Giolito sent down, but Nats expect him in D.C. before long

VIERA, Fla. - Lucas Giolito knew the situation when he walked into the clubhouse for his first big league camp last month. He wasn't here to make the Nationals' opening day roster. He was here to get as much experience and soak up as much knowledge as possible before he was sent back to the minors to continue his development.

So when the roster move finally came today - the Nationals officially reassigned him to minor league camp - Giolito took everything in stride.

"I had assumed going in I'd probably be one of the first cuts, just because of the experience level," the 21-year-old right-hander said. "But they kept me around, which I'm really appreciative of."

Giolito-throw-spring-sidebar.jpgGiolito, rated by multiple publications as the top pitching prospect in the sport right now, will open the season with one of the Nationals' upper affiliates (either Double-A Harrisburg or Triple-A Syracuse), with an eye on making his major league debut at some point in 2016.

Club officials, while impressed both with Giolito's performance and maturity, acknowledge he still could use some fine-tuning.

"I think he's close to being big-league ready," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I think he has to work on some of the small nuances of pitching. I think the bulk of his developmental curve is complete. But he needs to work on the smaller, little details of preparation, participation and performance in trying to get major-league hitters out."

Giolito made four appearances in Grapefruit League games this spring, including a start Friday night against a Mets lineup loaded with everyday players. He allowed three runs over 6 2/3 innings, putting 10 men on base while striking out nine.

The right-hander mentioned better command of his two-seam fastball, holding runners on first and a mechanical tweak designed to get more power from his legs among the areas of his game he'd still like to improve. But that's fairly minor stuff for a pitcher of his age and limited experience (he was drafted 16th overall in 2012 and has only 253 2/3 innings in the minors in the wake of the Tommy John surgery he had 3 1/2 years ago.

As they've done with several other young pitchers who needed elbow ligament replacement surgery, the Nationals are taking a cautious approach with Giolito, managing his workload from year to year. He pitched a total of 117 innings between Single-A Potomac and Harrisburg last season, which should leave him on pace to total roughly 150 to 160 innings this season. (Rizzo hasn't specified a number, but the organization generally tries to limit young pitchers to an innings increase of 25-30 percent year-to-year.)

"He's under our Tommy John protocol, like all of our pitchers are," Rizzo said. "We're going to monitor him. We'll keep an eye closely on him, like we do with all of our pitchers. We have a plan in place for him, and we'll adhere to it."

There are other contractual factors at play with Giolito's eventual promotion. If he spends at least 20 days in the minors this season, he won't become eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season, as opposed to a year earlier. If he isn't called up until sometime in the range of June 1, he likely wouldn't qualify for arbitration as soon as 2019 via the Super Two provision, saving the club money down the road.

Whenever the day comes, though, the Nationals expect Giolito to become a major force near the top of their rotation. And he believes the time he spent in big league camp this spring helped prepare him for that inevitable promotion.

"I think it'll be a pretty seamless transition," he said. "Pitching against the Mets the other night, starting there with a packed house and their starting lineup for the most part, that was a really good experience to kind of take with me going forward. When I do get up there, I'll feel right at home. I don't think there will be any nerves or anything like that. I've kind of knocked all that stuff out early, so I'm just going to be ready to get called up and contribute."

Giolito's pitching prowess got him this far. His ability to carry himself like a big leaguer at 21 may just propel him over that last, final hurdle.

"I said that about him when he was 17 and we drafted him: He conducts himself with a maturity," Rizzo said. "He's a guy that has a great mound presence. Even as a young minor leaguer he did. And he's taken that to the next step. He's very poised on the mound. He thinks he belongs, and he looks like he belongs."

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