Recently-acquired Miami Marlins prospect Justin Nicolino has drawn mixed reviews from talent evaluators. What are his chances of developing into a contributor at the major league level?
One of the key pieces to the Marlins / Blue Jays trade was left-handed pitching prospect Justin Nicolino. Nicolino, 20, has a legitimate chance to reach Double-A by the end of the 2013 season. If everything goes right, Nicolino could turn into a solid third starter at the major league level.
Justin Nicolino was born on November 22, 1991 in Orlando. Some Miami natives may remember Nicolino's days at University High School in Orlando, where he hit .259/.394/.414 during his senior season. Nicolino posted a 1.14 ERA with sixty-one strikeouts in thirty-seven innings pitched. Heading into the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft, Nicolino was committed to the University of Virginia. However, Nicolino was viewed as signable so his commitment did not affect his draft stock. After the Blue Jays selected Nicolino with the 18th overall pick, he signed for a $615,000 signing bonus.
Justin Nicolino throws an average fastball, a plus changeup, a curveball that is nothing special and occasionally a slider. This is not exactly the repertoire of an above-average pitcher in the majors. If Nicolino had the arsenal of say, Luis Heredia of the Pirates, he would probably be the best pitching prospect in baseball. Nicolino's fastball is in the low nineties and has minimal movement. Some talent evaluators question whether or not Nicolino can become an above-average pitcher without a good array of pitches. However, his pitches are effective because he can locate them accurately and throw them at the right time during at-bats
One of the main reasons Justin Nicolino is such a highly regarded prospect is because of his repeatable delivery. Nicolino has a fluid windup and that will help him a ton once he faces more advanced hitters. Also, his delivery doesn't look like it will put him in any position where injuries would be more likely. His command, control and mechanics are why he has such amazing potential. If his body fills out (he's only listed at 160 pounds), Nicolino has a very good chance at becoming an above-average major league starting pitcher.
In 2011, Nicolino's first full season, he began the year in Short-Season Low-A Vancouver of the Northwest League. In just twelve games, nine starts, Nicolino posted a 1.44 FIP with 11.01 K/9 and 1.89 BB/9. Unlike a lot of high school pitchers after being drafted, Nicolino proved that the jump to professional baseball wasn't too much for him. Nicolino spent the 2012 season with Lansing in the Midwest League. Nicolino pitched in twenty-eight games, twenty-two of which were starts. He threw 124 innings, striking out 8.61 batters every nine and walking 1.52 per nine innings. Nicolino's first two seasons in the minors could not have gone much better than they have.
The Marlins' young pitchers are not that far away from forming an outstanding starting rotation. Just imagine a rotation featuring Jose Fernandez, Adam Conley, Chad James and Justin Nicolino. Nicolino is never going to be a Game One-type of starter, but he definitely has the potential to be a second or third starter. My best guess would be that Nicolino would start the year out at High-A Jupiter and end at Double-A Jacksonville. If everything goes right, Nicolino should be in the majors by midseason 2014.