Chico ready to step up in a Major way
Left-hander has good chance to earn spot in Nationals' rotation
VIERA, Fla. -- A half hour after Saturday's workout came to an end, Matt Chico was in the locker room at Space Coast Stadium when he was informed that the last quality left-handed starter to pitch for the Nationals/Expos was Carlos Perez in 1997. That year, Perez went 12-13 with a 3.59 ERA for Montreal.
What was Chico's response?
"This a good chance for any of the new guys in this organization to step up," he said. "We have quite a few lefties in this organization."
A humble Chico declined to look at himself as the guy to break the team's dubious distinction. But the truth is, the 23-year-old is considered by many to be the most talented left-handed starter in terms of stuff on the Nationals. Although he only has four years of professional experience and has pitched no more than 153 1/3 innings in a season, manager Manny Acta said recently that Chico will be given a chance to earn a spot in the rotation.
"He has a chance. He is going to compete," Acta said. "Experience and age has nothing to do with what we are looking for here. We are looking for guys who are going to give us a chance to compete and set us up for the future."
Chico thought he thought his future would be with the Diamondbacks. In fact, on Aug. 4, 2006, his agent, Jim Murray, was informed by the club that Chico would not be traded. But to his surprise, Chico, along with right-hander Garret Mock, was dealt to the Nationals for right-hander Livan Hernandez three days later.
But Chico would later understand that it was Nationals assistant general manager Mike Rizzo who recommended to general manager Jim Bowden that he should trade for Chico. It was Rizzo, then a director of scouting for the Diamondbacks, who was instrumental in drafting Chico in the third round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft. The two first met a few weeks before the draft. They went into the back of a warehouse in California, where there was a mound and Chico threw to Rizzo, who was impressed with what he saw from the left-hander.
"I got a call from [Diamondbacks farm director] A.J. Hinch and he said, 'We just traded you,' and then I got a call from the Nationals, and they said they had a flight for me within 24 hours: 'Pack up your stuff and let's go,'" Chico said. "Rizzo drafted Mock and I, and he probably knows us the best. I understood why, and we were happy to come."
With a changeup as his out pitch, Chico pitched in four games for Double-A Harrisburg the rest of the season and gave up eight runs in 22 innings. For 2006, Chico was 12-6 with a 2.88 ERA, and that earned him a place on the Nationals' 40-man roster. He said his success on the mound was due to tunnel vision.
"I didn't think about anything around me as far as what my ERA was, how many strikes I threw or the amount of strikeouts I had," he said. "I was just going out and having fun."
Chico always has enjoyed playing baseball, though at first he wanted to be a slugging center fielder like his idol, Ken Griffey Jr. But while attending Fallbrook High School in San Diego, Chico, volunteered to go on the mound because the team was short on starting pitching. It turned out to be a good a move, because he became an All-American as a senior in 2001.
"The more I threw, the more I enjoyed it," Chico said. "It kind of fell in my lap, I guess."
That same year, Chico was drafted by the Red Sox in the third round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, but he decided to attend USC for the 2002 season. The following season, he transferred to Palomar College as a redshirt freshmen. He never pitched for Palomar, and he was drafted by the Diamondbacks three years ago.
In three professional seasons, Chico is 38-21 with a 3.74 ERA. Those type of numbers could help the Nationals in a big way.
"I'm going to be going out there with every intention to make the big-league club. I'm going to try to show them what I can be on and off the field," Chico said. "I've learned how to pitch over the last three years."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.