VIERA, Fla. - It’s now been nearly 18 months since Lucas Giolito underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, but the Nationals’ 19-year-old right-hander and top prospect says he’s completely healthy, feels strong and is ready to attack his first full season as a professional ballplayer.
Giolito met with reporters today outside the Nationals minor league facility, towering over us with his 6-foot-6, 255 lb. frame. The Nats’ first-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, who signed a deal that gave him a $2.925 million bonus, has thrown just 38 2/3 innings as a professional, but he is already viewed as one of the most promising prospects in baseball. This spring, he’s returned to a normal throwing program at the team’s minor league camp, and is excited to be healthy and feeling strong.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Giolito said. “I’m ready to go, I’m ready to get going. It’s just great that I was able to persevere through everything. I never had a setback. So it’s great.”
Giolito knew that Tommy John surgery was a possibility when the Nationals took him with the No. 16 overall pick in 2012; he had spent his senior season of high school battling a strained elbow ligament. The ligament gave out in Giolito’s first professional appearance, leading him down a long rehabilitation path.
“It was initially tough just to have to face it and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to have to take eight months to a year off from throwing and competing,’ Gioltio said. “But I knew it was something that was kind of looming in the distance, something that I might have to deal with. So I was prepared and I was ready to go about the rehab and everything. So it wasn’t that bad.
“There’s a little feeling in the back of your head (when you first start throwing after the surgery), like, ‘This isn’t going to feel that good.’ But aside from a few scar tissue releases here and there, which every Tommy John rehab guy goes through, it was a pretty smooth process.”
Giolito returned last season, started out at the Gulf Coast League and then was promoted to short-season Single-A Auburn, where he finished the season. He made just 11 appearances in all last season, but posted a 2.09 ERA, striking out 40 and walking 14.
“It was unreal,” Giolito said. “To be able to be out there and be able to play on a team and compete, that’s all I want to do.”
Giolito added about 10-15 lbs. of muscle to his frame this offseason, and is even more of an imposing presence than he was before the surgery. He’s also seen some other improvements post-Tommy John, as well.
“The Tommy John process allowed me to strengthen a lot of muscles in my arm and become a stronger pitcher and a stronger player mentally, too,” he said. “So I feel like I came back stronger than before, definitely.”
Giolito’s fastball - which consistenly tops 100 mph - and his curveball have always been considered plus-plus pitches. Scouts drool over them, and some talent evaluators feel that they would be dominant pitches in the big leagues today, even though Giolito is just 19. But Giolito also has improved his changeup since the surgery, giving him another pitch he can rely on.
“It just comes out of my hand feeling a lot better and a lot different,” Gioltio said. “I really don’t know (why). It’s just one of those weird, quirky things that happens for some guys that get surgery. I know sometimes a pitch will feel different. But especially for the changeup, I have a lot better feel for it after the surgery.
“I was healthy before the surgery, obviously, in high school, and the changeup was kind of a work-in-progress thing. Now, it just feels like a lot more solid pitch.”
Scouts and reporters all across the country have taken note of Giolito, who is listed by most national talent rankings publications as a top 30 prospect in the game. If not for his lack of professional innings, he’d certainly be even higher.
“That stuff’s always there,” Giolito said of the national attention. “It’s in the background. You see it here and there. It’s not something you focus on, because you really have to focus on the important things which are your pitching and where you want to be as an athlete. So it’s always there, but it’s not a main focus.”
As is the case with all Nationals pitchers who come back from Tommy John, Giolito will be on an innings limit this season, which he says is fine with him.
“Whatever they want me to do, it’s obviously for the best,” he says.
His goal at this point is just to continue piling up innings and getting more experience. One interesting point that he made was that as a guy who was drafted out of high school and has minimal professional innings, he hasn’t pitched in a real stadium or deal with throwing in front of fans too much.
“I just want to become a better pitcher and throw more innings and have more experience,” he said. “As far as (what level I want to end up at), that’s not something that’s in my control, really. I can just be the best pitcher I can be and hope for the best.”
Notes: Nats minor league infielder John Johnson has undergone surgery to remove the hamate bone from his left hand. He will miss four to six weeks.
Taylor Jordan has been named to start the Nats’ Grapefruit League opener Friday in Port St. Lucie, Fla., against the Mets.