Matt Chico’s time with Nationals comes and goes

Maybe if Matt Chico had had better luck - if he hadn’t felt pain in his elbow during his first start at Triple-A Columbus in 2008, if he hadn’t had to beg then-minor league pitching coach Steve McCatty to stay in a game even he knew he couldn’t finish - his career wouldn’t have come to this point. Maybe Chico would have gotten his mechanics back under control and returned to the majors later that season, and maybe his trajectory toward a long-term role in the Nationals’ rotation would have continued.

But in pitching, injuries aren’t so much an interruption as they are an inevitability. Elbows and shoulders break down from stress, and when one pitcher slips, another eagerly slides into his place. The benefit of the doubt isn’t given to most pitchers coming back from surgery - certainly not to ones with as little on their resumes as Chico had in 2008.

The left-hander, who was designated for assignment by the Nationals yesterday, never got a clear shot to make it back to the majors after Tommy John surgery in 2008. By the time Chico was healthy again, in spring 2010, the team had amassed enough pitchers whose arms were stronger, and probably better, than his. And more and more, he looks like a relic of a time when the Nationals simply didn’t have enough viable options to knock him out of the rotation.

Chico made 31 starts for the Nationals in 2007, leading a makeshift staff in innings with 167. General manager Mike Rizzo, then with Arizona, took Chico in the third round of the 2003 draft. Once Rizzo had come to Washington, he lobbied Nationals GM Jim Bowden to trade for Chico in 2006. The left-hander’s fastball has never run higher than 90 mph or so, but scouts saw something else with Chico: He could paint corners, change speeds and stay a step ahead of hitters. The rosiest predictions compared him to Tom Glavine. But 2007 still stands as the high point of his career.

He was the Nationals’ No. 2 starter to begin the 2008 season, and made eight starts for them that year. But even then, he was toying with his mechanics, switching to a high leg kick after watching an old video of himself from high school and trying to find more bite on his pitches. Then, his elbow gave out in Columbus, and aside from one spot start for the Nationals last year, he hasn’t been in the majors since.

There’s still a chance Chico gets back to the majors, maybe even with the Nationals if he isn’t claimed off waivers. He’s only 27, and had a decent season in the minors last year. But at present, the Nationals have an opportunistic left-hander who surged into the rotation about the time Chico fell out of it (John Lannan), and a rotation made up of pitchers with more upside than Chico (Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler) or veterans who are there either because of their track record (Livan Hernandez) or their contract (Jason Marquis). And there are enough other pitchers between Chico and the majors that when the Nationals needed a spot on the 40-man roster, his seemed like one they could sacrifice.

The Nationals’ 2011 rotation, by no means, looks like a dominant one. Pragmatically, though, there’s little chance Chico is in it. He’d have to leapfrog too many pitchers and do too much to get a look. And at the moment, at least, he looks like another casualty of a cold game.