Lucas Giolito might be the prospect world's most exciting enigma entering the 2014 season.
The 19-year-old right-hander was selected 16th overall by the Nationals in the 2012 Draft despite missing his senior year with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament. He underwent Tommy John surgery later that same year and slowly made his way back to the mound in 2013 with 36 2/3 innings between the Gulf Coast League and Class A Short-Season Auburn.
In spite of his injury history and limited professional experience, the scouting reports on Giolito remain glowing. In its updated 2014 rankings, MLB.com pegged him as the No. 44 overall prospect in baseball while Baseball Prospectus had him much higher. Scouting reports rate him as having a dynamite fastball -- MLB.com grades it as an 80 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale -- with an above-average curveball and changeup.
The Nationals farmhand will finally get to show off those tools in a full-season setting this season. But before he does that, he talked with MiLB.com about his Tommy John rehab process, being drafted as an injured player and his friendship with Padres prospect Max Fried.
MiLB.com: You spent most of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery. How did that process go for you?
Giolito: It was a long, tough process, for sure. Last offseason, I had a lot of workouts and was transitioning into rehab and restrengthening everything -- my shoulder, my forearm. I was trying to get my elbow in better shape this year, and I'm happy to say everything has been great so far. I'm feeling fully rehabbed and fully recovered.
MiLB.com: What were the nuts and bolts of that rehab process?
Giolito: I was doing physical therapy three days a week last year. A lot of it was band exercises, lower-weight exercises. Just using one- or two-pound weights during "key" raises and "Y" raises. It was all about strengthening little muscles in my rotator cuff, forearm, those spots just to get everything back where it needed to be.
MiLB.com: And you had been through that before, right?
Giolito: After I initially hurt my elbow in high school, I had to rehab a little bit, but it wasn't quite the same as it was after surgery. I felt really, really revamped after that and worked out really hard to get it in a good place.
MiLB.com: There have been quite a few young pitchers that have undergone Tommy John surgery in recent years and also several with the Nationals. Did you seek any of them out?
Giolito: Yeah, while I was rehabbing last year, I was able to have a conversation with a lot of guys in and out of the organization to get their thoughts on the whole thing -- one being Randy Wolf. He was rehabbing from Tommy John at the same time as me, and he had been through a couple of them. He was a really good person to talk to.
MiLB.com: What advice in particular did he give you?
Giolito: Just get in there and take rehab seriously. It feels tedious at times, but even the smallest things are good for you in the long run.
MiLB.com: So how did it feel when you were finally able to get back on a professional mound last year?
Giolito: Oh man, it was great. There was so much anticipation after the whole crazy process to get there. Since high school, I had been rehabbing and rehabbing and rehabbing, and then I was on a slow, long throwing program. Finally to get on the mound and pitch like I want, it was unbelievable.
MiLB.com: How influential exactly were the Nats in your rehab process?
Giolito: The Nationals were great. They've had a lot of Minor Leaguers and Major Leaguers go through this before, and you can really tell they know what they're doing. … They have their own rehab and throwing program. As soon as I got surgery, I was on their program and going through physical therapy according to their plan. I had to go to Spring Training really early -- within the first few days of February -- to start a throwing program and be there under their guidance.
MiLB.com: Jumping back a bit, how did you take the initial elbow injury back in high school, especially with the Draft coming up soon after?
Giolito: It was definitely tough, especially initially right when I found out. I worked had to get back and tried to show scouts that I was feeling better right before the Draft. Luckily, the Nats saw past the injury and took me in the first round. That was out of nowhere. I was speechless when that happened.
MiLB.com: So you didn't have any inkling the Nats would take you there?
Giolito: I actually had no idea. I know some players had predraft deals, given the way the collective bargaining agreement goes, from my understanding. But I was just at home with my family watching it on TV. When I heard my name called on TV, that was the first time I knew was being picked.
My advisor had talked to a few teams, but I don't know if the Nats were on that list. Given the track record with their history of dealing with elbow problems and Tommy John, it kinda made sense.
MiLB.com: Now that everything is behind you, do you feel like the same pitcher when you're out there?
Giolito: I actually feel better now than I did pre-Tommy John, to be honest. I was on a long throwing program, starting with throwing it 45 feet for two weeks straight and then finally getting to 60 feet. The whole time, I was developing my feel again. My fastball location, my changeup, they're all where they need to be.
MiLB.com: With all that behind, what's the next step for you?
Giolito: Now that I'm healthy, I'm putting on good weight, doing a lot of training, lifting, cardio. I feel like I'm getting in pretty good shape. I started my throwing program going into the spring, so that's been a nice little build up. My arm feels good right now. I'm ready to get this going.
MiLB.com: This is the time of the year when a lot of places come out with their prospect rankings, and you've been consistently up there. Do you pay attention to that, and how does it feel if and when you see it?
Giolito: Yeah, it's definitely an honor to be ranked so highly like that by people. I see it on Twitter sometimes and generally on the Internet, but I'm not the kinda guy that'll search for myself and look at stuff about me. When I get out there and start producing and eventually make the Majors, that'll be the truest test of where I am.
MiLB.com: Judging by your Twitter account alone, you're pretty good friends with Padres prospect Max Fried. How did that come about?
Giolito: It developed a few years ago, back in high school with the Area Code Games and Perfect Game stuff. We developed a pretty good friendship there because we actually lived only like 15 minutes away from each other. Once he made the transfer to Harvard-Westlake, we became best friends.
MiLB.com: How much have you followed his Minor League career?
Giolito: We stayed in touch a lot last season, so I was aware of how his season was going. We talked pitching, approach, what you're looking to do in certain situations. We stayed in contact a lot.
I haven't been able to pass along too much because I was out and spending a lot of my time in Florida. But he was able to talk a lot about stuff outside the pitching aspect -- bus trips, hotel life, the Minor League grind, those things that you don't know too much about until you're there.
MiLB.com: Have you been given any idea where you'll start the season?
Giolito: It's all speculation at this point. I'm just looking to perform really well in Spring Training and get sent to my first full-season team. That's all I'm looking for.
MiLB.com: In recent years, the Nationals haven't had a problem moving special talents like Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper quickly through their system. Obviously, they're on a level all their own, but could you see yourself moving just as quickly?
Giolito: Yeah, I can. I see myself as someone who loves to compete and attack batters. When I think about myself, I like to think I'm a guy who goes out there and tries to win every day, no matter where I am, and that'll continue as I move up. But I can't question anything. There's definitely a protocol to how those things work, and I'll accept whatever plan they have for me.
MiLB.com: One last question. A lot of scouting reports say you can dial up your fastball to 100 mph. How does it feel when you hit triple digits?
Giolito: It's funny actually. I couldn't tell you if a pitch was 100 or 94. I think I hit those higher velocities when I'm most relaxed and not really thinking about it. If I ever find myself trying to throw it harder, I get tight and it comes out not as hard as I wanted it to. So I just need to stay relaxed, and the velocity takes care of itself.