The demise of the Montreal Expos led to years of MLB control for the organization (2001-04), which resulted in limited budgets until the club was officially sold and became the Washington Nationals in 2005. Since that time, it's been an uphill battle to rebuild the system's depth, more or less from scratch.
One of the most difficult areas to create depth is pitching because of the large number of players needed, as well as the natural volatility and fragility of the role. It's taken years but the Nationals organization is finally starting to see the fruits of its labor, thanks to the guidance of General Manager Mike Rizzo and his front office staff, including both the scouting and player development departments.
The six talented hurlers listed below have seen their values skyrocket during the 2013 season.
A.J. Cole, RHP, Double-A
Cole is an interesting prospect. He was originally drafted by the Nationals in the fourth round of the 2010 draft and was then traded to the Athletics in late 2011. When the two clubs paired up for another swap in January 2013, Cole was returned to his original organization.
Always a talented pitcher, Cole struggled in A-ball and spent parts of three years there. In a piece by Jonathan Raymond of MiLB.com, the young hurler admitted that he was disappointed to begin the 2013 back in A-ball. However, he stayed motivated and worked hard to get better.
"Going through [Class A Advanced] again, I was there last year, got sent down to [Class A] with the A's, and I just had to bounce back, not be let down about being sent down and then starting at [Class A Advanced] this year," he said. "Basically getting the feel for everything, learning different things and showing that I'm able to play here, pitch here and be successful. I just want that to keep going on… I basically just started pitching like I knew how I could," he said.
Cole was recently promoted to Double-A and has allowed just 11 hits and four walks with a 0.90 ERA in his first 20 innings.
Lucas Giolito, RHP, Rookie ball
Giolito was arguably the most sought after prep arm in the 2012 amateur draft, but he slipped to the Nationals with the 16th selection of the first round after he suffered a serious elbow injury in his senior year of high school. The hard-throwing pitcher — who touched triple digits with his fastball when healthy — underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2012 but officially returned to the mound last month.
Teddy Cahill of MLB.com spoke to Doug Harris, the Nationals director of player development, who said Giolito progressed well in his rehab. "It's gone extremely well. We're pleased with his progression, where he is physically and how he's performing."
Giolito took to the mound in his first official game since 2012 on July 3 and he immediately made an impression on Harris. "I was really, really pleased with [his stuff]… The fastball velocity was good, it had good life and carry and he threw it for strikes. His curveball had above-average depth and finish and he's continuing to develop his changeup."
Taylor Jordan, RHP, Majors
Jordan experienced perhaps the most significant increase in value of any of the six players mentioned in this article. A former ninth-round draft pick, the right-hander showed some potential in 2011 before suffering an elbow injury and undergoing Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow.
He returned in 2012, but his results were inconsistent at best. The 2013 season, though, has been a different story, and he dominated A-ball and Double-A before settling into the Nationals' big league rotation.
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman commented in Florida Today (unattributed staff writer) on how important the increased pitching depth has been for the organization in 2013. "We continually have guys come up from our minor league system and help us out. I think that shows how good of a system we have and what a good job they do getting those guys ready to contribute. Taylor has kind of saved us."
Nate Karns, RHP, Double-A
Karns has experienced a lot of turmoil since turning pro in 2009. The right-hander suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder early in his career, which is one of the most catastrophic injuries to try and return from for a pitcher. It's widely considered a much more difficult surgery to recover from than Tommy John.
His personal life has also been a challenge. As James Wagner of the Washington Post detailed, Karns' biggest supporter — his mother — suffered through both cancer and a major stroke. "My mom has been through a lot and she has done a lot for me," said Karns. "It was really nice that I was able to show that all her sacrifices paid off for me and I didn't waste whatever she gave me and took full advantage of it."
Karns' mother was able to witness her son's Major League debut, and the two shared a special moment together after the game. The young pitcher has made a total of three appearances at the big league level but has since returned to Double-A where he's struck out 121 batters in 100 1/3 innings of work.
Ian Krol, LHP, Majors
Like Cole, Krol was acquired from the Athletics this past January and has rejuvenated his career in the Nationals system. After suffering through injury issues as a starter, the A's moved the lefty to the bullpen in late 2012. Returning to the 'pen in '13, Krol has thrived in his new role and has seen his average fastball velocity jump from 88-91 mph as a starter to as high as 96 mph as a reliever. As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post explained, that bump in velocity took everyone by surprise, including Krol.
"I was like, 'Whoa. Where'd that come from?'" Krol said. "I didn't even think it was possible to sniff 96. I guess something must have happened. My arm was liking the relieving a lot better than the starting role. It was pretty insane to see 96 up there on the scoreboard. I never thought I would hit 96 in my life."
Krol has since become a stabilizing force in the Nationals' bullpen with a 2.25 ERA in 21 games and is well on his way to becoming one of the top left-handed relievers in the National League.
Sammy Solis, LHP, High-A
A 2010 second-round draft pick, Solis saw a sudden increase in fastball velocity in 2011 but, not long after, he blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. The southpaw missed all of 2012 but returned in May this year. Since that time, his results have been understandably inconsistent but promising nonetheless.
As James Wagner of the Washington Post stated, Solis' command hasn't fully returned yet but he's throwing pain free for the first time since 2011, and his velocity is back in the 93-94 mph range. He's also getting more comfortable with all of his pitches. "The feel has been the biggest thing," Solis said. "Change-up and curveball, especially."