VIERA, Fla. — Say hello to Lucas Giolito, shake his hand and listen to him speak confidently about his pitching career, and it’s easy to forget you’re talking to a 19-year-old.
Here stands a 6-foot-6, 255-pound right-hander who throws a 100 mph fastball, along with an impressive offspeed arsenal, and grew up in a family full of Hollywood actors and producers who surely taught him how to carry himself with an air of maturity you’ll rarely find in a teenager.
Now for the scary part: Having fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2012, Giolito, the Nationals’ top-ranked prospect, is about to be unleashed on the rest of an unsuspecting baseball world.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” he said Tuesday morning outside the Nationals minor-league complex near Space Coast Stadium. “I’m ready to go. I’m ready to get going. It’s just great that I was able to persevere through everything. I never had a setback.”
The Nationals knew what they were getting when they drafted Giolito 16th overall in the nation two summers ago. His repertoire was as impressive as any pitcher — high school or college — in the country, but other clubs were scared off by an elbow injury and the fact he had committed to play at UCLA that fall.
Unfazed by those potential warning signs, the Nationals lured Giolito away from college with a $2.925 million signing bonus. And they were perfectly willing to wait him out after he had Tommy John surgery a few months later after his elbow acted up again during his first professional appearance.
The wait was worth it. Giolito was back pitching 10 months later and then carved up the rookie Gulf Coast League and short-season Class A New York-Penn League late last summer, posting a combined 1.96 ERA while striking out 39 batters over 36 2/3 innings.
And his arsenal is as strong as ever, if not stronger than it was pre-surgery.
“I think so,” he said. “The Tommy John process allowed me to strengthen a lot of muscles in my arm and become a stronger pitcher and a stronger player mentally, too. So I feel like I came back stronger than before, definitely.”
It didn’t hurt that Giolito bulked up over the winter as well. He said he weighed 240 pounds last season and checked in this spring at 255 pounds. Not bad for a 19-year-old who in theory still is growing into his body.
Members of the Nationals’ staff are still learning what exactly they have in Giolito. Manager Matt Williams plans to watch him throw a bullpen session Wednesday for the first time.
“I’ve got great reports, certainly, but I’ve never personally seen him throw,” Williams said. “So I look forward to that tomorrow.”
Like all pitchers who endure the long and frustrating rehab from Tommy John surgery, Giolito experienced a few nerve-wracking moments along the way. But once he made it through his first post-operation throwing session, he realized all would be well again.
“There’s a little feeling in the back of your head, like: ‘This isn’t going to feel that good,’” he said. “But aside from a few scar tissue releases here and there — which every Tommy John rehab guy goes through — it was a pretty smooth process.”
Giolito doesn’t know yet where he’ll spend this season. Low-Class A Hagerstown seems a likely starting point, but the Nationals will make that decision sometime in the next few weeks. They’ll also determine how many innings Giolito will be allowed to pitch. A late-summer shutdown, not unlike the ones Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann were forced into following their elbow surgeries, almost certainly looms for Giolito.
“Whatever they want me to do,” he said, “it’s obviously for the best.”
Assuming sustained health, there’s every reason to believe Giolito can advance through the Nationals’ farm system at a relatively quick pace. The scouting world certainly expects big things from him: Baseball America rates him the 21st-best prospect in the game, the 2nd-best teenager currently in the minors.
Giolito knows about all the projections. He’s lived under the spotlight most of his young life.
For now, this 6-foot-6, 255-pound ace-in-waiting is concerned simply about pitching a full professional season for the first time. Rest assured, whatever that leads to, he’ll be well-prepared to handle.
“I just want to become a better pitcher and throw more innings and have more experience,” he said. “As far as where I want to be, that’s not something that’s in my control, really. I can just be the best pitcher I can be and hope for the best.”