With all the well-deserved hype surrounding Andrew Heaney, it is easy to forget the Miami Marlins have another promising young left-handed starting pitcher developing in their minor league system. 22-year old Justin Nicolino was acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in the trade that sent Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and others up north.
After entering the Marlins system at the beginning of the 2013 season, Nicolino began his Marlins career at High A ball, in Jupiter. He was fantastic in Jupiter posting a 2.23 ERA, and a miniscule 4.7 % walk rate in 96 and 2/3 innings pitched.
After dominating the Florida State League, Nicolino was promoted to Double-A Jacksonville, where things were not as easy. Nicolino struggled after making the jump to Double-A ending the season with a 4.96 ERA in 45 and 1-3 innings. He started the 2014 season back in Jacksonville, and has performed better so far. His ERA is currently 3.38 in 82 and 2/3 innings and that spectacular walk rate is down to only 3 %.
Nicolino features great command of an unspectacular fastball, a plus changeup, and an average curveball. He succeeds based on his ability to pound the strike zone, and limit walks. His changeup is clearly his best pitch, but the curveball is a good enough third option that he can remain a starter. He has not missed many bats at the minor league level, and I expect his strikeout rate to remain low in the majors. He does not have a high ceiling due to his average stuff, but currently Nicolino still projects as a solid back of the rotation starter. His worst case projection would likely be a dependable left handed reliever.
Even with his initial struggle in Double-A, not much has changed from the time the Marlins acquired Nicolino in November 2012. Time has passed, but the scouting report remains the same. It is clear Nicolino's elite command is still present and there is very little for him to fine tune at the minor league level. The Marlins could decide to promote Nicolino to Triple-A New Orleans soon, so he gets a taste of another level before the 2014 season ends. If the injury bug bites the Marlins in 2015, like it has this season, Nicolino might find himself in the big league starting rotation at some point next year. He may not feature the upside of Kolek or Heaney, but the depth he adds to the organization's starting pitching could end up being very valuable.