This was the year the Washington Nationals would remain on the fringes of Major League Baseball’s draft. It would be a night only a hardcore draftnik could love, not for the casual fan to think much about. They would call a name that makes you shrug and ask what time’s first pitch tomorrow.
And then their turn came to pick Monday night. They called a name — Lucas Giolito, a 17-year-old right-handed pitcher from California with a Hollywood family, a 100-mph heater and a dinged elbow — that makes you widen your eyes and hang up more hopes.
The Nationals, even picking later in the first round than they ever had since baseball returned to Washington, found a way to steal the spotlight. Last fall, Nationals scouting director Kris Kline was asked for a few players he considered the favorite to go first overall, assuming the Nationals would never get a whiff of any of them. The first name he said was “Giolito.”
The Nationals had the chance to pick Giolito because something changed. This high school season at Harvard-Westlake High in Studio City, Calif., Giolito strained a ligament in his elbow. The health scare, combined with a high asking price, moved Giolito down draft boards. The Nationals reviewed his medical reports, researched his expectations to sign and decided they could not pass up perhaps the most talented player in the draft.
“We just felt the reward outweighed the risk,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We did our homework and our due diligence on his health and his makeup. We decided this is the type of player, the type of stuff and the type of ceiling we want here in the Nationals’ organization.”
Giolito stands 6 feet 6, 220 pounds, a dream build for a pitcher. He has thrown 100 mph before, and he owns a power curveball that is “probably as good as his fastball,” Rizzo said, that breaks 12-to-6 and zips at 82 to 86 mph. He also has a usable change-up, a sign, Rizzo said, that he is a pitcher, not just a kid who throws hard.
“When he’s 100 percent, he goes top 3 in this draft,” Kline said. “So it’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Nationals Vice President Roy Clark compared Giolito to Philadelphia Phillies ace and Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. “So,” Clark said, “we’d take that.”
By drafting Giolito, the Nationals took a player considered at least at some point to be the potential first overall pick for the fourth straight year. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are obvious, and Anthony Rendon could have been if not for his shoulder injury.
If the Nationals stick to the recommended slot signing bonus, they will spend $2.125 million to sign Giolito — but it will almost certainly take more. Giolito’s price will eat into their draft spending cap, which was mandated by restrictive punishments in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Teams will face steep, prohibitive fines if they exceed their total allotment, which for the Nationals is $4.4 million.
Giolito is “advised” by CAA, the same high-profile agency that represents third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, closer Drew Storen and left-hander John Lannan. Rizzo said he wants to sign Giolito “as soon as possible.”
“With the new rules, it’s a different ballgame,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to try to sell him on our place in Washington.”
The Nationals could pick unheralded players in coming rounds — their next pick is 80th overall, in the second round — to free up funds that could be dedicated to Giolito. But the Nationals believe drafting Giolito will not affect their approach to their picks in rounds two through 10.
“I don’t believe it does,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to go after the best player available. We have a strategy and a plan. We’ve done our work. We feel comfortable with the plan that we have.”
The Nationals expressed no concerns about Giolitio’s elbow. Kline watched Giolito pitch at a showcase this year, and he was throwing 93 to 97 mph. “You could tell he wasn’t himself. Something wasn’t quite right,” Kline said.
The Nationals spoke with doctors at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles, where both Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann underwent Tommy John surgery. The familiarity with the doctors made the Nationals comfortable with Giolito’s health. Giolito is currently throwing long toss and playing catch on flat ground.
“The elbow is good,” Rizzo said. “We feel confident and he feels good about it. We feel comfortable that we know where he is physically. That was a big part of the reason that we took the player when we did.”
If Giolito becomes a star, it will not be new to his family. His father, Rick Giolito, is an actor who had turns on “As The World Turns” and “Who’s The Boss” and is a producer. His mother, Lindsay Frost, has appeared in a handful of movies and TV shows, including “Lost,” “Without A Trace” and “Boston Legal.” His uncle, Mark Frost, co-created “Twin Peaks.”
The Nationals did not consider any of that. They saw a pitcher who could someday fit into their starting five, and a pitcher that could give them another elite talent, no matter where they picked in the draft.
“A top of the rotation guy you can get at 16?” Clark said. “It’s a no-brainer for us.”