Little more than a month ago, Jesus Zambrano prepared to take the mound in Omaha for his final start of the 2015 season. In only his third year as a professional, the 5’ 11” righty from Valencia, Venezuela, had appeared in a total of 42 games, mostly as a starter. This would be his second start for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds. The first was just a week earlier; August 30th in Tacoma for the second game of a make-up double-header against the Seattle Mariners’ PCL team. The Rainiers countered with MLB veteran Chien-Ming Wang, who last saw major league time at the age of 33 in 2013. That was also Zambrano’s rookie season, and he was 16 that year.
Gregorio Jesus Zambrano Perez turned 16 years old on August 23, 2012. Most teenagers in the U.S. are excited about getting their driver’s license at that age. On August 24th, in his homeland of Venezuela, Jesus signed as an international amateur free agent with the Oakland Athletics for close to $150,000. He continued training and on June 3, 2013, he officially began his career against the DSL Indians. The roster behind the 16-year-old in that game contains many of the same names that were on the 2015 Arizona League roster, including Rodolfo Peñalo, Luis Barrera, Miguel Mercedes, Jean Carlo Rodriguez, Jhonny Rodriguez and Eric Mariñez.
Zambrano was 16 years old and he took his job seriously. He did dwell on his first outing, but his second appearance didn’t produce the best results. A sign of his maturity and balanced demeanor, after both outings, he only thought about how to learn and improve so he could be better on his next outing and the one after that, and so on. At the end of his rookie season, after appearing in 14 games (61 innings pitched), Zambrano walked only 12 batters, struck out 48, and gave up 62 hits. His ability to control his pitches and not issue free passes has increased each year.
Shortly after his 17th birthday, Zambrano was invited to participate in the A’s fall Instructional League in Arizona. When I first saw him on the mound, my first impression was that his presence, the way he carried himself on the mound, did not convey that a month earlier he would not have been allowed into an “R” rated movie. Here was this baby-faced…baby, smaller in size than all other pitchers, but he didn’t act like it. He was composed and observant. He watched the others, paid close attention to every coach/ coordinator, and I could see him process and practice what he was learning.
Reflecting on his first taste of stateside baseball, Zambrano said, “coming to Instructs was a great opportunity for me. I learned a lot. I learned so much from everyone. I learned a lot from Welchie [the late Bob Welch].
“I couldn’t wait to return so I could learn more and do better.”
And that he did.
After only one year in the Dominican Summer League, Zambrano had made a spot for himself on the on the 2014 Arizona Rookie League roster as a 17-year-old. At 5’11” and 170-ish pounds, his body type isn’t, as they say, “what they look like” when it comes to pitchers. He doesn’t throw gas, but his fastball sits around 90. His curveball and change-up are both good; but his biggest assets are his delivery and his control. He throws a lot of innings, strikes out a lot, gives up a lot of hits, but he doesn’t walk many or give up home runs. And, he’s so young! He won’t fill in his body for another couple of years.
During his 2014 and 2015 seasons, Zambrano was confronted with growth and his endurance was tested. His manager, Ruben Escalera, knew he would rise to the occasion, and he did.
“If you don’t test limits, then how will you grow?” Escalera said of Zambrano.
In addition to watching the games, I observe the interaction of the players; how they are with each other, with their field staff, and anyone else they encounter. I blend in; they don’t even know I’m there. What I see in Zambrano is a confident, respectful young man. The more I would talk with him, the more impressed I became. We would talk about the game, his approach, his focus, his goals and…his mother. He misses his mother, as they all do, of course.
As darling as he is, Jesus could never be perceived as a “player” off the field. I always believed once he is promoted to a league where actual fans attend and the players are celebrities, his endearing, respectful personality – along with his good looks – will make him a fan favorite, especially of the young female fans. He’s also the kind of young man that parents love, whether or not they speak Spanish. Chico, as I call him, wants to practice his English any chance he can. I expected that time would first come during the 2016 season, when he would be a member of the Vermont Lake Monsters. I was wrong.
The AZL Athletics finished with a 24-32 record. Most of the boys went home for the two weeks in between the end of the AZL and the start of Instructional League. Zambrano didn’t go home. Instead, he was added to the roster of the Nashville Sounds. Triple-A. He skipped over all of other levels and went straight to the Pacific Coast League.
A “spot start” / assignment like this is not uncommon. Nashville was short on healthy arms (and wins) and with all the bad weather cancellations throughout the season, there were double-headers galore that had to be played. Double-A Midland was in the play-off push (where they retained their title of Texas League Champions) and High-A Stockton also went to the post-season. Many of the starters on the Low-A Beloit Snappers’ staff had already reached (or were close to) their innings limit by season’s end.
Zambrano said he’s not sure why he was given the opportunity with Nashville, but he wasn’t looking to question anything. He just wanted to make the most of it.
I saw the transaction adding Zambrano to the Nashville roster, and thought if – big IF – he saw game action, it would be out of the bullpen. I wasn’t alone in that assumption; we were all wrong. Most of us learned the same way about RHP Jesus Zambrano starting in Tacoma; notifications via the First Pitch app. The Tacoma broadcast of the game was available on the subscription-based MiLB.tv. Listening or watching to the opposing team’s feed is standard in minor league baseball. In this particular case, it was the best situation, for one reason: Rainiers’ broadcaster Mike Curto called many games started by another RHP from Valencia, Valenzuela; the King, Felix Hernandez.
“They said they were thinking about having me start the game and asked me what I thought,” Zambrano said of the moment when he learned he would make his Triple-A debut as the starter. “I said it was good, I liked it and I could do it.
“I didn’t know if I would be a starter or reliever or maybe not [pitch] at all. Yes, I was happy, very happy for the opportunity given to me. I only wanted to do my best and help my team win. I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”
During the broadcast from Tacoma, the Rainiers’ Curto offered insight into the (few) similarities of the Venezuelan righties and showed great appreciation for and recognition of both Zambrano’s strengths and his composure on the mound.
Before he took the mound, Zambrano was given a three-run lead in the top of the 1st. Tacoma’s lead-off batter was speedy outfielder James Jones, who’s had a few cups of coffee in Seattle over the past two years. Zambrano struck him out. Also in the inning, Jesus walked Stefen Romero before giving up a two-run home run to Jabari Blash, who finished the season with 32 bombs. So Blash was just doing what he does. The score after the first inning was 3-2 Nashville, and that’s where it remained until the 6th. But, by that time, the young righty who had never, ever in his life ever pitched above the “fire league” was out of the game. Zambrano settled down after the first; gave up only two more hits, and struck out three more before being relieved in the 5th inning by Dan Otero.
Even when he was in trouble, Zambrano never looked like the situation was tougher than he was; Curto, sang the praises of the opposing pitcher who had turned 19-years-old only a week before his Triple-A debut.
One and done, right? Nope. Six days later, in Omaha, Nebraska, the home of the AL Champions’ Kansas City Royals’ PCL team, Chico would make his second start for Nashville. He went five innings, and he allowed five hits, two runs -- both earned -- ZERO walks, and he had two strike-outs. He got the WIN and, most impressively, looked like he belonged on a Triple-A mound.
Among the things in which Zambrano expressed has great appreciation are the coaching staff, his teammates, and the fans in Nashville, even though he never played in front of the home crowd, for making his time with the Sounds such a great experience. He credits both catchers, Carson Blair from his first game and Bryan Anderson from the second, for helping him get comfortable in the new environment.
“They were great!” he said.
He also said he was very happy for both who were called up to Oakland after the season. Blair was called-up two days after he caught Zambrano’s outing in Tacoma.
Zambrano knows his two games would not have been as successful if the defense hadn’t made the plays they did to get the outs, and if the offense hadn’t been so explosive for him; loading up the board before he set foot on the field in Tacoma; and then scoring six runs in two innings in Omaha.
And contrary to what most of us project, he received no bump in pay – or meal money. The home and road clubbies are also on Chico’s list of great people, too.
Nashville’s season ended and Zambrano returned to the facilities at Fitch to participate in the A’s fall Instructional League. It seems a little anti-climactic to me, but Chico couldn’t wait to get back to work, so that the next time he’s on the mound for Nashville, it’s for a longer stay until he gets the call to Oakland.