MILWAUKEE - Dusty Baker said the Nationals will dip into their minor leagues to find a starting pitcher for Tuesday night’s home game against the Mets.
Since news broke that the Nats would need a starter Tuesday night, social media has been buzzing about the possibility that the hometown fans would get to see right-hander Lucas Giolito, the team’s top pitching prospect, make his major league debut.
Right now, it appears either Giolito, who is pitching for Double-A Harrisburg, or right-hander Austin Voth, who’s at Triple-A Syracuse, are the logical candidates. Though neither is on the 40-man roster, the Nats can create a spot by shifting right-hander Taylor Jordan, who is recovering from May Tommy John surgery, to the 60-day disabled list. Both Giolito and Voth are on turn to pitch either Monday or Tuesday, so holding them out an extra day would be no problem.
It all comes down to whether the Nats want someone who’s a stud prospect that fans have been hearing about for several years (Giolito) or a slightly more polished pitcher (Voth) who has faced better hitters at Triple-A.
But since fans are clamoring for Giolito, let’s discuss the pros and cons of pulling the 21-year-old up from Double-A to face the defending National League champs in a key NL East game.
Gee, no pressure there, eh?
Since the Nationals used the 16th pick of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft to choose the hard-throwing righty from Harvard-Westlake High School in Studio City, Calif., all signs have been pointing Giolito toward D.C. He had to overcome Tommy John surgery, performed just weeks after he was drafted, and the Nationals have been carefully monitoring his recovery and keeping an eye on his innings. You know how the Nats are about Tommy John pitchers and their innings.
Though the Nats ended a seven-game losing streak with a Sunday victory over the Brewers, Giolito’s arrival would be a shot in the arm for a team that’s hit some recent hard luck - a 3-7 road trip and news that right-hander Stephen Strasburg was going on the 15-day disabled list with an upper back strain that just won’t seem to go away.
Fans in D.C. are savvy enough to know what the arrival of a stud pitcher means - and that he could force his way into the Nats’ plans for the second half with a strong performance or two. Even after Strasburg returns from the DL, lefty Gio Gonzalez has pitched poorly over his past seven starts, and though Baker said Gonzalez will make his next scheduled start, he may be on a short leash. If Gonzalez continues to falter, the rotation could have another opening, and Giolito could be in line to fill it.
Though Giolito got knocked around in his most recent start - allowing five earned runs on seven hits and four walks in 4 2/3 innings at Portland on June 22 - his previous five weeks at Harrisburg were nothing short of eye-opening. In a span of eight starts between May 9 and June 16, Giolito went 5-0 with a 0.94 ERA in 47 2/3 innings. He struck out 52 and walked 15.
Those free passes lead us to the side of the argument against recalling Giolito for Tuesday’s assignment. Though he’s had flashes of domination in his 67 games (all but two of them starts) over five minor league seasons, there are some in the organization that feel Giolito lacks the control necessary to succeed in the majors at this point. It’s always a gamble calling up a young pitcher, and there’s always a worry about how a rookie will respond to struggling - or worse, failure.
That’s where the timing of the Nationals’ need might work against Giolito. Sure, they’d like to see what he can do against major league pitching - remember, he made only one start in four spring training appearances, working to a 4.05 ERA with nine strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings. Pitching against another club’s minor leaguers and a few established bats in the Grapefruit League is much different than facing a powerful Mets lineup without holes.
No one’s saying Giolito isn’t capable of succeeding against the Mets. Just remember that we’re talking about a guy with a 3.42 ERA in 22 Double-A starts who’s never pitched at Triple-A.
Then there’s the issue of those pesky innings limits the Nationals assign to Tommy John recoverees. Giolito went from 98 innings in 2014, his first full season after the procedure, to 117 innings in 2015, a jump of 19 innings. The Nationals usually like to add about 20 innings or so to a pitcher’s workload from one season to the next after Tommy John, which would put Giolito at a 2016 target of 137 innings. So far at Harrisburg, he’s already at 71 innings after 14 starts, leaving him around 66 innings to work with over the second half of the current minor league season.
We know the Nats play hardball with innings limits (See: Strasburg, 2012), and another 10-12 minor league starts would get him to that threshold. There was always a chance that Giolito would make it to D.C. this year, meaning some of those innings would be accumulated at the major league level. But do the Nats want to get a few starts out of him before shutting him down, or use him in less pressurized situations out of the bullpen later in the season to get his feet wet?
Service time is also a concern, since the Nats save money down the road by delaying Giolito’s major league debut. As soon as he reaches three years of service time, Giolito is eligible for arbitration, where his success on the field could translate into a bigger paycheck or early him a nice extension. If he falls into the Super Two category - those players with just under three years of service time - he could get an extra year of arbitration. An extra year means additional potential earnings. Money controls everything in baseball, even when a stud pitcher debuts and how long he spends in the majors.
So those are the arguments for and against the Nationals summoning Giolito to start Tuesday for the Mets. Which side do you find the most compelling? Do you think the Nats dip down to Double-A for Giolito? Or do they take the more advanced pitcher in Voth and let Giolito continue his progress?