Matt Chico, Jordan Zimmermann, and the Washington Nationals Double Standard

Farid RushdiAnalyst IFebruary 15, 2010

VIERA, FL - FEBRUARY 21:  Matt Chico #47 of the Washington Nationals poses during photo day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 21, 2009 in Viera, Florida.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Doug Benc/Getty Images

He was one of the Nationals’ prized rookies. He didn’t come from a large school but was impressive enough to be selected early in the draft. By the age of 23, he was part of Washington’s rotation and though his statistics weren’t overly impressive, his overall performance was quite good.

He ended his rookie year with a 4.63 ERA and won almost as many games as he lost. He was thought to be a permanent fixture in the Nationals’ rotation until Tommy John surgery forced him to the sidelines for more than a year.

He was the team’s number-two starter when he went down. Every day, he is gaining strength. It won’t be long before the former number-three prospect and number-two starter is ready to retake his spot in the rotation.

There is just one problem though: The Washington Nationals don’t seem particularly interested in having him return.

Matt Chico is a man without a job.

You were thinking I was talking about Jordan Zimmermann, weren’t you?

There are many similarities between Chico and Zimmermann. Both come from obscure college backgrounds. Both were highly ranked prospects. They had similar rookie statistics and identical earned run averages. They were  both just beginning to grasp what being a major league pitcher was all about when Tommy John surgery sidetracked their careers.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Nationals’ fans and team management alike are counting the days when Jordan Zimmermann can recapture his spot in the starting rotation. But he’s at least seven months away from throwing a pitch and a year away from being major league ready.

The team is looking to rent pitchers to keep his spot warm until he returns.

Matt Chico, however, had his surgery 19 months ago. He has already rehabbed in the minor leagues, pitching for both Class-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg last season. He is physically capable of being one of the Nationals’ starters in 2010.

And yet the team frets that they don’t have enough starting pitchers, that beyond John Lannan, Jason Marquis, and (probably) Chien-Ming Wang, they only have six credible options for the remaining two positions.

Two positions are available for Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin, Scott Olsen, Ross Detwiler, Garrett Mock and, of course, Stephen Strasburg.

Never mentioned as a back-of-the-rotation possibility is the team’s former number-two starter, Matt Chico.

Why?

After a superb high school career, Chico was selected in the second-round of the 2001 amateur draft by the Boston Red Sox. He chose not to sign, however, and played a year for Southern Cal (6-4, 5.48) before moving on to Palomar Junior College.

He was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks (and Mike Rizzo) in the third-round of the 2003 draft and received a $365,000 signing bonus.

Over the next three seasons, Chico crafted a minor league record of 25-18, 3.43 and entered 2006 as the 112th best prospect in the major leagues and third best in the Diamondbacks star-studded system.

He spent 2006 at Double-A Tennessee and had a record of 7-2, 2.22, 6.9/2.3/7.0 (hits/walks/strikeouts per nine innings) by the beginning of August.

The Diamondbacks, in a pennant race and flush with prospects traded Chico and fellow pitcher Garrett Mock to the Nationals for Livan Hernandez On Aug. 6 2006.

2007 was the “Year of the Great Cattle Call” for the Washington Nationals. Unable to afford any decent free-agent pitchers, then general manager Jim Bowden brought in truckloads of failed major league starters in hopes that one or two of them would make the team’s depleted rotation.

Things were so bad that Chico earned his roster spot in spring training even though he pitched poorly, going 2-2, 5.16, 11.1/3.4/4.8 in 23 innings.

All things considered, Chico’s rookie season was certainly good enough and not that much different from Jordan Zimmermann’s rookie campaign two years later. Let’s compare the two:

Record

Chico: 7-9

Zimmermann: 3-5

ERA

Chico: 4.63

Zimmermann 4.63

Percentage of Quality Starts

Chico: 32 percent

Zimmermann: 36 percent

Innings Per Start

Chico: 5.6

Zimmermann: 5.7

Hits/Walks/Strikeouts Per Nine-Innings

Chico: 9.9/4.0/5.1

Zimmermann: 9.4/2.9/9.1

Opponents Average/On-Base Pct./Slugging Pct.

Chico: .281/.354/.471

Zimmermann: .274/.332/.429

Percentage of Pitches Thrown For Strikes

Chico: 67 percent

Zimmermann: 62 percent

Chico entered 2008 as the Nationals’ number-two starter, and after three starts it looked like he was on a path towards continued improvement. He had an ERA of 3.72 and allowed 9.4 hits, 3.1 walks and 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

Midway through his fourth start, however, he felt a “pop” in his elbow. Two doctors examined Chico and found no structural damage, so he continued to pitch. In his last five starts, he couldn’t get anyone out. His ERA over that span was 7.85 as he allowed 15.4 hits and 7.8 walks per nine innings.

Dr. James Andrews found the damage that the others could not, and Chico underwent Tommy John surgery on July 3 2008.

He returned to the mound late last season with rehab stints with Low-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg. In 61 innings, Chico went a combined 2-4, 3.96, 9.5/4.1/6.5.

Chico felt good about his efforts and said he will be 100 percent when spring training begins.

To be sure, Chico does not have the skills of Jordan Zimmermann. What he does have, however, is a deep understanding of how to throw a baseball.

In 2007, then GM Jim Bowden said that “Matt Chico has great poise on the mound and the ability to go after hitters.” Added current general manager Mike Rizzo, “Matt was learning how to pitch at the major league level, which can be tough. It’s okay to do that if the pitcher has the makeup, character and stomach for it. I think Matt is that type of pitcher.”

Chico has a fastball that can reach 94 mph but usually is in the 91-93 mph range. He throws a two-seam fastball, curve and a quality changeup.

Here is Chico’s TSN.ca scouting report: “Chico is gritty and has a sneaky delivery. He has a good command of his pitches and throws consistently in the low 90’s. He gets punished, however, when he throws too hard and needs to mix his pitches to be successful at the major league level.”

TSN sees Chico as a “solid back of the rotation starter.”

Said Washington Post beat writer Chico Harlan a year ago, “Few in baseball projected Chico to have much high-end potential, but he seemed to operate with an admirable serviceability.” “It’s easy,” Harlan said, “to envision Chico as a number-four or number-five starter.”

I am in no way suggesting that the name of Matt Chico should be uttered in the same sentence with Jordan Zimmermann. To compare them is to compare apples and oranges.

So why did I compare the two?

To show that while there is a great deal of difference in their talent, there wasn’t a great deal of difference in their rookie seasons. And if there wasn’t a great deal of difference, why is the team waiting with baited breath for Zimmermann’s return while Chico’s name has barely been mentioned this offseason?

Even with Ross Detwiler, Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin and Garrett Mock in the fold, Mike Rizzo has publicly voiced his concern about the team’s back of the rotation problems. To that end, he has signed Shawn Estes, Chuck James and Miguel Batista, just in case.

Look, I get it. Matt Chico is not the prettiest girl at the dance. But why does he have to sit along the wall of the gymnasium, waiting for someone to ask him to dance?

He’s danced before. He’s not a great dancer but he is certainly good enough. And he might even become a good dancer if he can just get on that floor and practice.

The Washington Nationals have come a long way since those days when a green rookie coming off a bad spring could earn a spot in the starting rotation. That said, they haven’t come so far that they can turn their back on a 26-year-old with 39 career starts.

Players shouldn’t lose their jobs to an injury. When Jordan Zimmermann returns, the Nationals will unceremoniously dump whoever is holding down his spot in the rotation. But when Matt Chico—with 24 more career starts than Zimmermann—returns in a few days, he’ll be lucky to find a uniform and a locker.

Matt Chico may not be the answer to the Nationals’ rotational troubles, but he’s earned a long look before the team moves on to other options.

If Jordan Zimmermann doesn’t have to fight for his job, than neither should Matt Chico.

It’s only fair.

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