White Sox rebuild offers 'leeway' for Lucas Giolito after frustrating 2016 season

White Sox rebuild offers 'leeway' for Lucas Giolito after frustrating 2016 season

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Lucas Giolito knows if he had performed better in 2016 he wouldn’t have endured the season from travel hell. 

Instead, the top pitching prospect in baseball struggled with consistency in the big leagues and the Washington Nationals constantly shuffled him around. Giolito — one of three pitchers acquired in the Adam Eaton trade in December and MLB.com’s 11th-ranked prospect — was moved eight different times throughout the Nationals organization last season. 

More irritated by his inability to pitch well for a team in a pennant race, the tall right-hander understands why he spent much of last season on the go. But it’s also one of the main reasons why Giolito, who is likely to begin the 2017 season in the starting rotation at Triple-A Charlotte, is excited for a fresh start with the White Sox.

“It was frustrating because I knew if you get up there and pitch well I can stay, but I didn’t,” Giolito said. “I wanted to help the team win. That’s really all I wanted to do. And all my starts, aside from my debut, which got cut short by the rain, I did not give the team a chance to win. So rightfully so I got sent down. But yeah, it’s frustrating. 

“At the same time, with this club I know there might be a little more leeway. I know they might allow younger guys more time to settle in, at least from what I’ve seen.”

The White Sox have made no secret about their plans to rebuild. Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech are four of the seven prospects acquired in December whom the White Sox hope to build around. 

General manager Rick Hahn has made it increasingly clear that player development is the team’s top priority.

“At this point going forward we’re really not going to have anyone in Chicago until they’ve answered any questions we’ve had for them at the minor league level and we feel they’re ready to succeed,” Hahn said last month at SoxFest. 

And once those players arrive, they’ll be given ample opportunities to prove whether or not they belong. The routine will be normal with regular turns in the rotation rather than spot starts here and there. 

The team’s mindset is in stark contrast with Washington, which has been in win-now mode for the past few seasons. Whenever the Nationals called upon Giolito, who hadn’t pitched above Double-A Harrisburg before last June, they needed him to fill in for a rotation that only had three pitchers make more than 25 starts.

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Giolito pitched four scoreless innings in a rain-shortened MLB debut on June 28 and then didn’t pitch again until July 7. With Stephen Strasburg back in the rotation, the Nationals then sent Giolito to Single-A Hagerstown so he could get another turn before the All-Star break. Then it was on to Triple-A Syracuse for one start and back to Washington for another. 

After he struggled in that outing, Giolito spent a month at Syracuse, returned to the bigs to struggle again on Aug. 28 against Colorado, and went back to Triple-A for one more. Finally, Giolito returned to Washington on Sept. 7 and stayed the rest of the season, though he only pitched twice in a month. In six big league games (four starts), Giolito had a 6.75 ERA. 

The up-and-down nature of Giolito’s season prompted MLB.com’s Jim Callis to write: “I also don't think the Nationals handled him very well last season, calling him to Washington on five separate occasions but never letting him take consecutive turns in the rotation, as well as having him change teams nine times.”

Giolito remembers a couple of small planes back and forth from Washington to Syracuse. He also drove a few times because it was so close. 

“All sorts of ways of moving around,” he said.

It’s also treatment that’s normally reserved for a Four-A pitcher who has options to burn rather than a top prospect trying to find stability.

Giolito — who was drafted 16th overall in the 2012 draft out of high school — thought some of his struggles were related to poor mechanics and getting away from what had made him successful. The 6-foot-6 pitcher said he tried to simplify his mechanics this winter in order to allow the ball to leave his hand more freely and easily. 

Giolito is pleased with the results so far. His main goals early in camp have been commanding his fastball low and away to right-hander hitters and learning how to throw his curveball for a called strike.

“It’s coming out very good,” Giolito said. “Much better than last year. I made a lot of positive changes.

“The time in the big leagues was definitely fun. But going up and down a lot can be like a grind. Getting on the plane, doing this, you’re pitching the next day. You have to be able to try and stay level headed and focus on the next day or task at hand. But when you’re moving around a lot it can be difficult.”

Under-the-radar Reynaldo Lopez impressing White Sox: 'He's got some stuff'

Under-the-radar Reynaldo Lopez impressing White Sox: 'He's got some stuff'

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- He maybe doesn't receive the same hype as some of his peers, but the White Sox think Reynaldo Lopez deserves plenty of attention.

A highly-touted prospect for two seasons now, Lopez took a big leap forward in a 2016 season that resulted in two promotions, including a trip to the big leagues.

While Michael Kopech and Lucas Giolito have garnered much of the attention, Lopez, who was acquired with Giolito in the Adam Eaton trade, is right on their heels if not equal. Lopez -- who produced a 3.21 ERA in 19 minor-league starts last season and struck out 42 batters in 44 innings in the majors -- is rated the No. 31 prospect in baseball by Baseball America and 38th by MLB.com.

"He's looked good from the get-go," pitching coach Don Cooper said. "The bottom line is we like all three of them. I didn't hear a lot (about him). When people are asking me questions it's usually about Giolito and Kopech. I'm not sure why because he's a gifted kid. He's got some stuff."

Lopez, 23, already has pitched in 11 regular season games (six starts) and made a playoff appearance. He earned those outings by excelling in a season that began at Double-A Harrisburg. Two seasons after he put up outstanding numbers at Single-A, Lopez dominated the Eastern League with 100 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings and 3.18 ERA. He attributes his success to calming himself down in game situations.

"I just kept my focus in the game," Lopez said through an interpreter. "Before, I thought a lot about things and I couldn't think. And then I realized to keep my focus on the game. Sometimes if someone hit me or something, my mind got stuck in that moment. But then I understood you have to have a short memory and just let the things that are happening (be) in the past and focus on what's happening."

Lopez, 23, said he has taken the same approach to handling his trade to the White Sox. The right-hander admits he was shocked at first when he heard he was traded by the Washington Nationals, who signed him for $17,000 in 2012 out of the Dominican Republic.

But the more he thought about it, Lopez realized how good of an opportunity he has in front of him with the rebuilding White Sox. The club intends to try Lopez out as a starter --- there's debate among scouting analysts whether he's meant for the bullpen or rotation --- at Triple-A Charlotte this season. Asked what he prefers, Lopez said he's a starter.

And rather than try to impress the club by overthrowing a fastball that MLB.com graded 70 on the 20-80 scale, Lopez has worked on location early in camp. Those efforts haven't gone unnoticed by Cooper and manager Rick Renteria.

"Lopez is a guy who maybe goes under the radar a little bit, but when you see his bullpen work, he's pretty clean, pretty efficient," Renteria said. "He hits his spots."

Through four throwing sessions, Cooper said he likes how Lopez has located his fastball and curveball. Cooper thinks the changeup, which is the lowest graded of his three pitches (45 out of 80), is where the most work is needed. But Cooper is pleased with how Lopez has worked in the bullpen and batting practice and looks forward to seeing how it carries over once the exhibition season begins.

Lopez likes how he has fit in with the White Sox through the first week and a half. An aggressive pitcher by nature --- "I like to get ahead in the count," he said --- Lopez has tried to work down in the zone in the early part of camp. He said that was one of his main takeaways from pitching in the majors.

"I learned a lot from that experience," Lopez said. "I learned how to pitch. It's not just throw hard. You have to locate your pitches and be smart. I think that was the most important thing for me, from that experience."

White Sox well represented on Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 list

White Sox well represented on Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 list

The White Sox have gotten plenty of credit on their revamped farm system this winter and that continued with Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 prospects list Monday.

The Sox planted six guys on BP's list with Yoan Moncada coming in highest at No. 5 overall behind pitcher Alex Reyes (St. Louis Cardinals), shortstop Dansby Swanson (Atlanta Braves), outfielder Andrew Benintendi (Boston Red Sox) and shortstop J.P. Crawford (Philadelphia Phillies).

Here are the rest of the White Sox representatives on BP's list:

10. Lucas Giolito, RHP
30. Reynaldo Lopez, RHP
36. Michael Kopech, RHP
89. Zack Collins, C
97. Alec Hansen, RHP

[RELATED - Collins, Burdi excited for first White Sox camp]

Pitchers Carson Fulmer, Zack Burdi and Dane Dunning and outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe round out BP's Top 10 White Sox prospects, but none of them cracked the Top 101 list.

Baseball America unveiled their Top 100 prospect list Friday and featured five of the six White Sox youngsters, though Moncada was ranked No. 2, behind only Benintendi.

Giolito, however, came in at 25th on BA's list with Lopez (31), Kopech (32) and Collins (56). Hansen did not crack BA's list.