Florida native Justin Nicolino, another important piece of the Marlins' blockbuster deal with the Blue Jays, adds another quality arm to a Miami system that until recently was devoid of pitching depth. Despite being just 21 years old, the southpaw shows the most polish of any young pitcher in the Marlins' system, and could soon become a middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Fish.
Toronto took Nicolino in the second round out of University High School in Orlando, a three-hour drive from Marlins Park. He was a late sign under the old CBA rules, making his debut in short-season ball in 2011, and playing for the Vancouver Canadians in the Northwest League. Nicolino dominated opponents, posting a 1.03 ERA in 52.1 innings, with an incredible 64 strikeouts to just 11 walks. After setting fire to the Northwest League, the Blue Jays promoted Nicolino to low Class-A Lansing, where he made three starts to finish the 2011 season. Nicolino spent all of the 2012 season back in Lansing, posting more great numbers, with a 2.46 ERA over 22 starts, and a 5.67 K/BB ratio.
The strongest aspect of Nicolino's game is his polish for such a young pitcher, making him one of the most intriguing prospects in the Marlins' system. Nicolino is just about as mechanically sound as they come, with an over-the-top and repeatable delivery. As cliché as it may sound, he's one of those guys that just flat out makes it look easy. And even though his stuff won't blow you out of the water, Nicolino's ability to throw strikes and keep hitters off-balance with his secondary pitches are what gives him the chance to be a reliable member of the rotation at the big league level. Nicolino's fastball velocity is what you come to expect from a finesse-type lefty, sitting anywhere from 89-92 miles per hour (though he's been known to run it up to 94 on occasion), but possessing plenty of sinking and cutting movement. And if Nicolino ends up adding a little more weight to his wiry frame, there's a chance he could start throwing his fastball with more velocity consistently. Nicolino's changeup is by far his best secondary pitch, and one that has even drawn comparisons to Cole Hamels's. He maintains arm speed throughout the motion, getting good sink, and with his ability to throw strikes, it's a pitch that will be able to get him out of major jams in the future. He can keep hitters off-balance, despite not having an overpowering fastball. In addition to his changeup, Nicolino also throws a curveball that still is a work in progress, but which some believe still has the potential to get an average grade in the future.
As is the case with many of the Marlins' recent prospect acquisitions over the past year, the organization will be in no rush to bring the 21-year-old Nicolino to the big leagues. He is expected to start the year in Jupiter, and unless the Florida State League ceases to become any sort of a challenge for him, there's a chance the club will keep him there for the entirety of the 2013 season. If all goes according to plan, and Nicolino continues to dominate as he has thus far in his professional career, you can expect to see him at Marlins Park sometime around the end of 2014.
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