Instead of being taken 16th overall by the Washington Nationals in the June draft, top prep right-hander Lucas Giolito may have been the No. 1 overall selection had he not sprained his elbow early in the spring.
With his 6’6” frame, a fastball that flirted with triple digits and a knee-buckling curveball, Giolito has the makings of a future front-line starter. After sitting out a majority of the current season in order to rest and rehab his elbow sprain, the right-hander returned to the mound on August 14 for the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate.
But in his second appearance, Giolito re-injured his elbow before recording an out and is slated to undergo Tommy John surgery on August 30.
While once considered a possible career-ending procedure, Tommy John surgery has become a lifeline for pitchers with injured elbows. I remember when St. Louis Cardinals’ right-hander Matt Morris underwent the procedure in 1999, only to come back stronger in 2001 when he was named a National League All-Star and finished third in the Cy Young voting.
Morris was the first such success story that I remember.
Currently, the Washington Nationals' immensely talented starting rotation is comprised of two high- profile right-handers who have excelled since recovering from Tommy John surgery: Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.
More importantly, the organization has developed a procedure for how to handle high-upside, once-injured pitchers responsibly, by managing their workload in the first full, post-surgery season.
In 2011, Zimmerman’s first full season after having his elbow surgically reconstructed, the Nationals capped the right-hander’s workload at 161.1 innings after he logged 31 innings in a late-season return to the mound in 2010.
Similarly, after 68 dominant innings as a rookie in 2010, Stephen Strasburg’s historic rookie campaign ended prematurely when an elbow injury prompted season-ending Tommy John surgery. And like Zimmermann, the right-hander returned late in the 2011 season and has been one of baseball’s top starting pitchers in 2012.
Despite the likelihood that Strasburg and the Nationals will reach the postseason, the organization is adamant that their prized ace will not exceed 180 innings pitched this season.
It’s an admirable and selfless decision based on the team’s long-term outlook and overall potential, but there’s obviously a strong case to be made against limiting the team’s top starter (and arguably the top pitcher in the National League this season).
Therefore, given the fact that Giolito is only 18 years old, the Nationals will be even more cautious and patient with his recovery. Unlike Strasburg and Zimmermann, however, his injury occurred before his career really began. So even though it will significantly delay the start of his career, the Nationals have the opportunity to be extra protective of the young right-hander.
If anything, both Strasburg and Zimmermann have demonstrated the benefits of the Nationals’ conservative approach to returning from reconstructive elbow surgery. The highly impressive duo have emerged as two of the premier young starters in the game, with respective arsenals that are arguably even sharper and crisper than they were pre-surgery.
I have no doubt that Giolito will return just as strong—if not stronger—than before. And although it’s doubtful that he’ll pitch in a game before 2014—I think a 2016 big league debut is more realistic—both the Nationals and their fans will rewarded for continued patience.