The Situation: Nationals co-ace Stephen Strasburg is suffering from recurring back and rib problems. Washington has sputtered, bringing the Mets back into the National League East race, right as New York comes to town for a three-game set. Enter Lucas Giolito, the best right-handed pitching prospect baseball has seen since, well, Stephen Strasburg.
Background: The son of actress Lindsay Frost and video game producer Rick Giolito, Lucas Giolito was a serious threat to become the first high right-handed high school pitcher to be drafted first overall before suffering a sprained UCL in his elbow in the spring before the 2012 MLB Draft. With the spectre of Tommy John surgery looming, Giolito dropped to the Nationals at 16th-overall, who signed him away from a UCLA commitment for an above-slot $2.925 million bonus. After one start in the Gulf Coast League in August 2012, Giolito underwent Tommy John surgery. Despite that, BP ranked him as the 70th-best prospect in baseball entering 2013. After a successful return stint in the GCL and New York-Penn League in late-2013, we bumped that up to 13th. He then tore through full-season A-ball, torching the Low-A South Atlantic League in 2014 to the tune of a 2.20 ERA and over ten strikeouts per nine innings before dazzling the High-A Carolina League in 2015 with a 2.71 ERA while striking out over eleven per nine. Giolito’s results have been more mixed since arriving at the Double-A level late in 2015, but he remains the game’s top pitching prospect. He ranked as BP’s sixth-best prospect entering 2015 and third-best prospect entering 2016.
Scouting: As Jeffrey Paternostro noted in a recent piece, in the four seasons we’ve been posting Eyewitness Reports from the prospect team, exactly five live reports have been filed at an 80 OFP, and all five were on Lucas Giolito. This accurately reflects his upside, and with the midseason recall of a tall righty with a prototypical pitching frame, clean mechanics, and an array of potentially dominant pitches, it’s hard not to be reminded of the arrival of aces like Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard.
Pitching from a high-three-quarters arm slot, Giolito will mix in both a four-seam and two-seam fastball. His velocity has recently sat anywhere from 91 to 97, and he’s topped out as high as 98 to 100 in the past. As impressive as those velocity figures are on their own, the fastball plays better than the raw velocity because of incredible downward plane that’s noted by nearly everyone who has seen him. When needed, Giolito will cut his four-seamer and run his two-seamer; altogether, the fastball is far from a lifeless pitch showing just one look, which will serve him well at the major league level. His curveball has the single highest ceiling of any pitch thrown by a current pitching prospect—all five of those Eyewitness Reports referenced above graded it as a future 80 pitch, and I concur in that upside judgment. It’s got the potential to be the type of beautiful and dominating out-pitch that gives hitters quite a lot of trouble, but it was less consistent than that in recent viewings by Craig Goldstein and Adam McInturff. The changeup is a work-in-progress, but already flashes as a passable major-league third offering. He’ll need to rely on it more to get major-league hitters out multiple times through the order.
It’s not totally roses, twin pitches potentially peaking at an 80 grade, and comps to aces, though. Giolito’s command has always been a bit worse than you would hope for given his stuff and overall polish. Shaky command is the most common negative on a top pitching prospect and can definitely be overcome—for example, Syndergaard’s command concerns were more significant than Giolito’s, and have completely dissipated in the majors. But if there’s a skill-related factor that limits Giolito from reaching his top-of-the-rotation upside, command is probably going to be it. After reports emerged early this year that Giolito didn’t look right, sitting towards the lower band of his velocity range with diminished effectiveness, ESPN’s Keith Law noted that the Nationals had made some mechanical changes that have since been reversed. Between that and the managerial hire of Dusty Baker, there’s an easy joke to be made about the Nationals screwing up a sure thing—whither Mark Prior—though Baker’s days as an accused young arm shredder are long since in the past.
Since joining the Nationals’ system, Giolito’s workload has been handled with extreme care. He was limited to 98 innings in 2014 between skipped starts, low pitch counts, and a healthy shutdown in August. In 2015, Washington held a healthy Giolito back in extended spring training until May, and while he pitched on a regular schedule with loosened pitch counts, he only totaled 117 innings on the season. The Nationals are strong believers in innings limits, famously shutting a healthy Strasburg down in 2012 on the doorstep of the playoffs. It’s hard to see Giolito going much over 150 innings this year—he’s already thrown 71 in the minors—so even if he performs to his potential immediately, he may end up in the bullpen or inactive later in the season, playoff hunt or not. And despite his prototypical build and delivery, there’s always going to be a durability red flag on a Tommy John survivor who hasn’t approximated a major-league starting workload over the course of a full season yet.
Immediate Future: Despite their recent woes, the Nationals have picked about as good a spot for Giolito’s debut as they’re likely to get: A home start against a depleted and badly struggling Mets lineup that keeps making Julio Teheran look like the second coming of Pedro Martinez. Giolito could just be making a spot start for Strasburg, whose timetable for return is currently up in the air. But there is potential that Strasburg misses significant time, and the Nationals could alternatively open a full-time rotation opportunity by dispensing with a badly struggling Gio Gonzalez. Between Corey Seager’s existence and Giolito’s likely innings limit, Giolito won’t contend for Rookie of the Year honors, but in an ideal outcome he could provide the same jolt and level of performance to the Nationals that Syndergaard brought to the Mets last year. And don’t rule out the potential for Giolito to become an impact bullpen arm down the stretch if the Nationals choose to go in that direction in capping his innings, a la Joba Chamberlain in 2007. —Jarrett Seidler
Fantasy Take: Some exciting arms have made their major-league debuts this year: Jameson Taillon (against the Mets), Julio Urias (against the Mets), Blake Snell, etc. None of these guys, however, have the fantasy potential that Lucas Giolito (who will start against the Mets) possesses. He’s a potential monster in all relevant pitching categories, offering a legitimate ace profile with 200-plus strikeouts on the regular. Hell, our own Bret Sayre opined that he could be the next pitcher drafted above Clayton Kershaw in dynasty leagues. That’s how good he is. And before people begin bellyaching about his seemingly mediocre 3.17 ERA, it should be noted that he owns a 2.41 ERA over his last 52.1 innings, in which he’s struck out 55 batters. The control has been a bit shaky, I guess, but it’s difficult to be too picky when breaking down a 21-year-old’s statistical record.
So, yes, Lucas Giolito is the best pitching prospect in all of baseball. Does that reflect his immediate fantasy value? Probably not, mostly due to the existence of Dusty Baker (which has led to Trea Turner’s languishing in Triple-A) and the fact that Stephen Strasburg shouldn’t be on the disabled list for too much longer. One could, of course, contend that Gio Gonzalez has nearly pitched himself out of a rotation spot—he has a 6.79 ERA in his last 10 starts—and Giolito could grab his spot with a strong debut. That’s conceivable.
This will be a difficult dilemma for fantasy owners. Due to his gargantuan upside and the small chance that he could force his way into the rotation, a la Michael Fulmer in Detroit, he’ll require a FAAB bid north of $25 in mixed leagues. He could easily get sent down to Triple-A after a start or two, though, which does seem to be the more likely scenario for the right-hander. Plus, the organization will likely continue to be very careful with his workload in the second half of the season. In that way, fantasy owners could just throw away a huge chunk of FAAB with very little to show for it.
For that reason, I’d probably avoid the massive bid that Giolito will require. But if you’re someone who can’t help but second guess yourself and wonder “what could have been” if Giolito carves up the National League in July and August, I can completely understand taking the plunge and overpaying for a premium piece. If you’re in a non-FAAB league and he’s just sitting on the waiver wire, though, you’re probably an idiot if you have the roster space and don’t grab him. —J.P. Breen
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