TINSMAN: Giolito leaves Nats to wonder what might have been

Brian Tinsman
July 01, 2019 - 9:50 am
Lucas Giolito pitching for the Chicago White Sox

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

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On Sunday, former Nationals’ first-round pick Lucas Giolito won his MLB-leading 11th game, lowering his ERA to 2.79 in the process.

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It’s a performance that has come to define his All-Star-caliber season. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball and has the potential to haunt the Nats for a long time.

In retrospect, they should have seen it coming.

In 2012, he was a draft-day gift to the Nats, falling to No. 16 over concerns with his pitching arm. After Tommy John surgery, he returned to action in 2013 and looked every bit the part of a future star. 

He dominated batters at every level before earning a promotion to the big leagues. He got his first MLB start in 2016 before his 22nd birthday, pitching four scoreless innings against the Mets.

For the rest of that season, Giolito bounced back and forth between D.C. and Triple-A Syracuse, never getting a prolonged look or a start on regular rest. By the time the Nats were gearing up for the playoffs, Giolito was an afterthought.

That’s not unusual for a young pitcher, no matter how talented. Manager Dusty Baker had games to win, and Giolito could contribute later. Then came the offseason.

On December 7, 2016, general manager Mike Rizzo packaged Giolito with fellow first-round arm Dane Dunning and MLB’s No. 8 pitching prospect Reynaldo Lopez -- all for outfielder Adam Eaton

The move stunk of desperation after the team failed to keep Mark Melancon or acquire Chris Sale.

Giolito and Lopez both contributed to the 2016 Nats and had multiple option years remaining. Dunning was drafted by the Nats that June, giving them no time to gauge his potential. 

Most franchises hoard young, controllable pitching, and part with it only for stellar hitters. The alternative is overpaying for arms on the open market, which can have a cascading effect on the rest of the roster, even for wealthy teams like the Nats. (Consider how Patrick Corbin’s $140 million deal changed the team’s pursuit of Bryce Harper last offseason.)

Eaton was not elite in 2016 and has not proven to be since. He has appeared in just 198 of 407 total games over the last 2.5 years, missing significant time with injuries. Injuries happen, but he has been just a 1.9 WAR player when healthy. 

Giolito has been a 3.3 WAR player just this season, higher than all Nats not named Max Scherzer. Sure, he was one of baseball’s worst pitchers last season, but young pitchers rarely take a straight line to success. This offseason, he shortened his throwing motion and started pounding hitters up in the zone with his four-seam fastball.

The results are astounding, but not surprising. Recent baseball history is rich with pitchers like Randy Johnson, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay who took until their late 20s to start Hall of Fame resumes. When Giolito toes the rubber at the All-Star game next month, he will be just 24 years old.

Looking back now, Rizzo tries to be gracious about the one who got away.

“We gave up some really outstanding talent to the Sox, and we got a player who is filling an important role for us at the top of the batting order and in the outfield,” he told the media during the Nats-White Sox series this season. “The idea someone wins or loses [a trade] doesn't register with me.”

In fairness, what else can he say?

Brian Tinsman has covered D.C. sports since 2011, both from the team marketing and skeptical fan perspectives. Tweet your criticisms @Brian_Tinsman.

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