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Could Washington Nationals kill two birds with one stone with Lucas Giolito?

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After placing Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list on Sunday, the Washington Nationals announced that they plan to call up the top pitching prospect in baseball, Lucas Giolito, to take his spot in the rotation. While any speculation about what the club plans to do with Giolito upon Strasburg's return is premature, let's outline a plan that might make some sense.

Could Lucas Giolito still be an integral part of the 2016 Nats when Stephen Strasburg returns?
Could Lucas Giolito still be an integral part of the 2016 Nats when Stephen Strasburg returns?
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday evening, the Washington Nationals announced that they would be calling up their top prospect, Lucas Giolito, to make Tuesday's start against the New York Mets.

With Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list, it seemed clear that the Nats would turn to either Giolito or Syracuse Chiefs hurler Austin Voth to take his place in the rotation for now.

Since Giolito is coming up because of an injury, the assumption is that (provided nobody else hits the disabled list) the top pitching prospect in baseball is coming up for a cup of coffee and heading back to the minors when Strasburg returns.

Should he go back to the minors when Strasburg returns, though?

OK... That question may be a bit premature. Giolito, 21, has yet to throw his first pitch in the major leagues. This time tomorrow, he'll have one start under his belt. He could be everything that the Nats are hoping for. He could lay a dud. In all honesty, neither of those scenarios would really impact his future importance to the organization at all.

One great start would be a magnificent beginning to his big league career; still, at the end of the day, it's just one start.

One A.J. Cole debut style butt-whooping would be a disappointment, but even the best starting pitchers aren't always lights out right away.

  • Clayton Kershaw had a 4.26 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP in 107 innings during his rookie season.
  • Jake Arrieta was a top prospect for the Orioles, but was an up and down guy for three years in Baltimore, posting a career 4.72 ERA and 1.47 WHIP before being traded to the Cubs.
  • Zack Greinke was once considered the top pitching prospect in baseball. After his first two seasons, he had a 4.99 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP. Since returning after missing most of his third season with a social anxiety disorder, Greinke has been one of the better pitchers in the league for a decade.

No... One bad start or even (gasp) a few months worth of struggling wouldn't wipe away his potential impact on the future of the rotation.

However long it lasts, this stint in the majors for Giolito will be about gaining experience against the best hitters on the planet. Ideally, it will also be about Giolito gaining confidence in his ability to get those hitters out as well.

While I feel it's important to outline how premature it may be to ask the question above, it's also a question that I feel it's important to examine.

There are a variety of ways that the Nats could handle the recent callup of Giolito after Strasburg returns.

Big Gio?

Before Stephen Strasburg's injury, it was becoming time to start asking some questions about how much more rope the Nats could afford to give Gio Gonzalez. Slumps happen, and Gio has been mired in a huge one for the past month.

The Nats have lost Gio Gonzalez's past seven starts (pitcher win-loss records aren't particularly relevant, but he's 0-6 personally). Over the course of those seven starts, his performance on the mound has been absolutely miserable.

IP H BB R ER HR K ERA WHIP
37.1 49 15 36 35 6 48 8.44 1.71

Let's look for some signs of hope first. Gio's strikeout production took a sharp step forward during this otherwise poor stretch. He's boasting an 11.57 K/9 inning rate over these seven starts, which is more than 2 K/9 higher than he's had in any season since his rookie year in 2009 (9.94). The other thing that's working in Gio's favor is that he's allowed an absurd .398 BABIP over these past seven starts.

While he's allowing some harder hit balls than he typically does, a .398 BABIP is completely unsustainable.

Gio encountered some severe BABIP problems last year (.341), but it still seems reasonable to assume that his current season-long BABIP (.324) is more likely to come down than continue to rise.

As a team, the Nats are allowing a .288 BABIP, which should tell us that the defense isn't nearly as bad at converting balls in play into outs in general as they have been when Gio is on the mound.

While the strikeouts and the abnormal BABIP do lend some credence to hope, the rest of the numbers are pretty hard to ignore. Gio threw consecutive quality starts on June 9 and June 14 against the White Sox and Cubs, allowing 6 runs (3 in each) in 13.1 innings.

In the five starts surrounding those two games, Gio has allowed at least five runs each time. He's allowed five runs once, six runs three times, and seven runs once. He's made it out of the sixth inning just once in those five starts.

In short, he's performed so poorly in those starts that he's not only making it nearly impossible for the Nats to win those games; He's also forcing Dusty Baker to use his already overworked bullpen to eat a lot of innings.

While Strasburg is on the disabled list, it seems fairly obvious that Gio Gonzalez will continue to take his regular turn in the rotation. Hopefully, Gio can show some progress over these next few starts. If he continues to look like a gas can, though, this could be a spot where Giolito could stick for a bit. The Nationals do hold a $12 million club option on Gio for the 2017 season (an option that would vest for 2018 with 180 innings in 2017). This is a pretty reasonable contract for a middle of the rotation starter, which Gio could (should) be if he can right the ship. Even if the Nats may feel as if they have a surplus heading into next season (Scherzer, Strasburg, Roark, Ross, Giolito, Voth?), the potential for two pretty reasonable years of Gio Gonzalez could be quite valuable on the trade market this offseason.

Limiting Joe Ross' Innings Count

Much of the discussion with Giolito coming up will probably have to do with his own innings count, which we'll examine a bit farther down. Let's not forget that Joe Ross is still in just his second big league season as well.

Ross threw a career high 152.2 innings between AA, AAA, and the majors last season.

Given how well Ross has performed thus far and that the Nationals plans seem to involve Ross being a key member of the rotation through (at least) the 2021 season, it might be ideal for the Nats to try to step off the gas a bit.

After Monday's start, Ross finds himself at 90 innings pitched through 15 starts. He would appear to be in line for another 17 starts barring an injury and/or being skipped once or twice.

This doesn't factor in any potential postseason starts* if the Nats get there. If he were to stick at his current innings per start pace and make 17 more starts, Ross would finish the year at 202 innings. That's a pretty big jump.

*If the playoffs started today, how many of you reading this would want Gio Gonzalez pitching Game 4 over Ross?

With Giolito up in the majors, there could be an opportunity for the Nats to skip their other young starter a few times in the rotation when Strasburg returns. They could move Ross to the bullpen and send a struggling reliever to the minors. They could send Ross down or invent a reason to place him on the 15 day disabled list to try and keep him fresh for the end of the year. They could try and keep Ross at about 175-180 innings pitched for the year, slowly and steadily preparing him for the stress that throwing 200 innings will put on his arm down the line.

What about Giolito's service time?

There is no magic date that determines what the Super Two cutoff is. It's determined based on the top 22% (in service time) of players with between two and three years experience. Assuming that the plan is to have Giolito compete for (and ideally win) a spot in the rotation for 2017, let's just examine Giolito's status as if the Nats will not send Giolito back down to the minors and keep him on the big league roster the rest of this year. The article I linked to above shows us that this was the cutoff for players to have Super Two status and hit arbitration a year early:

  • 2014: 2.133
  • 2013: 2.122
  • 2012: 2.140
  • 2011: 2.146
  • 2010: 2.122
  • 2009: 2.139

*Year: Years of service time.Days of service time

There are currently 97 days left in the Nationals season. Since 2009, the lowest the Super Two cutoff has been is at 122 days worth of service time. It's not guaranteed, but even if Lucas Giolito never throws another pitch in the minors, it would take a miracle for him to be arbitration eligible as a Super Two after the 2018 season.

If the plan is to send him back to the minors and game an extra year of club control down the line, it would be a different story (likely couldn't come up until early to mid May next season).

How about limiting Giolito's innings count?

The Nationals have made it clear that they've put a cap on Lucas Giolito's innings for the 2016 season. They haven't specified what the cap is other than to say that it will be somewhere between the 117 innings he threw last season and 200 (bet on it being well below 200). This is how the Nats handled the returns of Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg from Tommy John surgery (which Giolito was recovering from when the Nats drafted him in 2012).

It's worked out quite well in both of those cases, so there's no reason to expect the Nats to stray much from that plan with Giolito.

The Nationals can be conservative with Giolito and treat him exactly the same way as they did Zimmermann and Strasburg. This would likely mean that Giolito would return to the minors (perhaps Syracuse instead of Harrisburg) when Strasburg returns. He'd likely head to the minors, make seven or eight more starts, and shut it down for the year. It would be the status quo... what everyone probably expects for the Nationals to do.

Let's consider an alternative, though......

In a year in which the Nationals figure to remain in contention, why not consider moving Giolito to the bullpen upon Strasburg's return? Despite quite a bit of whinging and hand-wringing about the Nationals bullpen (myself included), the bullpen has performed admirably as a whole. Their 3.24 relief ERA ranks fifth in the majors. Their 3.30 relief FIP ranks second.

Individually, there seem to be a lot more problems:

  • One of their primary lefties (Felipe Rivero) has struggled to get lefties out.
  • Another one of their primary setup men (Blake Treinen) has consistently struggled with platoon splits his entire career.
  • Their rehabbing closer (Jonathan Papelbon) no longer seems to have the stuff to consistently miss bats.
  • Another one of their veteran middle relievers (Matt Belisle) is pretty much a clone of Papelbon without the track record of success. He doesn't miss bats and isn't particularly imposing with the fastball.
Only Shawn Kelley, Yusmiero Petit (the long man), and Oliver Perez (the LOOGY) seem like safe bets. Felipe Rivero should improve, simply because it will be hard for him to do worse than he has so far. Sammy Solis has been a nice overachiever who could continue to do so.

Moving Giolito to the bullpen when Strasburg returns would likely serve a few different purposes:
  1. It would improve the big league bullpen.
  2. It would both limit Giolito's innings and allow the parent club (the Nats) to more closely monitor him.
  3. Giolito could develop more confidence and comfort in attacking big league hitters than he would going back to the minors.
The long-term plan, obviously, is for Giolito to become a mainstay near the top of the Nats rotation. While many would think that a temporary move to the bullpen could stunt that development a bit, that isn't necessarily the case.
  • Chris Sale spent his first two seasons in the big leagues as a reliever. He has a 2.94 ERA as a starter over the past five years.
  • Johan Santana began his big league career as a swing man for the Twins, predominantly working out of the bullpen. When he moved to the rotation full time, all he did was win two Cy Young Awards in the next three seasons (he should have won all three).
  • Carlos Carrasco has been one of the breakout starters in baseball since moving back to the rotation after spending half a season as a reliever in 2014. He has a 3.01 ERA over his past 313+ innings since that return.
  • Finally, one-time top prospect Adam Wainwright burst onto the scene as a reliever in 2006 for St. Louis. He took over a late-inning role late in the year, serving as the Cardinals' closer and famously buckling Carlos Beltran's knees to end the NLCS on the way to their World Series crown. He moved back to the rotation in 2007 and has been one of the most reliable starters in baseball for most of the past decade.
Would a move to the bullpen for the remainder of 2016 guarantee that Giolito would go onto the career success that the players above (three of them top prospects) did? No. However, successful starters have begun their big league careers out of the bullpen before. There's no saying he couldn't.

In honor of last night's come from behind win, here's something that makes me happy.......