Lucas Giolito

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

GLENDALE, AZ — You don’t need a scale to see that Lucas Giolito lost some weight in the offseason. As he walks around Camelback Ranch, he just seems lighter. These pounds were shedded thanks to a certain label that has been detached from his name and his being.

“Lucas Giolito, number-one pitching prospect in baseball” is no more.

“Definitely. Big time relief. I carried that title for a while,” Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago. “It was kind of up and down. I was (ranked) 1 at one point. I dropped. I always paid attention to it a little bit moving through the minor leagues.”

Which for any young hurler is risky business. The “best pitching prospect” designation can mess with a pitcher’s psyche and derail a promising career. Giolito was walking a mental tightrope reading those rankings, but after making it back to the majors last season with the White Sox and succeeding, the moniker that seemed to follow him wherever he went has now vanished.

“Looking back on it, that stuff is pretty cool," Giolito said. "It can pump you up and make you feel good about yourself, but in the end the question is, what are you going to do at the big league level? Can you contribute to a team? I’m glad that I finally have the opportunity to do that and all that other stuff is in the rear view."

This wasn’t the case when the White Sox acquired Giolito from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton trade in December 2016. When he arrived at spring training last year, he was carrying around tons of extra baggage in his brain that was weighing him down. Questions about his ability and makeup weren’t helping as he tried living up to such high expectations.

“Yeah, I’d say especially with the trade coming off 2016 where I didn’t perform well at all that year," Giolito said. "I got traded over to a new organization, I still have this label on me of being a top pitching prospect while I’m going to a new place, I’m trying to impress people but at the same time I had a lot of things off mechanically I was trying to fix. Mentally, I was not in the best place as far as pitching went. It definitely added some extra pressure that I didn’t deal with well for a while."

How bad was it for Giolito? Here are some of the thoughts that were scrambling his brain during spring training and beyond last season.

“I saw I wasn’t throwing as hard. I was like, ’Where did my velocity go?’ Oh, it’s my mechanics. My mechanics are bad. I need to fix those,” Giolito said. “Then I’m trying to make adjustments. Why can’t I make this adjustment? It compounds. It just builds and builds and builds and can weigh on you a ton. I was 22 turning 23 later in the year. I didn’t handle it very well. I put a lot of pressure on myself to fix all these different things about my performance, my pitching and trying to do it all in one go instead of just relaxing and remembering, ‘Hey, what am I here for? Why do I play the game?’”

Still, pitching coach Don Cooper wanted to see what he had in his young prospect. So last February, he scheduled him to make his White Sox debut against the Cubs in front of a packed house in Mesa.

“It was kind of like a challenge," Giolito said. "They fill the stadium over there. I’m like, ‘Alright here we go."

Giolito gave up one run, three hits, walked one and struck out two in two innings against the Cubs that day.

“I pitched OK," he said. "I think I gave up a home run to Addison Russell. At the same time, I remember that game like I was forcing things. I might have pitched okay, but I was forcing the ball over the plate instead of relaxing, trusting and letting it happen which is kind of my mantra now. I’m saying that all the time, just having confidence in yourself and letting it go.”

A conversation in midseason with Charlotte Knights pitching coach Steve McCatty, suggested by Cooper, helped turn Giolito’s season around. The lesson for Giolito: whatever you have on the day you take the mound is what you have. Don’t force what isn’t there.

Fortunately for Giolito he has extra pitches in his arsenal, so if the curveball isn’t working (which it rarely did when he came up to the majors last season) he can go to his change-up, fastball, slider, etc.

It’s all part of the learning process, both on the mound and off it. Setbacks are coming. Giolito has already had his share. More will be on the way.

“You want to set expectations for yourself. You want to try and achieve great goals,” he said. “At the same time, it is a game of failure. There’s so much that you have to learn through experience whether that be success or failure. Especially going through the minor leagues. There’s so much that you have to learn and a lot of it is about development. It’s a crazy ride for sure.”

White Sox bolster pitching infrastructure by adding Dave Duncan as pitching consultant

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AP

White Sox bolster pitching infrastructure by adding Dave Duncan as pitching consultant

The White Sox added one of baseball’s top pitching minds to the organization Thursday.

The team announced that Dave Duncan, most recently known for his work alongside Tony La Russa with the St. Louis Cardinals, is the organization’s new pitching consultant.

According to the announcement, Duncan’s chief responsibilities include reviewing and evaluating video of pitchers and pitching prospects.

"Given his impressive experience and accomplishments in the game over decades in the dugout," general manager Rick Hahn said in the announcement, "Dave provides us with another set of valuable eyes to give insight into our major league pitching staff, our minor league prospects, other major league staffs and even some of the amateur arms we might be considering for next year's draft."

The move seems like an important one considering the White Sox organization’s wealth of highly touted pitching prospects. Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen, Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning all landed on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top 100 prospects in baseball. Youngsters Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez reached the big league squad last year. And Carlos Rodon, who’s experienced a pair of shoulder injuries in the last calendar year, is also seen as a key piece of the rotation of the future.

Duncan’s most prolific days were spent helping the Cardinals to a string of playoff appearances — and a pair of World Series wins — at the outset of the 21st century. His students in St. Louis included Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Matt Morris, Darryl Kile, Woody Williams and Kyle Lohse.

Duncan spent time at La Russa's other managerial stops, as well, including with the White Sox from 1983 to 1985. He teamed with La Russa with the Oakland Athletics from 1986 to 1995 and with the Cardinals from 1996 to 2011. He worked as a pitching consultant with the Arizona Diamondbacks beginning in 2013.

Four pitchers won Cy Young Awards with Duncan as their pitching coach: LaMarr Hoyt with the White Sox in 1983, Bob Welch in 1990, Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and Carpenter in 2005. He was the pitching coach for three World Series winners: the 1989 A's and the 2006 and 2011 Cardinals.

Lucas Giolito has his sights set on 200 innings in 2018

Lucas Giolito has his sights set on 200 innings in 2018

Last August, Lucas Giolito was impressing White Sox fans with his performance on the mound. A few months later, it’s the fans who are now impressing Giolito.

“White Sox fans are just so dedicated,” the right-hander said while making sales calls to season-ticket holders a couple weeks ago. “They’re not just going and watching baseball, they’re watching baseball. It’s going to drive me to continue to try and improve and make them happy as well.”

Following a 2.38 ERA over seven starts in 2017, the 23-year old Giolito now figures to be a mainstay in the rotation, but his goals are much higher than just being a major league regular.

Giolito told fans over the phone that he hopes to pitch 200 innings in 2018 — a lofty goal considering only 15 pitchers were able to do so in the majors last season.

“That’s one of my little personal goals for the season,” he said. “When you’re a starting pitcher and throwing 200 innings, it means you’re doing some good things for the team.”

There is a certain level of accountability in Giolito when he speaks. And despite seven strong starts, he acknowledged that there is still work to be done. He has much higher expectations for himself and said last season’s promising finish is only a jumping-off point for his future.

“The goal is to have a full season in the big leagues and have some success,” he said.

And with players' camradery a common theme during SoxFest weekend, success might come a bit sooner than anticipated on the South Side.

“We’ve come together, we’re very, very close, and I think that we have a good chance to surprise some people this year,” Giolito proclaimed. “With Ricky (Renteria) at the helm, it’s just a really, really good environment.”

Just like the environment that Giolito and the White Sox are hoping to have at Guaranteed Rate Field for many summers to come.