Lucas Giolito was sent down yesterday. Almost no one seems to think he couldn't pitch in the majors right now, but Rizzo says he needs to work on nuance.
Basically Lucas Giolito is being held down because it makes fiscal sense to do so, and it can be justified in a practical sense.
Fiscally, Lucas Giolito's future arbitration and free agency targets are at stake. I won't bore with exact details, but suffice to say how much money the Nats would need to spend on Giolito over his first decade of playing changes dramatically based on service time and service time is measured in pretty standard ways. Delay Lucas until the end of April and you push back his FA a year. Delay Lucas until the middle of June and you (likely) push back his arbitration a year. Delay Lucas until September and you can work his debut in 2017 in a way to delay these things one more time. Given that Lucas is likely to be good relatively quickly, a year of arbitration is worth millions and his FA cost would be 10s of millions. It's fiscally responsible to hold Lucas down.
Of course that's only true though if it doesn't hurt the product on the field, as a winning team drives more revenue (given the sunk cost of salaries already agreed upon). And it very well won't hurt the product on the field in 2016. The Nats have three long time starters who are at least good in Scherzer, Gio, and Stras. They have a fourth starter, Ross, who in 70 innings last year was also good, making a shift back to the minors unreasonable. And their supposed fifth starter, Roark, was good two years ago, when he was allowed to start full-time, and is a fair bet to be good again. The Nats might have 5 good starters. What else do you need? It's true Giolito should be better than Roark and Gio and Ross, but he's a wild card, especially in his first year. He could be worse than all 5 in 2016, so why push it?
Also Giolito didn't exactly dominate AA last year. 3.80 ERA. 48 hits in 47 innings. Strike outs down from over 10 to 8.6. Walks up from around 2.5 to over 3.0. It could be worthwhile to see that he handles AAA first, that he has that step up, before throwing him into the deep end. Remember Lucas may be as close to a sure thing as pitching prospects get, but he's still not a sure thing.
So the Nats can justify it and it will likely save them money. What's the downside?
Well there are two - if you click on the link you'll see the argument that Lucas is a ticking clock. At least according to what the Nats say, there is an expected post TJ life span for an arm and Lucas, who had his surgery YEARS ago (2012), is passing the half way point on that life span. You don't use him in the majors and you are wasting a precious year saving for an later "cheap" year that may never come because his arm might (and in the Nats mind, likely will) blow out again.
The second reason is if you believe that he's a better option than Roark (or Ross or Gio) then you are costing the team some level of success by going with someone else. How much? Who knows? But in a season where the gulf between good and the bad in the NL is as large as we've ever expected, it's not crazy that the Mets/Nats loser stays home. With that in mind every win matters and going with a B choice to save a buck could be the difference between playing baseball in October and playing golf.
I'm an all-in kind of guy but I do see the Nats position and it's the same position that makes spending about 20 million less than last year with the idea that it may be spent in-season (we pray) reasonable. It's smart. The cost of using Giolito in 2016 and the cost of spending on trades mid-season only kicks in if a certain situation is met. It only kicks in if the Nats are within striking distance of the Mets or vice versa come certain dates. While that is a likely scenario (both teams are good and there is a smaller number of games played by mid-June or mid July that makes being well ahead or well out harder) it is far from the only possible scenario. If the Nats are well-out for whatever reason - they don't have to bring Giolito up, they don't have to spend money on a trade. Same holds true for if they are well-up. So why spend the money now, or set Giolito in motion now, when there is say a 33% chance you won't have to do it at all? It's not smart.
Of course sports isn't about "smart", it's about winning. Fans don't care if abstractly what you are doing makes sense, if practically it means you aren't trying you're hardest to win. To keep the fans from turning, they are placated with the idea of wins today traded for wins tomorrow. That way the team appears to be primarily interested in winning, not costs.
We'll spend the money later. Giolito will be healthy and great for the Nats later. It's smart because of the success we are going to have later. Will they? Will he? Is it? As we've seen with the Strasburg shutdown, his subsequent injuries, and the two missed playoffs in 4 years with a team that was projected to win the division, there are no guarantees. They aren't trading anything. They are gambling and gambling in a way that's smart for them. Is it best for the fans? I don't think so, but it's an opinion question that is answered on a personal level and for most is usually "proved" by what takes place. Should Lucas Giolito have started the year with the Nats? Ask me in 6 months and I'll have the accepted answer.