Rather than make the 22-mile trip to Tempe for a relief appearance against the Los Angeles Angels, Giolito is assigned to start for Chicago’s Double-A Birmingham club on a back field at the team’s Camelback Ranch complex. Roughly 30 people watch from the metal bleachers behind home plate as he goes into his windup for the first time beneath a merciless, searing sun.
It is not an outing to remember. Giolito allows two home runs and a double to the first three batters for Seattle’s Double-A Arkansas affiliate, and things don’t improve much over the next few innings. His 93-94 mph fastball velocity is serviceable, but he has trouble commanding the pitch and routinely falls behind hitters. And for each breaking ball that bends with breathtaking authority over the heart of the plate, he squeezes two or three that bounce in the dirt.
Several talent evaluators in attendance take notes. An American League scout observes that Giolito needs to add more deception to his delivery. And another scout, who concedes that spring training is a “terrible time” to judge players, says the outing isn’t unlike what Giolito has displayed throughout the spring.
“Even when he’s getting outs and navigating through B-level lineups, he’s having to trick hitters and pitch backwards,” the scout said. “He looks more like the crafty right-handed veteran than the young guy with the tools we’ve all heard about — the big fastball and big breaking ball. I haven’t seen much of that. It’s been very vanilla.”
The White Sox want Giolito to space out his 75 or so allotted pitches, so a couple of times he walks off the mound with runners on base and the inning in a state of suspended animation. After the Arkansas club scores on a single, a stolen base, a wild pitch, another single and a walk in the fourth inning, he finally calls it a day.
In the big picture, one character-building setback in a hermetically sealed environment is meaningless. Giolito is 22 years old, and he has time to find a delivery that feels comfortable for him.
But he’s also not far removed from being proclaimed the best pitching prospect in the game, so expectations can be stifling.
“I’m trying to be fair to the kid,” an American League personnel man said. “He’s gotten a lot of ‘phenom’ attention and right now he’s going through a human period. He looks like a player who’s thinking and feeling his way through the game rather than letting his natural ability play.”
GIOLITO WAS HANGING out in Southern California in early December watching TV with his good friend, Atlanta Braves pitching prospect Max Fried, when he learned the course of his professional life was about to change.
“You should probably pull out your phone and look at Twitter,” Fried told him.
Within moments, the news was everywhere. The Washington Nationals, intent on making an impact move after falling short in their pursuit of Chris Sale, switched to Plan B and sent Giolito and fellow pitching prospects Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning to Chicago for Adam Eaton, a 28-year-old outfielder with a rising profile. A defensive dominator in right field, Eaton goes by the nickname “Spanky,” and Washington general manager Mike Rizzo has expressed admiration for his grittiness.
After receiving confirmation calls from the Nationals and White Sox, Giolito warmed to the idea of a fresh start. But the deal was also a lesson in the fleeting nature of prospect adulation.
“A couple of years ago, when I was doing well in the low minors and people were saying a lot of good stuff about me, it was easy to think, ‘I’ll just make it up to big leagues, stay there and dominate and there won’t be any problems,'” Giolito said. “But the reality of the situation is, this is a very hard thing to do. As a young player, there’s a lot to learn. I think it’s good to go through certain levels of adversity to kind of harden you, toughen you up and prepare you for what hopefully is a very long career.”
Reaction to the trade ranged from befuddlement to shock. Giolito had received early attention for his family’s show business pedigree and appeared to have all the makings of a future All-Star. In February 2016, ESPN’s Keith Law rated Giolito as his No. 3 prospect in baseball behind Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager and Minnesota outfielder Byron Buxton. “The Nationals have one ace right now in Max Scherzer, but within a few years, they’ll have a second one joining him,” Law wrote.
In July, reports had surfaced that the Nationals might be willing to trade Giolito to the New York Yankees straight up for reliever Andrew Miller. Then four months later, they turned around and included him in a 3-for-1 for Eaton, a good-but-not-great player whose value was enhanced by an affordable long-term contract.
Team officials and media members looking to make sense of the situation were left to fill in the blanks: Did Rizzo and the Nationals overreact to their failed trade pursuit of Sale and overpay for Eaton? Did they see something in Giolito’s 21⅓-inning cameo in Washington last summer to suggest he was expendable? ESPN.com asked several front-office people for their thoughts on Giolito, and it wasn’t hard to find skeptics.
“I think he will be a bullpen guy down the line, kind of like a Jon Rauch or Luke Hochevar,” a National League executive said. “He got hyped up a lot and Washington found out later. Usually, the drafting team is the last to know.”
“I’ve heard a lot of mixed stuff over the years,” an American League scout said. “Is it a repeatable delivery and arm action? There’s some question there. I think his stuff has been overplayed as front-line, and I’m not quite sure that’s consistently the case.”
Some of the critiques seem harsh given that Giolito is so early in his learning curve. Giolito struck out 397 batters in 369 minor league innings even as the Nationals pushed him aggressively through their system. He had to deal with the trauma of a Tommy John surgery at age 18. And at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, he’s working through some mechanical issues that are exacerbated by all those moving parts.
“As a 22-year-old who’s already missed a year with Tommy John, Lucas Giolito deserves a chance to grow and evolve,” an American League front-office man said. “He really hasn’t had enough innings to show us what he’s going to be.
“Maybe the phenom ceiling won’t develop the way people thought, but that doesn’t mean he’s not in a position to have a very long and productive major league career. Unfortunately, it never happens on the team’s timeline or the fans’ timeline. It’s always on the player’s timeline. Sometimes those things don’t match up.”
SHORTLY BEFORE THE White Sox assigned Giolito to their Triple-A camp this week, he warmed up with several other pitchers in left field while Don Cooper looked on from a golf cart. Cooper, Chicago’s pitching coach since 2002, is a blunt, plain-spoken New Yorker with a world of knowledge and an affinity for tough love. When he sees Giolito’s progression, a piece of him flashes back to Jon Garland, another 6-6 righty who logged a 6.46 ERA in his debut with the White Sox at age 20. Garland, another high draft pick, never developed into a superstar, but he did win 136 games and make an All-Star team.
“Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson didn’t grab the brass ring the first time around the merry-go-round,” Cooper said. “When Jon Garland was coming up, much was expected of him and he wasn’t ready to give it at that time. Some nights he took his lumps. Some nights he gave lumps. But he was tough enough mentally to realize that when he took his lumps, he didn’t suck. I don’t want to get corny, but it’s kind of like life. A lot of negative stuff comes your way, and you’ve gotta keep making steps forward.”
As his rapport with Giolito evolves, Cooper dabbles in what he calls “alterations” rather than full-fledged changes. From watching video, Cooper noticed that Giolito was lifting his lead arm too high in his delivery and it was hindering his ability to get out front with his pitches. The White Sox also shifted Giolito from the third-base side of the rubber to the middle to enhance his ability to throw the ball down and away to righty hitters.
During Giolito’s time in Washington, the Nationals made some changes in the front of his delivery, and it produced an internal tug-of-war between doing what comes naturally and what might be best for his long-term success. Giolito’s mechanics remain a work in progress.
“He’s very upright and doesn’t get into his lower half,” one scout said. “He comes straight up with knee, and his lead leg kind of swings like a gate. It opens up his front side early, and hitters can see him so long, it’s almost like he’s throwing out of a movie screen.
“He has less extension, and it prevents him from reaching out front and driving his hand and the baseball to a specific spot in the strike zone,” the scout continued. “It’s like he’s throwing at the strike zone rather than to a specific spot. And his reach with his front side is more like a fall and a jarring stomp that makes the release point float around a little bit.”
By all accounts, Giolito is committed and mature enough to take this type of constructive criticism and learn from it. He recounts a watershed moment after the 2016 season, when Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux brought him in for a pep talk and a history lesson. Among other things, Giolito filed away the revelation that Maddux’s brother, Greg, and Scherzer, Washington’s best pitcher, both encountered some rough patches early in their careers.
“I was kind of down on myself about how unsuccessful I was last year in the big leagues, and Mike sat me down and we talked about how everyone is gonna struggle,” Giolito said. “There are very few players who get drafted and get to the big leagues and have a ton of success. We looked up Max’s stats when he first came up in the league, and his brother’s stats. They’re household names, but everyone has to learn something.”
In solitary side sessions and games, Lucas Giolito will continue to apply those lessons to his own professional journey.
Can he regain the prospect glow that seemed so luminous only a year or two ago?
No matter the venue, the baseball world will be watching.