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July 2, 2014

BP Top 50

Taijuan Walker vs. Lucas Giolito

by Nick J. Faleris, Mark Anderson and Jeff Moore

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Links to Other BP Top 50 Debates
Tim Anderson vs. J.P. Crawford | Daniel Norris vs. Jose Berrios |
Albert Almore vs. Stephen Piscotty | Austin Hedges vs. Blake Swihart vs. Jorge Alfaro |
Hunter Harvey vs. Kohl Stewart

The Rules
Rather than re-printing the BP Prospect Staff Midseason Top 50 debates—much of which involves discussion of multiple players at the same time—we thought it would be interesting to call out some of the more interesting pairings of players who have been in consideration for the #BPTop50 and allow an advocate for each to make his case as to why that player should be ranked ahead of the other.

In each case, the BP Prospect Staff member advocating on behalf of a prospect may or may not ultimately prefer that prospect, but in any event has agreed to argue that prospect’s case for the purpose of this series. It’s a good reminder that the differences in value between players in these rankings is sometimes quite small, and in most cases a strong case can be made for ranking players in any number of combinations.

Nick J. Faleris serves as a quasi-moderator for the debate, introducing the players and leading a question-and-answer session to help tease out the arguments for and against each player.

Introducing Taijuan Walker and Lucas Giolito
The Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff had a very different experience in arguing the merits of Taijuan Walker (RHP, Mariners) and Lucas Giolito (RHP, Nationals) for the BP Top 101 Prospects list back in February, though both came in as the top prospect in their respective systems (Mariners Top 10 Prospects list here; Nationals Top 10 Prospects list here).

Walker had just completed a solid season that included a run through Double-A Jackson and Triple-A Tacoma and concluded with three impressive big-league starts in which he showed power stuff and an ability to miss bats and fill up the zone. Giolito, working back from Tommy John surgery, made 11 short-season appearances split between the Gulf Coast League and New York-Penn League, flashing very loud stuff and tantalizing evaluators over short stints. In the end, the upside earned Giolito an aggressive ranking of 13th overall prospect in the game, with Walker coming in five spots higher at eighth overall.

This season has been a different story, as Walker spent a chunk of his year on the shelf with shoulder issues, logging just 46 innings over nine starts—six of which came at Triple-A Tacoma. His first major-league start of the year came earlier this week against Houston, and he showed off both his strengths (ability to miss bats) and weaknesses (fly ball tendencies, resulting in two home runs). The missed time has pushed Walker out of the minds of many fans outside of Seattle, though his upside remains that of a true no. 2 starter. Because he’s back in the big leagues, he won’t be included on the Top 50 list, but his standing is still worth debating.

Giolito, on the other hand, has enjoyed an entertaining and exciting first half in the Sally League with Low-A Hagerstown, striking out 10 batters per nine (61 strikeouts over 54.2 innings pitched) and holding opponents to a .181 batting average. His arsenal regularly grades out with two plus-plus to elite offerings in his fastball and power curve, with the change getting additional love as a future plus offering. The Nationals have limited his innings as he continues to build arm strength working back from surgery, though the reins have been loosened over his most recent starts.

The Case for Taijuan Walker (Jeff Moore)
When ranking prospects, the key is to find the balance between ceiling and the likelihood of reaching that ceiling. That likelihood ultimately has a lot to do with where a player currently resides on the long journey from prospect to major leaguer (let alone all-star). So no, I'm not going to say a disparaging word about Lucas Giolito, lest I live in fear of being struck by lightning from his God-given arm. But yes, I am going to play the proximity card to argue for Taijuan Walker.

The ceiling is through the roof for Giolito, but Walker has struck out eight batters in a major-league start while Giolito has yet to throw a pitch in the seventh inning of a South Atlantic League game. If this were Bull Durham, Walker would be taking Giolito's guitar from him, telling him about his three weeks in the show, and talking about getting his luggage carried for him. Walker is pitching in a pennant race at the big-league level. Giolito should see some pennant races of his own, but they won't be until later this decade.

Walker is no slouch. He offers two pitches that grade out at 70 or above and the potential for two more above-average offerings. Not all pitching prospects rank above Giolito just because of their proximity to the major leagues, but the pitching prospect who was our highest-rated pitcher over the offseason certainly gets to use that as a tie-breaker.

The Case for Lucas Giolito (Mark Anderson)

I get it. Walker is a good prospect. I like him as much as anybody, but when comparing him to Giolito it’s like bringing a spoon to fight a dude with a 50-caliber rifle. It’s not fair.

Giolito is a monster, and he shouldn’t be penalized because of the fact that he’s allowed to show it only in limited bursts right now. In those outings, Giolito has shown everything you want to see from the top pitching prospect in the game. He is physical, strong, and intelligent, and he has the arsenal to dominate MLB lineups.

When you combine extreme downhill plane with easy 94–96 mph average velocity and peaks in the upper 90s, you get a near-elite pitch. On top of the raw velocity, Giolito’s heater has the type of movement most pitching prospects only dream of.

Giolito backs up his dominant fastball with a breaking ball that BP’s Tucker Blair described by saying, “It might be the best pitch I have seen in a decade.” That’s just not fair. You’re talking about a near-elite fastball backed up by a near-elite breaking ball. On top of all that, he has an average changeup with enough feel that it could develop further.

I get that Walker is an appealing player, and in a world lacking a healthy Giolito, he might be the top pitching prospect in the game. However, he doesn’t exist in that world.

NF: I want to start with Mark here, because I think this is a situation where the "proximity" argument has a lot of merit. Were you a GM right now with any interest in competing in the short term, is there any way you honestly opt for Giolito, who is still building up post TJ-strength and has yet to reach Double-A, over Walker, who is in the bigs wielding stuff that could allow him to have an impact immediately?

MA: As a hypothetical GM in your scenario, yes, I can honestly say that there are scenarios where I choose Giolito over Walker even with a desire to compete in the short term. There are few instances where the sole goal of the GM is to win right now and only right now; there's always a balance of winning now and long-term organization-building.

Giolito likely won't help me until late 2015 at the earliest. I admit and accept that, but his potential could make him one of the elite pitchers in the game, capable of fronting the rotation of a contending team for years to come. Unless my only goal (or edict from management) is to win in 2014 or 2015, then I still take the potentially elite arm over the potentially very good arm and hopefully set myself up for long-term dominance from the front of my rotation.

NF: Just a quick follow-up, Mark. At what point does proximity trump, or at least negate, the value of a higher ceiling? Here we are not only talking about a likely two years of major league production from Walker prior to Giolito's first contribution, but also a two-year span that will include added opportunities for further injury or developmental hiccups that could eat away at the upside as Giolito progresses. That is a lot of risk and developmental expense to take on in hopes that the greater upside identified today is ultimately achieved two years from now.

MA: Fair questions, Nick. First, let's not forget that in many cases the proximity argument often hinges on a lack of perceived risk with the player closer to the majors. However, in this case, the only reason we're still discussing Walker as a prospect is because he's been dealing with his own injuries—a balky shoulder that has kept him from securely establishing himself in the Mariners’ rotation.

As for your original question, though: If the organizational goal is limited to a shorter timeframe for winning, such as a two- or three-year window, then that certainly changes the landscape and places higher importance on the proximity of a player. Those brief windows rarely exist, so I rarely view prospects through such a lens.

NF: Among many solid points made by Mark, I want to talk a bit about Walker's missed time in 2014 due to injury. How much of a concern should this be when we consider our rankings, Jeff, and are Walker's potential future shoulder issues actually a greater concern than Giolito's Tommy John surgery? Should we be conservative with our expectations for Walker until he shows us he's healthy over a larger sample?

JM: I don't have any inside information about Walker's injury, so I have to take what I see on face value. In a vacuum, yes, a shoulder injury is more of a concern than Tommy John, but in a vacuum, inflammation isn't nearly as worrisome as surgery. Walker has never been cut, whereas another injury to Giolito's elbow would put him in the dreaded "two Tommy John" group where the recovery is much more difficult.

Is a shoulder injury that forced Walker out of action for a little over two months a cause for concern? Of course. But the Mariners let Walker throw a complete game (shutout, by the way) on Tuesday, which took 109 pitches, and he came through his return to the majors okay. Seattle has a multi-million dollar asset to worry about, whereas I'm just worrying about player rankings. If the M’s aren't worried enough about his shoulder to keep him from throwing over 100 pitches in a meaningless Triple-A game, then I'm not concerned enough about his shoulder to put him below Giolito.

NF: Lightning-round question for both of you: (1) Who has the single best pitch out of the two? (2) Who has the single worst pitch (only regular offerings in consideration) out of the two? (3) Which pitcher would be the first to knock a can off a post with a secondary offering?

MA: Not only does Giolito have the best single pitch out of these two, but he has the two best pitches out of this duo! Giolito's fastball is a complete monster that sits 94 to 96 mph, reaches triple digits at times, and has excellent late life. On top of that, his curveball is one of the few in the minor leagues that can project to an elite level and is currently a plus-plus offering. Taijuan Walker can't match one elite pitch, let alone two.

Both Walker and Giolito have changeups that still require development. Given his missed season and general lack of experience, Giolito's changeup lags behind Walker's. While I’ll concede that, I would also like to note that scouts who have seen Giolito this season indicate that his changeup has shown at least plus potential. So what rates as the worst pitch in this debate right now could still be a swing-and-miss pitch when Giolito reaches the big-league level. I'll take that "worst" pitch.

It’s easier to command a cutter of any quality than it is to command a near-elite hammer breaking ball, which probably gives the edge to Walker (as far as accuracy with the secondaries). Regardless, I'm not sure I can find fault in a prospect because his breaking ball is so impressive that it’s difficult to command with pinpoint accuracy. Walker can hit a spot with that cutter, but most players still won't hit Giolito's breaking ball even if it isn't located perfectly.

JM: It's tough to argue with Mark there. From most accounts, Giolito does have two potential 8's, which is difficult for anyone to match up with, even a player like Walker who has a pair of 7's to work with (fastball and cutter). Neither features a changeup as one of his real weapons, but both have one in their arsenal. While Giolito's flashes plus potential, I find it hard to believe it's presently as far along as Walker's, who has had about 320 additional innings of minor league experience to work on his. Neither is going to hit a can with his curveball, but Walker will bust up your Dr. Pepper or your Louisville Slugger with his cutter.

If we're breaking down the arsenals, I’ll argue the merits of Walker throwing four pitches to Giolito's three. Giolito's potential 8/8 fastball/curveball combination is likely unmatched among prospects, but Walker's 7/7 fastball/cutter combo keeps the gap relatively narrow. Couple that with two additional pitches that are currently major-league average, and that's a lot for hitters to have to consider. Having four pitches versus three has to at least close part of the narrow gap between each of their two best offerings.

Here we have two young arms at very different points along their developmental arc. The Nationals are starting to allow Giolito to let loose some, and the results this year have been fun. Walker’s injuries at the start of the season have been a disappointment, as he entered the year with a legitimate shot at Rookie of the Year honors and all the attention that comes with it. I think it’s easy to knock Walker some and bump up Giolito some simply based on the fact we’ve seen one steadily building on his stuff throughout the last three months while the other has been somewhat out of sight and out of mind. I enjoyed that juxtaposition in this debate, especially when paired with the fact that the “down” arm, Walker, is major-league ready while the trendy pick, Giolito, remains a few years away from meaningful major-league innings.

We will keep the convo going in the comments section and hope you will join in with questions and critiques of your own. Who do you believe is the more promising prospect right now, Giolito or Walker? How important is proximity and probability to you? Is Giolito’s rare upside as a true potential ace enough to overcome the risk?

Check in tomorrow for our next entry in the Midseason BP Top 50 Debate Series, and of course make sure you’re here when the list drops on Monday!

Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here
Mark Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mark's other articles. You can contact Mark by clicking here

Related Content:  Prospects,  Taijuan Walker,  Lucas Giolito

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