Our penultimate prospect is righthanded pitcher Lucas Giolito. Giolito’s promise is undeniable, but as is his risk, which our votes reflected. One voter placed him as the top prospect in the system , but the others placed him third, fourth, and sixth. As you’ll see, his prospect status is understandably contentious.
Coming out of high school, Giolito was considered by many to be the best available prospect in the 2012 draft, and some believed he had a chance to become the first high school righty taken first overall ever. But in March 2012, only three months before the draft, Giolito sprained his UCL, the ligament replaced in Tommy John surgery. The injury was deemed not severe enough to warrant surgery, but Giolito did not pitch for the rest of the high school season. Understandably, his draft stock dropped, and many expected him to attend UCLA instead of signing with whatever team drafted him. His decreased value, combined with a decrease in his signability, made Giolito slide all the way to 16th overall, where the Nationals snapped him up. However, the Nationals faced an uphill battle to sign him, as the new draft slotting system meant the Nationals would be punished harshly for spending more than what MLB recommended for their draft picks. The assigned value for the 16th overall pick was $2.125 million, which would likely not be enough, so the Nationals picked conservatively for the rest of the draft, drafting college players who would sign for under-slot bonuses. Their strategy worked and the Nationals were able to sign Giolito for $2.925 million right before the deadline, only exceeding their draft pool by $100,000, which incurred nothing more than a small fine.
The Nationals observed Giolito’s rehab program once he signed, and felt comfortable enough with his recovery that they put him back in live game action in the Gulf Coast rookie league on August 14th. After two innings, however, Giolito re-injured his elbow, and it was determined that he would need Tommy John surgery to replace his torn UCL. Giolito underwent the surgery on August 31st and is expected to make a full recovery, but that recovery may cost him all of the 2013 season. The Nationals have significant experience with top prospects undergoing Tommy John, such as Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, and as evidenced by the Strasburg shutdown, they will take care of an injured pitcher to the best of their ability.
Verdict: Giolito was arguably the best high school righthander ever before his injury, and most pitchers who come back from Tommy John retain all of their earlier skills, if they are not improved. It is a near-certainty that Giolito will return to form for 2014, which is why ESPN’s Keith Law (Insider only link) said “If he comes back fully healthy… he’ll move up into the top 20 in 2014, and perhaps in the high end of that group.” I put him #1 on my list because I believe in the Nationals’ ability to return him to health, but I understand those who have qualms about anyone recovering from major surgery. But if he is indeed back to 100% in 2014 and makes it through the minors, it’s not an overstatement to say he could be one of the best pitchers in the game one day.