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What Matt Chico's assignment says about the Nationals farm system

In 2007, Matt Chico started 31 games for the Nationals. The next year, he began the season as their No. 2 starter. He lasted only eight starts before it became clear he needed Tommy John surgery, but he had become an established major league starter, at least in Washington.

This year, Chico will start at Class AA Harrisburg. Part of that is because Chico is completing his recovery from the 2008 ligament-replacement surgery, a recovery significantly slowed when an upper respiratory issue sidelined Chico at the end of the spring training.

But health is not the only reason Chico will start in Harrisburg. Chico competed for a rotation spot with the Nationals this spring, but he may have started 2010 in Harrisburg, not Class AAA Syracuse, even if he hadn't encountered physical setbacks.

"Everybody is shocked at this," Nationals Director of Player Development Doug Harris said. "I've said it from the beginning: It's harder to be a National today that it was two years ago. We have 10 spots between Syracuse and Harrisburg that we've got to give to our starters. There's not a significant difference between the two."

Chico's 2010 starting isn't necessarily a commentary on his place in the organization. "In no way does this reflect the way we view Matty," Harris said. "He can go from Harrisburg to Washington as easily as he can go from Syracuse to Washington."

Rather, it's more of a commentary of the amount of the depth the Nationals have in their farm system. There's no guarantee all or any of them will become consistent contributors someday soon, and aside from Stephen Strasburg and perhaps Aaron Thompson, there are no pitchers obviously brimming with elite potential. But the Nationals' system is stocked with pitchers who have and could pitch in the majors.

All five of their Class AAA starters have started in the majors before, and Scott Olsen threw 200 major league innings one year. Chien-Ming Wang, Jordan Zimermann and Ross Detwiler will all re-join the 40-man roster once they're healthy. The Nationals are not yet where they need to be, but as Chico's place shows, they have vastly improved the quantity and quality of pitching inventory in their farm system.

"As we go forward, you better compete," Harris said. "Especially on the pitching side of it, the Nationals are better. There's no more graduating players."

All of those pitchers who vied for starting spots in spring training, Harris said, are still vying for them now. If Garrett Mock, tonight's starter, falters, there is an entire staff of starters who will want his -- or any other starter's -- job.

"You better believe it," Harris said. "They haven't seen that here for a while. It's a good thing to have competition within your system. It raises the bar and creates a different mindset. It creates a little bit of a swagger."

Chico, too, is one of those pitchers still competing. Harris was asked if Chico was understanding of his Class AA assignment.

"No," Harris said. "But I wasn't either when I was in his position. He's a competitor. If he said, 'That's great,' I'd have probably been scratching my head. He's a professional. He's a team player. He understands what's going. He wants to be in Washington. I don't look at that negatively in any shape or form."

In other minor league news, Class A Potomac catcher Derek Norris, regarded as the Nationals' best position player prospect, will sit out the first few games in the season with soreness in his wrist. Last season, Norris broke the hamate bone in his hand and had it removed. The irritation he feels now is not considered a significant setback.

"We just want to make sure that he's 100 percent," Harris said. "We don't really care if he's not in the lineup every day in April. We're interested in the long term. There's going to be ups and downs with it."

Norris started spring training with the Nationals' major league camp and received fleeting playing time. Once he was sent back to the minor league side, his playing increased. The enhanced volume of repetitions led to Norris's discomfort, which is common with that injury.

"We fully expected this," Harris said. "We're actually surprised that it didn't happen sooner."

By Adam Kilgore  |  April 9, 2010; 12:37 PM ET
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Next: Next up, Garrett Mock


Kilgore killing it. You the man.

Posted by: CletusVanDamme | April 9, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Cool. The minor league affiliates may end up being more interesting than the major league club. Its all going to be interesting to watch.

Posted by: periculum | April 9, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

""No," Harris said. "But I wasn't either when I was in his position. He's a competitor. If he said, 'That's great,' I'd have probably been scratching my. "

Scratching his what, Adam? Geez, you brain farted just when the quote was getting good. Should we just fill in the blank, like with [expletive deleted]?

Posted by: nunof1 | April 9, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

hmmm, let's see, is above the waist or below? :-)

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | April 9, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

the anatomical part in question, that is

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | April 9, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Rolling on the laughing my off.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | April 9, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

This blog is just full of smart

Posted by: TimDz | April 9, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for the piece, it does say a lot about the organization's pitching situation. Matt won;t be 27 until June and he has only pitched 828.2 innings in his professional career over 7 seasons.

With all the pitchers on the 40 man, I think that once June rolls around Rizzo will be making some trades otherwise some of these guys are just going to stagnate at the lower levels.

Posted by: markfd | April 9, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

We pray for Jesus Colome's family and for his.

Posted by: Hendo1 | April 9, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

1a1 and sec3, you two really make this blog a lot more enjoyable.

Rolling on the laughing my off.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa

I read that and I literally started rolling on the laughing my off.

Posted by: Sunderland | April 9, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

This Date in Gratuitious Censorship: No Body Parts Mentioned.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | April 9, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

@markfd: I agree with you regarding the logjam of pitchers on the 40 man. My question for you (or anyone else) is this:

How many of the minor league prospects do we move?

Which ones do we deal?

What can we expect in return?

There are clearly some untouchables, but I am not sure which of the others should be moved. I am also guessing that some non 40 man roster players/prospects (low A players perhaps?) will need to be dealt as well, depending on who Rizzo targets.

Posted by: TimDz | April 9, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Oh, wait a minute, I just realized something.
They won yesterday--we can't mention body parts again while they're on a streak.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | April 9, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Hendo1, nice one. It took me a minute to get it (must need that mid-day energy jolt pill).

I appreciate the thought behind this post, but I do think it's a little overstated to praise this kind of depth. Yes, all of the starting pitchers in AAA started in the bigs at some point last year. They just weren't that good (with the possible exception of periculum's man, J.D. Martin). It's like being the coach of a college basketball team that finished last a year ago and bragging that all of the starters are back.

I think the key point is "aside from Stephen Strasburg and perhaps Aaron Thompson, there are no pitchers obviously brimming with elite potential." If/when Strasburg, Detwiler, Thompson and J. Zimmermann break through, then we'll have meaningful depth, the kind that winning organizations have. Now we have the kind of depth that mediocre teams have.

The sad truth is, that is a significant improvement which is why Adam wrote this post.

Posted by: baltova1 | April 9, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Woah, does the post have a list of rosey topics in the hopper to break out after a Nats win or what? Yesterday, Boz wrote about how the farm system isn't where it needs to be. Today, we can't find a spot for Chico to play. News flash: Chico deserves to pitch in AA. If we were dishing out minor league roster spots based upon what players did for the major league squad 3 years ago, then Preston Wilson would have a bronze plaque in Syracuse.

Posted by: dclifer97 | April 9, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

This sounds great if it weren't for the fact that we just finished a spring training where we couldn't give the fifth spot away and 2-4 didn't exactly mow anyone down either.

So until Wang and Detwiler are ready we've got a bunch of guys capable of pitching in AA or AAA and not much more.

Posted by: PowerBoater69 | April 9, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

I would add Brad Meyers (recovering from injury in Extended Spring Training) to the mix.

Sec 204 Row H Seat 7

Posted by: adhardwick | April 9, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Nationals need to get the best player on the board in this years draft.

Posted by: jboogie1 | April 9, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Poor Matt Chico, how will he ever get a spot in the rotation when there are so many mediocre and unproven pitchers ahead of him?

Le sigh.

Posted by: CapitolWill | April 9, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

For how many years have we heard about the increasing depth of the Nationals farm system, only to see the rotation at the Major League level deteriorate?

Some of this is the result of a worrisome string of injuries to almost every top-level pitcher the team has fielded: Cordero, Patterson, Hill, Detwiler, Zimmermann.

Prosperity may be right around the corner, maybe as soon as June, but it remains tantalizingly out of reach right now.

Posted by: Meridian1 | April 9, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

John Lannan 12.27
Jason Marquis 13.50
Carig Stammen 7.20 (the ace!)

Yep. No doubt about it. You gotta come to Washington planning on keeping that ERA below 14 if you want to crack this much-improved starting staff!

Go Nats!

Kevin Olson
Manassas, VA

Posted by: noslok | April 9, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it says much at all about the depth of the farm that Chico is in AA. It seems more likey to me that the club has a bunch of decent yet unspectacular prospects who are not moving in the right direction in terms of development. Not to say that the galss is half empty, but even if the glass were half full, that is only HALF the way to where it needs to be. Nats management has not done a good job loading the farm with ptiching talent over the years. Despite their pledges to do so.

They've wasted years and my season ticket holder money as they tread water. Hey Ted, now that you've owned the club for 3 plus years, the time has come to fully staff the front office in Spring 2010? Worst owners in the game.

Posted by: dfh21 | April 9, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

We aim to please, Sunderland. Wouldn't want to be a pain in the. :-)

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | April 9, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Hope they can mirror the Capitals in terms of hording minor league talents and then bringing them up one at a time while learning how to win in the minors and eventually in the Majors.

Posted by: JohnWWW | April 9, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

I love all the gallows humor. Fun to be a Nats fan, eh? As for the team's improvement, the light at the end of the tunnel does seem to be getting closer. Being in the NL East, however, that light might just be a train.

I do think Kasten and Rizzo know what they're doing. I just wish the Nat's Ted was the Cap's Ted.

Posted by: McLobo | April 9, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

great observations and overall great piece kilgore! it's soooo nice to have a baseball writer on the baseball beat...

Posted by: DCPowerGator | April 9, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

All due respect to Adam Kilgore, but I have yet to see a single pitcher who looks any different than the little leaguers from last year.

While it's a nice piece on Matt Chico, the bottom line is the entire pitching staff isn't anything special and hovers around garage-sale quality.

Not sure what the June+ arrivals will mean to the Gnats, but the whole will likely be so deep by that time, it won't matter much one way or the other.

Posted by: randy_boyd | April 9, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

sorry... hole.... not whole

(smacking my typist... HARD...)

Posted by: randy_boyd | April 9, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

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