Tyler Chatwood pic

Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Tyler Chatwood looks on after walking four Indians players in the seventh inning in 2021.

Tyler Chatwood was finishing his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery when he threw a bullpen session at Arizona State for the Pittsburgh Pirates, his first audition before a major league team.

It marked the first time in five years that Chatwood, a 33-year-old right-hander was pitching pain-free. The attention he received from Pirates pitching coach Oscar Marin, who has helped rejuvenate the careers of veterans Tyler Anderson and Jose Quintana, made a lasting impression.

“We got to talking and instantly I knew I connected with him and was ready to work with him,” Chatwood said. “He’s just sitting back there watching. He’s not really supposed to give me instructions or anything (because) I’m just finishing my rehab. I feel like the presence that he had, just being able to have an honest conversation with him, talking back and forth, and as you got deeper in the bullpen he would drop some nuggets on you. That’s what I was missing.”

That continued after Chatwood signed a minor league contract with the Pirates and came to spring training as a non-roster invitee. After his first appearance in a Grapefruit League game, where Chatwood allowed three earned runs on three hits and a walk with two strikeouts, Marin identified that Chatwood wasn’t staying on the rubber long enough and thereby using his force too early and limiting his explosiveness.

“He told me afterwards — I probably didn’t want to hear it — ‘I got it. It’s an easy fix,’” Chatwood said. “First thing the next day, he shows me. It’s night and day, when I was throwing harder and crisp and when I wasn’t. I feel like he’s good at identifying stuff.”

The Pirates are attempting to identify whether Chatwood, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2021, can add much-needed veteran experience to their bullpen. With 10 years of service time, he ranks behind only right-hander Rich Hill, outfielder Andrew McCutchen and first baseman Carlos Santana in terms of seniority in the clubhouse.

“He was a guy we kind of identified this offseason and had a lot of conversations about,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “He’s done a lot of things in the big leagues. Has been able to execute pitches, so it’s nice to see him back healthy. From the conversations we’ve had with him, it’s the best he’s felt in a while. That’s really important.”

A second-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Angels in 2008, Chatwood spent the majority of his first seven seasons as a starting pitcher and compiled a 46-53 record with a 4.38 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 143 games. The Chicago Cubs signed Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million contract in 2018, but moved him to the bullpen the next year.

“I feel like the biggest thing is, you have to buy into it,” Chatwood said. “When I went to the bullpen a little in 2019 with the Cubs, I wasn’t bought into it. I thought I was still a starter. But I feel like once you buy into it and know that’s what you are, I think you can really embrace it and enjoy it more. It’s hard because you don’t have a set routine or anything but you’re with a group of guys down there that you can enjoy your time and piggyback off each other’s ideas and you’re always rooting for each other.”

Chatwood started five games for the Cubs in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season but became a full-time reliever the following year with Toronto and San Francisco. In 86 relief appearances, Chatwood has a 4.82 ERA and 1.47 WHIP but has improved his strikeouts per nine innings from 6.5 to 8.4.

Yet Chatwood was pitching in pain. He tried to pitch through it when he signed with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Nippon Baseball League in Japan last year but had shoulder surgery on June 20.

“I’d been hurting before that but I finally ended up having surgery,” Chatwood said. “It got to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore.”

Chatwood knew the surgery was a risk at this stage of his career, as doctors warned him that recovery could take anywhere from six weeks to eight months. He wasn’t sure he had an eight-month rehabilitation in him but a main source of motivation for Chatwood was for his young sons, ages 4 1/2 and 2 1/2 , to see him pitch in the majors.

“I want them to remember me playing,” Chatwood said. “When I got home (after his first spring game), my oldest one told me that I gave up some hits. I was like, ‘Thank you. I know I did, believe me.’”

Chatwood welcomed Marin’s advice almost as much as he did the feeling in his right shoulder the day after his Pirates spring debut. After throwing 27 pitches (12 strikes), he wasn’t sore.

“I was worried about executing pitches and my shoulder wasn’t bothering me at all,” Chatwood said. “Before, it was like, ‘I hope this one doesn’t hurt worse than it did the last time.’ Recovery-wise, trying to pick up a ball the next day wasn’t fun. It’s pain. Every time you go back to throw, it feels like somebody’s stabbing you in the front of your shoulder. It wasn’t enjoyable anymore.”

Chatwood has focused more on how he’s feeling than the results, given that he’s allowed nine earned runs on eight hits with six walks and four strikeouts in five innings. He has surrendered three home runs, including two in the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies on March 10, and opponents are batting .348 against him.

Chatwood hasn’t pitched since March 14 but is one of the final 18 pitchers in major league camp.

Even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, Chatwood could serve as an insurance policy for the bullpen. It’s a role he’s learned to embrace at this stage of his career, knowing it might be his best — and last — chance to pitch in the majors.

“I’ve kind of adjusted,” Chatwood said. “If you’re not bought into it, I don’t know if it works a lot of times but I feel like this is what I can best contribute at this point of my career. I enjoyed my time starting but I don’t think that’s where I can give the most to the team. Just being able to recognize that, I can enjoy it now. It’s fun.”