soured and Soriano took the arbitration offer despite the perceived lack of saves with Wagner in the mix. The Braves couldn’t afford to add another significant salary to the bullpen, especially one projected to earn $7-to-$8 million. But they had a problem. Soriano, according to reports at the time, could reject any trade prior to July 1 of the next year. The Braves couldn’t deal Wagner or Saito either since they had just signed. That left the hope to find Soriano a home that he would accept a trade to.
A few days later, they found that home when they traded him to Tampa Bay. The Rays had a de facto closer in J.P. Howell, but they saw Howell more as a relief ace whereas Soriano could live in the ninth. Howell would actually miss the following season with injuries, leaving Soriano alone to vie for saves. He would excel for Tampa Bay, saving a league-high 45 games and being selected for his only All-Star Game. He even got a vote in the Cy Young balloting. It would be his only season in Tampa Bay before leaving for the large pockets of the New York Yankees. He spent a year as Mariano Rivera‘s understudy and then replaced Rivera after the Yankees great missed most of 2012. Soriano saved 42 games that year which sounds like a nod to the injured closer. Soriano went to the Nationals for two years next, saving a combined 75 games to give him 207 in his career. But the aging righty would only pitch six more games in the majors after 2014.
Meanwhile, there was the matter of what the Braves got for Soriano. That would be Rays Legend, Jesse Chavez.
I kid a bit because Chavez never pitched for the Rays. He was acquired in a salary dump a month earlier from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Chavez, originally a Rangers draft choice, made his debut with the Pirates in ’08 and pitched 73 times the following year. He wasn’t particularly good, but he did log nearly 70 innings out of the pen. The Braves hoped he could help shore up their long relief, but he would struggle in 28 games with a 5.89 ERA. And let’s face it – the Braves were just trying to find anything for Soriano anyway. At the deadline, Chavez joined undersized fireballer Tim Collins and Gregor Blanco as the trio were moved to Kansas City for Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth.
Chavez’s journey was just beginning.
After 27 games in a season-and-a-half in KC, Chavez landed in Toronto to open 2012 before finishing the year in Oakland. He’d find some success there, but returned to Toronto in 2016. Again, he couldn’t finish the year north-of-the-border and joined the Dodgers. Staying in the City of Angels, he signed with the Angels next. In 2018, he’d sign with the Rangers, the team that drafted him in 2002, before being dealt to the Cubs to finish the year. Returning to the Rangers, he found a little stability, pitching 66 times over the next two seasons with Texas. He’d try to make the Angels’ roster in 2021, but was released before the season.
So, he had returned already to the Rangers (twice), the Blue Jays, and the Angels. Why not yet another return trip? On April 17, he signed a minor league deal to return to the Braves.
Chavez was just another arm for Gwinnett. Just another cog in the system. A guy they didn’t care about logging innings to protect their younger players. Chavez posted a 2.25 ERA in 13 games for Gwinnett. But in late June, the Braves needed help. Max Fried just hit the IL with a blister. So, with a four-game set about to kick off in Cincinnati, the 34-39 Braves went to Chavez to start a bullpen game. He’d do okay, giving up two runs in 2.1 innings, but took the loss as the Reds won 5-3. Originally thought to be a short stay in the majors, Chavez stuck with the Braves. Over his next 13 games, all out of the pen, Chavez allowed no earned runs in 14.1 innings.
Sure, he wasn’t pitching high-leverage innings. But he did his job successfully far more times than not. He’d even pick up three more starts at the end of the season – all bullpen games where he pitched a total of 4.2 innings. All told, over a little more than three months, Chavez pitched 33.2 innings without allowing a homer, striking out 36, and having a 2.14 ERA. Not too bad for a minor league offer in April.
But Chavez – and the Braves – weren’t finished. He pitch seven times in the playoffs, including picking up a start in Game 4 of the NLCS. He allowed no runs in the playoffs – though, to be fair, four of the seven runners he inherited did score. Nonetheless, his 1.2 innings in Game 5 of the World Series was big for the Braves as it helped the team save some of their better arms from being overused early in the game. In fact, he left with a 5-4 lead before the lead was blown. No worries. Two days later, the Braves finished the fight and Chavez is now not only a World Series Champion, but a pretty significant contributor.
That’s probably something nobody really imagined after watching him pitch for the Braves back in 2010.