On the Nationals’ draft board the night of June 4, 2012, the name Michael Wacha sat in the middle of their top 30 prospects. Scouting director Kris Kline had twice watched the 6-foot-6 right-hander from Texas A&M pitch in person. The first came at Pepperdine – “probably the fastest college game I ever saw,” Kline said. The second came when Wacha lost a showdown against Oklahoma State stud lefty Andrew Heaney, whom the Marlins would pick ninth.
When Kline watched Wacha, he saw a big leaguer in the making. His arm angle created downward action to his high-90s fastball and devastating changeup. Wacha’s curveball was so-so and he rarely threw it. The Nationals’ area scout in Texas, Jimmy Gonzalez, had come to know Wacha and believed his makeup was first-rate. The Nationals would have been pleased to pick him.
But as their pick, No. 16 overall, approached, another name remained ahead of Wacha’s. “They were almost back-to-back on our board, or at least very close,” Kline said. “We actually had Giolito higher.”
The Nationals, like the other 18 teams who picked before the St. Louis Cardinals that night, passed on Wacha. They instead selected Lucas Giolito, a 17-year-old high school right-hander from California with a 100-mph fastball and an elbow injury. Three picks later, with the draft choice they gained as compensation for Albert Pujols leaving in free agency, the Cardinals took Wacha.
Tonight, not even 17 months after the Cardinals drafted him, Wacha will carry a 0.43 postseason ERA into his start in Game 2 of the World Series. Before you start banging your palm into your forehead, know this first: Even as Wacha has become the most compelling figure of the postseason and earned the NLCS MVP award, the Nationals have no doubts.
“If I had to make the same decision again and [General Manager Mike Rizzo] had to make the decision again,” Kline said, “we would take Lucas.”
Wacha, of course, has made a more immediate impact. Wacha may have been the most impressive pitcher in the Grapefruit League this spring. Wacha toggled between Class AAA, the St. Louis rotation the bullpen all season. In September, he caught fire. In his final regular-season start, he almost no-hit the Nationals. In his first playoff start, he almost no-hit the Pirates. In 21 postseason innings, Wacha has 22 strikeouts and has allowed 12 base runners.
Watching on television, Kline has seen a pitcher similar to the one he scouted at Texas A&M. Wacha’s fastball kisses 98 miles per hour now, a notch or two higher than in college. His curveball has improved – “I would call it average or maybe a tick above,” Kline said – but Wacha still uses mostly his fastball and changeup.
“I don’t think anybody can say they knew Wacha would be in the big leagues this fast,” Kline said. “If they did, they were lying. It’s great for the kid. It’s great for baseball.”
In Giolito, the Nationals believe a longer wait will yield a greater reward. “Lucas was going to be the first player taken in the draft if he was 100 percent healthy,” Kline said.
The Nationals knew Giolito would probably need Tommy John surgery shortly after they drafted him, but they didn’t care. The Nationals had successfully rehabbed Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and others from ligament-replacement operations, and they were confident their process would allow Giolito to fulfill his vast promise.
He has already started to. Giolitio underwent surgery late in the 2012 season and, after arduous rehab, made his minor league debut this year. Between the Gulf Coast League and rookie ball in Auburn, Giolito faced 147 batters and struck out 39 in 36 2/3 innings. He just turned 19, still three years younger than Wacha.
“If you saw him in the instructional league, you would be saying we probably made the right choice – in the end,” Kline said. “The first three pitches he threw all came out at 100.”
Those in the Nationals organization who have watched Giolito pitch speak about him as if they have found religion. Reliever Ryan Mattheus saw Giolito throw in a GCL game as he rehabbed his own injury this summer in Viera. “Big time stuff!” he wrote on Twitter. “Wow!” Kline said his fastball and curve are both above-average major league pitches. Not projected to be above-average. Right now.
Kline said Giolito’s delivery is actually similar to Wacha’s in the way he uses his height – he’s 6-foot-6, too – to make life miserable on hitters. “It’s like Lucas is handing the ball to the catcher,” Kline said.
“The stuff he throws out of that arm, and the body, the way he leverages the ball is exciting,” pitching coordinator Spin Williams said this summer.
Before Rick Schu became the Nationals’ hitting coach, he roved around the Nationals’ farm system as their hitting coordinator. One day, he was looking at data that had been collected from a pitch-tracking device from an intrasquad game in Viera. Schu noticed a 98-mph pitch from Giolito that had moved from a hitter’s belt to his shins, and it had been labeled as a four-seam fastball. Schu called coaches to ask if there had been a glitch. Nope, came the response. That was really the pitch.
Kline will watch Wacha tonight without even a twinge of regret. Regardless of how Giolito develops, this story will not be about blame. Baseball’s draft is too fickle in nature. Some picks made before No. 16 may not make it out of A ball. Time will reveal the winners and losers.
But we already know the Cardinals are a winner, which makes it hard not to wonder, what if? If Wacha wins again tonight, 18 fan bases will be wishing their team had scooped up Wacha before the Cardinals had a chance. The Nationals are not worried. They believe one season, in the not-too-distant future, 15 fan bases will watch Giolito on the October stage and think the same thing about him.