Lucas Giolito might never throw a pitch for the Washington Nationals. He might decide to hang out at UCLA for a few years and see if his draft stock rises. Or the elbow strain that cost him his final high school season might be a harbinger of even worse horrors. You can come up with all kinds of reasons why he might never wear the curly W.
But that doesn't have to stop you from liking — even loving — that the Nationals took him with the 16th pick Monday night. After all, the very idea of drafting a talent such as Giolito, a kid who might have gone No. 1 if it hadn't been for injury concerns, is exciting. Just picture him (and his 100 mph heater) four years from now in a rotation with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Think the Nats might be able to do a little damage with that foursome?
Obviously, there's risk involved. Risk that Giolito won't sign. Risk that his arm won't hold up. Risk that he won't develop as projected. But there's always risk involved. On just about any other level, though, the pick makes perfect sense.
As much as anything, it shows that Mike Rizzo, the Nationals' feisty general manager, gets it. Let's face it, the Nats are still relatively new in town. They don't have a longstanding fan base, and they're competing in a crowded sports marketplace, one dominated by the Redskins. Until they become established in Washington, it's vitally important that they have identifiable stars, players who can sell tickets on their own merits, regardless of how well the team is doing.
Strasburg is one such player. When he pitches, he can fill Nationals Park. Bryce Harper is rapidly becoming that kind of player, too — a guy who, by himself, is worth the price of admission. Gonzalez, if he can keep pitching the way he has, also might fall into that category eventually. And, of course, we're not just talking about box-office draws; we're talking about appointment television, players who can boost TV ratings. You can never have enough of those.
Anyway, Giolito, with his knee-buckling stuff, might have that kind of ability, too, might help the Nats not just win on the field but also battle the more established D.C. franchises for their slice of the pie. And that's huge, because if the Nats are to be successful long term, they have to make Washington a desirable place to play — a place you can win, sure, but also a place you can be noticed, nationally and locally. Otherwise, they're going to have a hard time hanging onto their own free agents or signing anybody else's.
Isn't that a gnawing fear in the minds of most Nationals fans — that when players such as Strasburg and Harper get their freedom, they'll bolt for greener pastures (e.g. bigger markets and/or towns where baseball ranks higher in the pecking order)? Rizzo has to work quickly if he doesn't want that to be an issue when Stephen and Bryce's contracts are up. Thus, his willingness to roll the dice with Giolito after 15 other clubs passed on him. Lucas could be another Strasburg.
Which also is why the pick makes sense. What if Stephen does walk in 2017, when he can become a free agent? Well, five years from now, Giolito could conceivably be the Nats' Replacement Strasburg - a pitcher whose starts are major events, dates you circle on your calendar. Granted, I'm gazing far into the future (and hardly through the Hubble Telescope), but it's certainly a possible scenario.
At any rate, you have to appreciate Rizzo's fearless approach to the draft. The easiest thing to do is to make the safe pick; Mike, though, seems to have an appetite for the calculated gamble. A year ago, you may recall, he drafted third baseman Anthony Rendon with the sixth selection, even though Rendon was coming off an injury-plagued college season ... and despite the fact the Nationals already had Ryan Zimmerman at the position. Rendon, like Giolito, simply had too much upside.
Another way to look at it is that Rizzo feels the Nationals are far enough along organizationally to take a chance on a couple of players who might be described as Damaged Goods. When your pitching staff is leading the majors in earned-run average (3.01 going into Wednesday night), you can afford to be a little bold. But make no mistake: By drafting Giolito in the first round, Rizzo was, in effect, telling the baseball world, "We're not just trying to be good here. We're trying to be great."
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