The signing of free agent Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract improved the Washington Nationals’ starting rotation from arguably the best to undoubtedly the best in baseball.

The Nats will enter the 2015 season with three No. 1 starters in Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, with Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark “filling out” the staff. However, the Scherzer signing also led to speculation that the Nats now might be more inclined to trade from their pitching depth.

Jon Morosi of Fox Sports tweeted that Washington would be willing to deal either Zimmermann or Strasburg if they landed Scherzer, which makes sense, as Zimmermann is set to become a free agent after the 2015 season and likely to command a monster free-agent contract, while Strasburg is set to follow in his footsteps the following year.

But there’s one other major reason the Nationals seemingly are willing to consider dealing young talents such as Zimmermann and Strasburg: They have baseball’s top pitching prospect in 20-year-old right-hander Lucas Giolito.

Giolito was viewed as a candidate to go No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft after the right-hander lit up radar guns with his fastball and dropped jaws with his curveball early in the spring for Harvard-Westlake High School (California).

Unfortunately, Giolito suffered a strained ligament in his right elbow roughly two months into the season and was shut down indefinitely. He avoided surgery, but the injury ultimately cost Giolito the remainder of his high school campaign and the chance to be the first prep right-hander drafted No. 1 overall.

Yet even though Giolito missed most of the spring, the Washington Nationals still selected the right-hander with the No. 16 overall selection in the 2012 draft and offered him a $2.925 million signing bonus.

Making his first professional start later that summer, Giolito made it just two innings in the game before his elbow flared up once again. This time, however, there would be no rest and rehab, as he was forced to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery.

After 10 months on the shelf, Giolito returned to the mound late in the 2013 season to post a 1.96 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 36.2 innings between the Gulf Coast and New York-Penn Leagues.

Suffice it to say, expectations were high for Giolito headed into 2014. Amazingly, the 20-year-old did not disappoint.

In his first full season back from surgery, not to mention his first full season as a professional, Giolito led the Low-A South Atlantic League (among pitchers with 90 innings) in ERA (2.20), strikeout percentage (28.5 percent) and opponents’ batting average (.196), per FanGraphs. The Nationals shut down the right-hander after 98 innings due to the organization’s protocol with young pitchers rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, according to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post.

“Getting that first year out of the way, it was kind of a special situation for me,” Giolito said via Byron Kerr of “Because it was my first full year of pro ball and it was my first year back from Tommy John. Now I’m fully healthy and the surgery is well behind me. And I’m a little bit more experienced. I have been a pro for about three years now. I have a full year under my belt. I feel prepared for what’s next to come.”

When I saw Giolito make his second start of the 2014 season for Low-A Hagerstown, the 20-year-old fired five shutout innings against Low-A Lakewood, allowing one hit and one walk with six strikeouts.

He never threw more than 17 pitches in an inning and needed only 61 to complete the outing. The lone hit he surrendered was a two-out double to Samuel Hiciano in the third inning. Besides that, it was mostly strikeouts and weak contact (six groundouts, one flyout).

Giolito throws both a two- and four-seam fastball, with the latter consistently registering in the 94 to 96 mph range and the two-seamer at 91 to 93. Based on velocity alone, the pitch grades as a 65 or 70 (on the 20-80 scouting scale), but everything about Giolito—his size, mechanics, arm action, prior workload—suggests that more velocity will come with development. It doesn’t take much to envision him sitting in the upper 90s by the time he reaches the major leagues.

In terms of usage, Giolito throws more four-seamers to left-handed batters, and he does a nice job changing hitters’ eye levels vertically so as to set up both secondary offerings. He’ll overthrow a few of them over the course of a game, ripping open with his glove side and falling off toward first base, but he’s cognizant of his mechanics and therefore is quick to make adjustments during subsequent pitches.

Giolito’s curveball is possibly the best I’ve personally scouted in the last four years—a future 75 offering. Working from the same over-the-top arm angle as his fastball, he throws the pitch in the 76 to 83 mph range with legitimate 12-to-6 break and sharp, downer bite.

He shows the ability to add and subtract with the pitch depending on the batter and count, consistently throwing it 78 to 81 mph for a called strike and then throwing a harder-biting version at 82 to 83 mph when vying for a whiff.

Meanwhile, the consistency and effectiveness of Giolito’s changeup was a pleasant surprise last season. The right-hander threw the pitch only three times when I saw him in April, but each time, he delivered it with a deceptive arm action and good speed differential in the low 80s. Giolito’s changeup grades as at least a future grade-60 offering, giving him three pitches which project as above average or better at maturity.

Giolito spoke in depth with Kerr about the pitch:

The changeup, when I was throwing it in high school, it wasn’t really a pitch I went to. I didn’t really have a good feel for it. After surgery, it kind of just came to me. I came back from my throwing program and my changeup was already in the workings of being there. I could throw it consistently for a strike.

Since then, I have been hammering it out. I really feel that it’s one of my stronger pitches. It’s a go to pitch in any count. I threw it 3-1 and 2-0 a lot last year. I feel that when you throw (it) in those kind of situations, you have a lot of success.

A lot can happen to any 20-year-old pitcher between A-ball and the time he reaches the major leagues. In Giolito’s case, the right-hander should have the chance to be a legitimate No. 1 starter at maturity so long as he stays healthy and continues down his current developmental path.

Both Giolito and the Nationals say that the right-hander is 100 percent healthy heading into 2015. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll be rushed up the ladder to the major leagues—not even if the team ultimately decides to trade Zimmermann or Strasburg.

“We understand the development process for someone coming off his surgery,” said Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ director of player development, via Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post.

“We have to understand there are still goals to reach. We are going to proceed like with our previous players who have gone through this surgery, but also understand that he’s a special, unique talent.”

The Nationals’ pitching depth, even if the team makes a trade, will allow them to develop Giolito cautiously and thoroughly. Therefore, he likely will begin 2015 at High-A Potomac in the Carolina League, and if all goes as planned with his development, the right-hander should log some time at Double-A Harrisburg, too.

The organization might play it by ear after that, but all signs point to Giolito reaching the major leagues sometime during the 2016 season.

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