Top prospect Lucas Giolito getting reassigned to minor league camp by the Nationals on Wednesday was expected. The real question is when we will see him again with the Nationals to make his much-anticipated MLB debut.
Could that come this summer? It sure looks that way. But it may not be as simple as just bringing him up and inserting him into the Nats' rotation.
That's because Giolito had Tommy John surgery in 2012 and has only thrown 253 2/3 innings in the professional ranks. He is also only 21-years-old. The Nationals will monitor his workload closely this year as they continue to build him toward someday pitching 200 innings a season.
Last season, Giolito recorded a career-high of 117 innings. The Nationals have avoided specifics when talking about their 2016 plan for the former first round pick, but assistant GM Doug Harris did say this winter the Nats do plan to loosen their grip on him.
"I think he's set up for a higher workload based on the formulas we set up for every pitcher. We think he's able to handle a full load and we're going to turn him loose a little bit," Harris explained.
Determining how much to increase innings year-by-year for post-Tommy John pitchers is not easy. There are many factors that can come into play including age, organizational philosophy and even the preference of the player and his agent.
And after that plan is set, that doesn't mean the second-guessing is over. The Nats learned that well with Stephen Strasburg in 2012 and the Mets took similar criticism in 2015 with Matt Harvey.
The Nationals have been through this before with both Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann and it will be interesting to see what differences - if any - they bring to Giolito's plan. How much of a factor will his innings plan be when it comes to both determining his debut and how long he will be allowed to pitch?
The 117 innings for Giolito last season is an important number and one that can be compared directly to Strasburg and Zimmermann.
Here is how Giolito's innings have been built post Tommy John, with a percentage increase included for reference:
Gioltio (TJ surgery in Aug. of 2012)
2013 - 36.2 IP
2014 - 98 IP (+168%)
2015 - 117 IP (+19%)
2016 - ?
Now, here's a look at how Strasburg and Zimmermann were handled by the Nats in their first few years after Tommy John:
Strasburg (TJ surgery in Sept. of 2010)
2011 - 44.1 IP (including minors)
2012 - 159.1 (+259%)
2013 - 183 IP (+15%)
2014 - 215 IP (+18%)
Zimmermann (TJ surgery in Aug. of 2009)
2010 - 70.2 IP (including minors)
2011 - 161.1 IP (+128%)
2012 - 195.2 IP (+21%)
2013 - 213.1 IP (+9%)
The 160-inning mark was a magic number for Zimmermann and Strasburg in 2011 and 2012, in their second seasons back from TJ surgery. Giolito will be in his fourth season back, but he's only hit 117 as a career-high. Getting him to 160 would be an increase of about 37%, roughly double the increase he saw last season. Getting him to 180 innings would be a 54 percent increase and 200 innings would be a jump of 71 percent.
A guess based on these numbers could put Giolito in the 150 to 170-inning range. Keep in mind that he is still only 21-years-old. Zimmermann was 25 when he first eclipsed the 150-inning mark and Strasburg was 24.
If the Nationals want to keep Giolito available for September and beyond while limiting his innings, it would seem the later in the season he debuts the better. It's easier to get creative with a pitchers workload in the minors when the stakes aren't as high.
There is also the issue of service time and the Super 2 deadline. If the Nats wait 20 days to bring Giolito to the majors, they will get an extra year of him under team control. A player is awarded a year of service time if they reach 172 days on a 25-man roster.
If they bring Giolito up in June, they can avoid having Giolito hit arbitration early. The deadline Super 2 deadline is usually about 65 days into the season. If players debut before then, they can be eligible to earn a fourth arbitration year instead of the usual three during the course of a six-year rookie contract.
This was taken into consideration when Strasburg made his debut in June of 2010, rather than when the season began in April. Waiting until June can potentially save the Nats a lot of money down the road.
Here's something to consider, though: the Nationals have shown a tendency to bring top prospects up earlier than anticipated, with Strasburg being an exception. The Nats brought Bryce Harper up in April of 2012 when they needed a spark due to injuries. Anthony Rendon was called up in April of 2013 after playing only 79 minor league games. Michael Taylor and Trea Turner both debuted in August of 2014 and 2015, respectively, weeks before they were expected to be September call-ups.
Most of those scenarios dealt with injuries or the Nats needing a jolt in the standings. What if their rotation suffers a significant injury in mid-April, or if by mid-May they are staring down a large deficit in the NL East with a struggling rotation? The Nats' hand could be forced in that regard, especially with the uncertainty of Bronson Arroyo and his shoulder rehab. An injury early in the season could force the Nats to choose from starting, say, Yusmeiro Petit for a few weeks, or going with a potential superstar in Giolito.
Whenever Giolito debuts, it will be exciting for the team and its fanbase. And, as we've seen in the past with Michael Wacha of the Cardinals and Noah Syndergaard of the Mets, sometimes young starters can make a huge impact on a pennant race. For now, however, it's a waiting game.