For the Washington Nationals, the 2012 MLB Draft wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. For the first time since 2006, and the second time since relocating the franchise from Montreal, the club didn’t hold a top-ten draft pick. The Nationals expected to take a relatively safe college player, like ASU shortstop Chris Marrero, to fortify their system’s thin middle infield depth. Marrero, an all-glove and no-pop shortstop, would’ve been a solid choice, but nowhere near as exciting as the trio of phenoms, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, that the team has collected over the past three summers.
Somehow though, the Nationals still managed to get their hands on the draft’s most exciting talent. Harvard-Westlake high school fireballer, Lucas Giolito, was an enigma to most analysts in the months leading up to draft day. After hitting 100 MPH in his first start of 2012, he went down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament and missed the remainder of the Spring. The most athletically gifted pitcher in a prospect crop heavy on athletically gifted pitchers, Giolito was (is) expected to be a tough sign due to his strong commitment to UCLA, one of the country’s most successful amateur programs. The MLB’s new draft system scared many teams from taking a shot on Giolito, and he ended up falling in to the Nationals’ hands at the sixteenth overall slot. With little hesitation, the club made him their first pick of 2012.
The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement implemented a new set of restrictions on the 2012 MLB Draft. Each team’s total bonus spending was capped with a predetermined value. Clubs picking earlier would be allowed to spend more on their picks in the draft’s first ten rounds than clubs picking later. The MLB also implemented a harder slotting system, where teams are compelled to abide by the commissioner’s recommendations. Those that spend over-slot must pay a luxury tax, and depending on the extent of the above-cap-spending, the team may or may not lose a pick in the following season’s draft.
At the 16th slot, the MLB recommends a $2.125 million bonus. For the Nationals, the sum is paltry compared to their 1st round spending in recent years. The franchise ranks behind only the Pirates in total draft spending since 2007, exceeding $51 million.
For Lucas Giolito, sprained elbow and all, $2.125 million just ain’t gonna cut the mustard. Premium pitching prospects like these don’t grow on trees. Just seventeen years old, Giolito already maintains consistent mid 90′s fastball velocity, and can touch 98-100 MPH when he’s loose. His slider is a big league wipeout offering. What separates this kid from other hard throwers in the pack is his polished all-around feel for the game. A pitcher through and through, he commands his heater to both sides of the plate like a veteran, firing pitches with a free-and-easy, fluid, repeatable delivery. He’s got the mental side of a mental game knocked too– at least as far as teenager uber-prospects go. Born in to an accomplished family of actors, Giolito is as relaxed as they come both on and off the mound. In front of a crowd or not, he always seems to step up to the occasion. Both his coaches and pro scouts laud his confidence and character.
Will the Nationals be able to sign Giolito? The club is certainly enamored with the young phenom. Nationals Vice President Roy Clark has compared Giolito to Roy Halladay while General Manager Mike Rizzo and Kris Kline, their director of scouting, believe the right-hander is the draft’s best prospect when healthy. However, Washington can’t exceed their $4.4 million bonus allotment for the first ten rounds without getting slapped with costly penalties.
When healthy, Giolito’s talent could warrant every bit of the Nationals $4.4 million bonus allotment and then some. However, it’s likely that the right-hander’s elbow will require reconstructive surgery at some point. Though he’s already completed a large portion of his rehab and has started throwing off flat ground, it’s unlikely that Washington will do anything that could jeopardize his future if he signs a big-money deal. The team isn’t afraid of the knife, with franchise arms like Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen and Ross Detwiler all recently having either cleaning or reconstructive procedures on one limb or another. On that side, the team has done their homework on Gioito and isn’t at all concerned about his health.
The club has already inked three of their first top-five selections, with infielder Tony Renda, their second round pick, already preparing to open his pro career with the Auburn Doubledays. Brett Mooneyham, a hard-throwing lefthander and former teammate of Mark Appel at Stanford, is also expected to agree to a contract very soon.
Giolito will be a project to sign. Though he considers his immediate future to be in pro baseball, the young pitcher still feels that UCLA is a “solid option.” Mike Rizzo admits that it will be very difficult to lock-up the young star while abiding by the CBA’s new restrictions. On the bright side though, Giolito is advised by CAA, an agency that Rizzo and the Nats are very familiar with. CAA advises Ryan Zimmerman, Drew Storen and John Lannan.
The Nationals appear to be well-prepared to make a run at Giolito. After spending over $16 million their first four picks last June, they structured their draft strategy to accomodate a big money prospect. After Giolito, their top picks were comprised of safe, bargain-basement prospects with Tony Renda and Brett Mooneyham leading the pack. Renda is a 5’8″ offensive-minded second baseman who has an unexciting tool-set but has the all-around game to grow in to a Mark Ellis-type player. Brett Mooneyham, though a Scott Boras client, won’t warrant a large chunk of their bonus allotment either, and he should be a nice left-handed bullpen option.
If they don’t sign Giolito, Washington will loose a chunk of their budget equal to the MLB’s 16th slot recommendation ($2.125 million). In that case, they would still have enough money to reel-in toolsy high school prospects Cody Poteet and Skye Bolt, two players they took flyers on in the later rounds. Both Poteet and Bolt have top-prospect potential. Each has a strong college commitment and would be very difficult to sign if the club does ink Giolito. In essence, they have a little bit of insurance here. Furthermore, if Giolito attends UCLA and turns their offer down, all is not lost. The 16th slot wouldn’t generally yield an impact-level prospect anyway, and Washington will receive a compensation pick in next year’s draft (think Tyler Beede last year).
Giolito’s situation is complicated, and it’s difficult to predict what he will decide to do. There’s a strong possibility that he will turn down Washington’s contract offer and take his chances in a future draft. However, it will be hard to outperform the 16th overall slot and a pro career with the National League’s hottest franchise. Boasting a talent-laden foundation, fortified with team-chemistry and a great clubhouse atmosphere, the Nationals have a very bright future. Giolito has the opportunity to eventually pitch alongside one of the best pitchers of his generation, Stephen Strasburg, and slot in to a rotation that also includes star-level talents Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez. Washington is a great town for a young ballplayer too. Unlike most of the nation’s cities, DC’s economy is booming and the people are anxious to see the Nationals win.