Some baseball writers detest the Winter Meetings. There’s too much time spent on too little happening, they say, and prowling a hotel lobby for hours on end in search of the tiniest shreds of information pertaining to the team you cover can be a tedious ordeal.
For me, being around the game’s movers and shakers for four days is nothing short of baseball geek nirvana. And because there are scouts among the executives hanging out for late-night happy hour or at the morning breakfast buffet, that’s a golden opportunity to take the pulse of the Nationals through the eyes of a trained observer.
One leftover nugget I scored while waiting for my Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes one morning came courtesy of a major league scout I’ve encountered several times over the years. And, with apologies to my colleague Byron Kerr - who is counting down the Nationals’ top 10 prospects, as ranked by Baseball America - it pertains to a pitcher on the farm who has already raised some eyebrows in the industry.
While talking about what impact newly acquired Doug Fister would have on the Nationals’ power-packed starting rotation, the scout surprised me with this proclamation: “All those guys competing for the fifth spot. Well, wait a couple of years until the kid that was their No. 1 pick a couple of years ago gets there. You think it’s a great rotation now? It’ll be better then.”
The kid is Lucas Giolito, a 6-foot-6 right-hander from Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles who was the Nats’ first-round (16th overall) selection in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. He might not have fallen to the Nationals in the middle of the first round if not for a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow at the beginning of his senior season.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo liked the fastball that sat at 93-95 mph and touched triple digits, and the power curve, figuring the 230-pounder would become a dominant front-of-the-rotation pitcher. That Giolito underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in August 2012 was merely a bump in the road for an organization that has successfully coaxed Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Sammy Solis through similar surgeries and recoveries.
Ranked as the best high school arm available in the draft before his injury, Giolito has been brought along slowly. He pitched in one game against Rookie League competition in the Gulf Coast League 2012, throwing two innings, and made it back to more regular competition last season, starting 11 games between the GCL Nats and short-season Single-A Auburn. In 36 2/3 innings, he went 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings.
The scout I spoke to raved about Giolito’s poise and said the only thing he needs now is experience. But when I asked how soon it would be before Giolito would be ready, I was surprised when he told me, “Maybe sooner than you think. End of the (2014) season? Early the next? Only thing he needs is innings.”
Silly me, thinking Giolito might be ready to face high Single-A hitters in the Carolina League by later this summer. The Nats don’t talk much about Giolito, and that could be because they’re slow-playing him, expecting the teenager to force them to move him up sooner than they normally would. Remember how they brought Strasburg through all of 11 minor league games before his sensational debut in 2010? How about the accelerated plan laid out for Bryce Harper - low Single-A and Double-A in 2011, followed by 21 games at Triple-A Syracuse in 2012 before his major league debut? The blueprint already exists.
Not surprisingly, Baseball America has anointed Giolito as (spoiler alert - stop reading now and skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to be surprised by Kerr’s countdown) the Nats’ No. 1 prospect heading into 2014. Among players 25 and under, he ranks fourth in the organization behind Strasburg, Harper and infielder Anthony Rendon.
How soon will he be in D.C.? Time will tell. It’s not like the Nats haven’t dipped down to Double-A before when they needed someone to make an emergency start, right? But at least one scout seems to think that how quickly Giolito ascends through the organization is completely up to Giolito himself.
Note: Unless there’s major news - OK, any news - in the next 24 hours, we’ll be taking the rest of the day off to mark Christmas and will be back on the beat Thursday. Here’s to a merry Christmas to you and yours from the MASNsports.com family!