Pitcher Lucas Giolito, outfielder Steven Souza Jr. and infielder Wilmer Difo, all Nationals prospects, were each honored with a minor league award for their stellar seasons on Wednesday. A day later, Giolito and Difo were at Nationals Park to receive them in person on the field before the night game, tour the stadium and visit with team officials.
“It’s an absolute honor,” said Giolito, who was named the Nationals’ minor league pitcher of the year. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was going into this year looking to build some innings up and work on my game and give the team a chance to win and just have fun. To be able to come out with the award is really fun and really awesome.”
“I’m happy because this is the first time I’ve won this,” said Difo, who was given the Bob Boone Award, which recognizes professionalism and passion. “It was a big thing with my mentality, to push hard this season to win this award. And I did it.”
Souza, already on the major league active roster as a September call-up, was named the Nationals’ minor league player of the year.
Giolito and Difo each took a distinctly different path to this point. Giolito, the Nationals’ top overall prospect and 16th overall pick in the 2012 draft, was in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery — a year where pitchers iron out command, build strength and improve secondary pitches. The starter didn’t just move further away from his operation, his outstanding season vaulted him into a top-15 prospect in baseball.
“I learned first and foremost to be part of a professional team during an entire season,” Giolito said. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever done before in baseball. It’s a long grind but it’s really fun. You develop relationships with your teammates. You win games, have fun. It’s definitely a fun ride.”
Giolito, 20, went 10-2 with a 2.20 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 98 innings at Class A Hagerstown. The Nationals limited Giolito’s innings as part of their protocol for pitchers recovering from surgery. Giolito is unsure if he will have any restrictions next season but the hard-throwing right-hander was pleased with how his body and arm held up in his longest professional season.
“I kind of learned you don’t have to go out there and try to blow it out as hard as you can every single time,” he said. “That’s the difference. In a full season, you find a comfort zone of where you like to pitch at and then you’re able to raise the velo up when you need it and also mix in your offspeed pitches.”
Giolito has been in Viera for instructional league. Even though he can’t pitch, he still plays catch to “keep the arm loose,” works out, practices fundamentals and hopes to more athleticism to his 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame. His offseason goal is to add more lean muscle to his body. His off-speed pitches improved this season and remain a goal for next year. He focus heavily on using his change-up late in the season and was happy with the results.
“The command of the curveball has increased significantly,” he said. “Just the overall feel and command of my change-up has gotten a lot better. I feel that I can throw the change-up and curveball in most any count comfortably at this point, which is something I couldn’t say back when I was 16 or 17.”
Difo, 22, played alongside Giolito at Hagerstown, which fell in the finals of the South Atlantic League. Giolito considers Difo one of his best friends from the Dominican Republic. Difo said it was fun playing defense behind Giolito because he didn’t tire quickly since the pitcher breezed so easily through opposing lineups.
“We were barely active,” Difo said. “He’s a good pitcher who didn’t wear out the defense. A lot of soft groundballs and flyballs.”
Difo hit .315/.360/.470 with 65 strikeouts and 52 extra-base hits, including 17 homers, in his breakout season. Difo stole 49 bases in 58 attempts in his first full season in the United States. Nationals officials praised his demeanor and consider him one of their most physically gifted athletes despite his 5-foot-10 frame.
Difo split his time between second base and shortstop at Hagerstown but admitted he is a bit more comfortable at shortstop. He is a natural right-handed hitter who became a switch-hitter.With few top middle infield prospects in the Nationals’ system, Difo is rapidly rising towards the top. Although he has yet to reach Class High-A, Difo may be placed on the 40-man roster this winter.
“I thank God for keeping me healthy the entire season and playing hard,” he said. “And, really, on top of that, a good team to be on. A united team.”