Standing near the fence on the east edge of Memorial Park, Lucas Giolito looks the part of a Major League Baseball player. His 6-foot-5 frame is imposing, even when it isn’t positioned atop a pitcher’s mound. His bold red Washington Nationals cap matches the color of his long-sleeve team warm-up shirt. His dark beard blankets much of his face.
But long before Giolito was a top prospect on the arduous path to recovery from an elbow injury, he was just another local kid.
“I’ve lived in Santa Monica since I was 5,” he said. “It’s where I come home every offseason.”
This offseason, though, has had a different pulse than the others in Giolito’s budding baseball career. Having played in the minor leagues over parts of the last four years, the locally bred right-hander reports to Nationals spring training camp this month with realistic hopes of making his MLB debut before long.
“It’s getting closer and closer,” he said. “It’s like you can almost taste it.”
Giolito has reason to believe his moment will come soon. The talented 21-year-old is currently listed as the No. 1 pitcher on the MLB list of the top 100 prospects, and he’s No. 3 overall behind infielder Corey Seager and outfielder Byron Buxton.
He’s also been publicly supported by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who has seemingly indicated that Giolito could work his way into the team’s rotation this year.
“We are going to be caretaker [of] his workload and his innings,” Rizzo told MLB.com in December. “We expect big things from Lucas Giolito – not only in 2016, but down the road.”
Expectations don’t seem to faze Giolito, the son of Rick Giolito and Lindsay Frost, who began playing baseball at a young age. He developed his skills in the Santa Monica Little League, where his father has served as a coach.
Giolito attended Lincoln Middle School but left the local district for Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, where scouts fawned over his pitching power. After showcasing triple-digit speed, he quickly became one of the region’s top baseball prospects.
Then came the elbow trouble. The UCLA commit was diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament during his senior season at Harvard-Westlake, an injury that jeopardized his draft status. He was taken 16th overall by Washington in 2012.
And since undergoing Tommy John surgery later that year, Giolito has been on the rebound. He said the rehabilitation process has been physically and mentally demanding.
“It’s been a long road,” he said.
Whatever success Giolito finds in the future will be stacked on a foundation of promising work in the minors. In 2014 he went 10-2 with the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Nationals, recording 110 strikeouts and a 2.20 earned-run average over 20 games. Last year he struck out 131 batters and posted a 3.15 ERA in 117 innings, earning a stint with the Class AA Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators that was highlighted by a one-hit, 11-strikeout performance in mid-August.
Now, with Washington’s season opener less than two months away, Giolito is out to prove that he’s ready for the limelight.
“It’s just a little bit more hard work,” he said. “I’ve got to keep playing well, and I hopefully I get my chance soon.”