MINNEAPOLIS — Lucas Giolito felt his adrenaline surge Sunday afternoon as he jogged in in from the Target Field bullpen, a pitching prospect both emblematic of the times and made for them. Tommy John surgery predominates throughout baseball; the scar on Giolito’s right elbow proves he has already survived. Fame rushes at unsuspecting prospects; he understands it innately — his father starred in “As The World Turns,” his uncle wrote “Twin Peaks” and his grandfather appeared on “Seinfeld.” Only 19, he towered over baseball’s best prospects, 6 feet 6 inches, 245 pounds and growing. He needed nothing.
And then his pitches came, and a monster from Class AAA walked into the batter’s box, and what he lacked became vividly obvious. The perfect blend of maturity and physicality cannot make up for what no pitcher at Class Low-A Hagerstown possesses. Giolito needs experience.
Giolito, the Washington Nationals’ prospect, allowed two runs and recorded two outs in the sixth inning of the Futures Game, the annual showcase for baseball’s most promising minor leaguers. He allowed a two-run homer to Cubs uber-prospect Javier Baez, who on his first-pitch curveball clobbered an opposite-field, two-run homer over the right field wall.
“I don’t see that very often,” Giolito said. “It happens. I’m not really worried about it. There’s obviously stuff I need to work on.”
Firing fastballs without his sharpest location between 94 and 96 mph and working in curves and change-ups, Giolito struck out the last hitter he faced, Class AA Twins prospect Kennys Vargas. He walked off the mound with a smirk on his face, the look of a man who knows what he needs to learn.
“He’s better than Low-A competition,” said Rangers prospect Joey Gallo, a close friend of Giolito’s. “But it’s a big difference between Low-A hitters and Double A hitters and Triple A hitters like Baez. It’s just more of an approach, a better feel for the game. I told Giolito, ‘You’re throwing 96. If he can sit on a curveball that big and drive it to right field, that’s pretty impressive.”
Center fielder Michael A. Taylor of Class AA Harrisburg is far closer to the majors than Giolito. He earned a Futures Game nod with a breakout season, and Sunday he went 1 for 4 with two strikeouts, lashing an opposite-field single to right. In Team USA’s 3-2 victory over the World, Taylor received no chances to show off his renowned defense. The best part?
“Just running out there, taking the field,” Taylor said. “Hearing the anthem. And getting a hit was nice, too.”
In the spring of 2012, Giolito developed an elbow injury. Teams shied from him, and he slid to the Nationals at 16th overall in the draft. He underwent Tommy John surgery and recovered from rehab. In his first full professional season at Hagerstown, Giolito owns a 2.47 ERA over 65 2 / 3 innings with 72 strikeouts. Baseball Prospectus rates him the 11th best overall prospect in baseball.
Picking 18th this season, the Nationals drafted heralded right-hander Erick Fedde. He underwent Tommy John surgery two days before the draft.
“It just shows, it’s sad to say, this is part of baseball now,” Giolito said. “A lot of guys are going to break, and they’re going to get fixed, and they’re going to be fine. I guess I’ve shown that on the amateur and going in minor league side, it’s nothing to be scared of. Because it happens to so many guys, anyways. Just get it out of the way early and make your way up.”
The Nationals have protected Giolito with a plan similar to the rehab programs Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann used to recover from Tommy John surgery, but tailored for him. The Nationals limited Giolito’s innings by pulling him out of the rotation from May 11 through June 3. Giolito said he expects he will throw between 100 and 110 innings this season.
“Even though I know in my mind I’m 100 percent healthy, I can do everything that everyone else can, there is a program. There’s a process,” Giolito said. “I trust that process.”
Nationals officials instructed Giolito not to throw two-seam fastballs. Giolito described the plan to throw only straight, four-seam fastballs as his preference, too. His primary challenge is commanding his fastball, a skill better developed with a four-seamer. The two-seamer is also more strenuous on the arm.
“We’re not even seeing the finished product, because he still has a chance to grow,” Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba said. “He’s the perfect prototype for a pitcher’s body, and he continues to evolve as a man.”
The Nationals do not dream so much on Taylor, a 23-year-old scouts compare to longtime major leaguer Mike Cameron, a package of power, elite defense and gobs of strikeouts. The Nationals have long thought Taylor could step into a major league center field and play above-average, if not elite, defense.
“Over a series, you’re going to see some plays that you say ‘wow,’ ” Scialabba said. “He makes plays that aren’t made by many other center fielders.”
Taylor still strikes out in bunches, but he has become an offensive force. He’s hit .323 with a .404 on-base percentage and .540 slugging percentage with 18 homers at Harrisburg, the result of progress with his approach. He recognizes pitches better, uses a softer stride and puts himself in position to swing earlier.
“I can go to the plate and not have to think about it,” Taylor said. “It just kind of happens.”