Last week, Baseball America released its top 10 ranking of the Nationals’ best prospects. We devised our own list here of the Nationals’ farm system, before the prospect bible announced its own, as a way for avid followers to learn a little more about each of the players: What are their skills, where do they stand in their development and when could they make it to the majors? We won’t rank the 10 players here, but we obviously start in a specific order. We started Wednesday, looking at two players at time, and it continues.
RHP Lucas Giolito, 18
The Nationals knew what they were getting when they scouted, drafted and signed this promising, but injured, right-handed pitcher this year. They convinced Giolitio, who has hit 100 mph on his fastball, to set aside a scholarship offer to play baseball at UCLA in his hometown of Los Angeles and instead take a $2.925 million signing bonus to begin the long trek through the minor leagues to the majors. They hoped they could rehab the strained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, which he suffered during the spring of his senior season at Harvard-Westlake School and was the reason he fell to the Nationals with the 16th overall pick.
The worst case scenario was that the 6-foot-6, 225-pound right-hander, who still has room to grow, would undergo Tommy John surgery and his development would be set back by a year or two. And that’s exactly what happened when Giolito pitched in his first professional baseball game on Aug. 14, lasting only two innings. He underwent surgery on Aug. 31, performed by Lewis Yocum, the same doctor who operated on both Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.
There’s always a lot of risk in drafting high school pitchers, especially those with injury history, but the Nationals saw the potential. In a way, the Nationals may benefit from the surgery occurring now. In two years, they will have a 20-year-old, big-bodied pitcher with a rebuilt elbow who once hit 100 mph on the radar gun.
“He’s a big physical kid, that has a chance to leverage the baseball,” said Nationals director of player development Doug Harris. “We had a snapshot of him before the surgery. He has a loose, quick arm.”
In a farm system that has been depleted of its starting pitching depth in trades for Denard Span and Gio Gonzalez, Giolito, with only two innings of professional baseball, stands as the Nationals best pitching prospect based on his ability and high potential. He already throws three pitches well: his standout fastball, a powerful curveball and a workable change-up.
“He’s a big physical kid and he’s still growing into his body,” Harris said. “It’s just getting him on the mound and getting repetitions and allowing him to mature.”
At some point later next season, Giolito could possibly get back onto the mound in a game. For now, he continues his long road of rest, recovery and strengthening following his elbow ligament replacement surgery.
“He’s doing well,” Harris said. “He’s on track. He’s continuing the rehab process. When we get to spring training, we’ll ramp it up.”
INF Matt Skole, 23
It’s hard to be an infielder in the Nationals farm system right now, with the positions at the major league level set for several years. But Skole, who wasn’t considered among the top prospects in the system a year ago, has vaulted himself onto that list with a strong 2012 season, turning himself into a potential future major league infielder and earning the Nationals’ minor league Player of the Year award for his 2012 performance.
Skole, a 2011 fifth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, finished the season hitting .291 with 27 home runs and 104 RBI and .986 OPS in 119 games at Class A Hagerstown and Potomac. After being promoted from Hagerstown, the 6-foot-4 left-handed batter hit .314 in 18 games for Potomac. He notched 28 doubles and scored 84 runs. His 27 home runs — essentially a home run every 15.3 at-bats — led the South Atlantic League and was most among all Nationals minor leaguers. He was named the South Atlantic League Most Valuable Player.
“He put together a tremendous year this year,” Harris said. “His statistics really speak for themselves. We challenged him in many different ways, defensively and offensively.”
Skole credited his working with Nationals minor league hitting coordinator Rick Schu and coaches in further developing his power stroke. He hit 17 home runs as a freshman at Georgia Tech and 20 as a sophomore, and only 10 as a senior. Skole said earlier this year that his biggest adjustment was just feeling more comfortable.
Harris said Skole worked to quiet his approach at the plate, “less movement and simplifying the lower half.” Nationals coaches taught Skole that the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder was big and strong enough to hit the ball hard and far, and didn’t need a whole lot of extra movement to generate the ample power that came naturally from his body. At Hagerstown, where he hit all of his 27 home runs, Skole’s new approach worked. Heading into next season, which could likely begin at Potomac and move on to Class AA Harrisburg based on his performance, the Nationals want Skole to maintain his offensive approach.
But where Skole project on the field is still unclear. A rival scout who watched Skole during the Arizona Fall League, and had seen him in Potomac, noted that Skole struggled some at third base and could project more as a first baseman. The Nationals contend Skole did well at third. Skole admitted that working on his defense was his biggest goal of last season.
“Defensively, we asked a lot of him,” Harris said. “He’s very big man playing third base. Good arm and good hands.”
Skole’s time in the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a .944 OPS and was named among the league’s top prospects, was a precursor of what may come. Given Anthony Rendon’s presence on the same team and at third base, Skole was a designated hitter and saw time at first base. The Nationals liked what they saw out of Skole there and are open to seeing more out of him at first, though they aren’t locked into any position yet. Next season, Harris said, Skole will see time at both first and third in the minors.
“He’s more than capable of playing on both sides,” Harris said.
WEDNESDAY: Anthony Rendon, Brian Goodwin