Injuries slowing Nationals' top pitching prospects
Giolito, Solis and Purke on comeback trail from Tommy John surgery
WASHINGTON -- The top of the Nationals' farm system is littered with promising pitching talent. But three of the top six prospects overall and three of the top four pitching prospects -- right-hander Lucas Giolito (No. 1), left-hander Sammy Solis (No. 5) and left-hander Matt Purke (No. 6) -- are all in some stage of recovery from Tommy John surgery.
The Nats have never shied away from selecting previously injured players in the First-Year Player Draft, as they displayed again this year by taking UNLV right-hander Erick Fedde, who underwent Tommy John surgery in the week leading up to the Draft, with the No. 18 overall pick. They did the same with Giolito in the 2012 Draft with the No. 16 overall pick, and he returned in July of the following year displaying similar stuff to his pre-injury form.
Surprisingly, the team's misfortune with elbow injuries has occurred among players who entered the system with healthy joints. Solis was taken in the second round of the 2010 Draft, and he made 17 starts in 2011 before he underwent Tommy John surgery in '12. He threw 59 2/3 innings and posted a 3.32 ERA after returning to Class A Potomac in 2013, but this month, Solis was placed on the disabled list because of discomfort in the same left elbow, and he remains shut down.
Purke was drafted in the third round of the 2011 Draft, and while he battled shoulder problems during most of his first two seasons as a professional, he still posted a 3.80 ERA and a 6-4 record in 18 starts with Class A Hagerstown and Class A Advanced Potomac in 2013. But the start to Purke's 2014 season was abysmal, as he compiled a 1-6 record with an 8.04 ERA, and general manager Mike Rizzo announced on May 27 that the left-hander would undergo Tommy John surgery.
"It's disappointing," Rizzo said of Purke. "He is going to be a year-plus of getting back, but we have been through this before with good results, so we are hoping for the same."
Giolito posted a 1.96 ERA and 2-1 record in 11 combined starts in the Gulf Coast League and for Class A Auburn in 2013. He was off to a tremendous start to the 2014 season for Hagerstown, going 2-0 with 2.51 ERA with 36 strikeouts over 32 1/3 innings, but the Nationals put an innings limit on the right-hander as a safety precaution and shut him down on May 11.
Rizzo assured it was just part of the process, though, and Giolito returned on June 3. He's pitched 12 innings in three starts since coming back, surrendering just one earned run on five hits.
"This is part of his developmental program," Rizzo said. "We want him to get through an entire season -- to feel what it's like to pitch at the end of August."
Luckily for Giolito, Solis, Purke and Fedde, the Nats have a prominent history of pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Ace Stephen Strasburg was diagnosed with a torn ulnar ligament in August 2011, and he returned to make five Major League starts at the end of the '12 season. Likewise, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann underwent the surgery in August 2009, and he returned roughly 12 months later despite being expected to miss 18 months.
"It's been a very common procedure lately," said Fedde, who expects to return to the mound by next June. "And the percentage of guys coming back has been so high that it will be OK, if I just work hard in rehab."
As far as position players, the Nationals have a couple of athletic outfielders closing in on the Major Leagues in No. 3 prospect Brian Goodwin and No. 4 prospect Michael Taylor.
The Nats drafted Goodwin in the first round of the 2011 Draft. He batted .324 in 58 games with Hagerstown in 2012 before being promoted to Double-A Harrisburg, where he batted .223 in 42 games. Goodwin played a full season for Harrisburg in 2013, batting .252 with 10 home runs in 122 games. This season, he is batting .229 with 28 RBIs in 67 games for Triple-A Syracuse.
Washington selected Taylor in the sixth round of the 2009 Draft, and after four solid seasons in Class A and Class A Advanced, the converted shortstop has been on a tear with Harrisburg in 2014. Taylor is hitting .331 with 16 home runs, 50 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 64 games this year.
Daniel Popper is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.