4. Justin Nicolino, LHP
Drafted: 2010, 2nd round out of University HS (FL)
Age: 22 Height: 6'3" Weight: 190 lbs.
If you have paid attention to the series of articles this past month ranking the minor league talent, you may have noticed a prominent trend within the system. The Marlins possess a bevy of polished, but relatively low-ceiling starting pitchers. Justin Nicolino ranks as the final, and best, member of this category.
Nicolino's defining attribute is his advanced feel for pitching. The 22-year-old makes the most of an unremarkable fastball, delivering the pitch consistently in the strike zone. The result is a stellar career 4.9 percent walk rate (major league average is 7.9 percent). He mixes in an excellent changeup and solid curveball to get swing-throughs, but he's unlikely to develop into a huge strikeout pitcher.
Originally drafted by the Blue Jays, he spent two years in their system before he was packaged into the blockbuster trade that also sent Jake Marisnick to Miami. Thus far, his tenure with the Marlins has presented him with the greatest challenges of his professional career. He produced a 2.46 ERA in 124 and one-third innings pitched for low Class A Lansing in 2012, but this last season saw his ERA rise to 3.11, and his walk and strikeout rates decline.
The slump was particularly acute following his promotion to Double-A, where he put up a 4.96 ERA in 45 and one-third innings. One explanation for this downturn may be the fact that he pitched 142 innings last season. The Marlins should be careful to not overtax the young lefty.
Despite his struggles at the end of last season, Nicolino looks to be very nearly a finished product. The surplus of pitching in the system will grant him another crack at Double-A, but under different circumstances, he could likely start in the majors today without too much trouble. His ability to mix velocities and locate to both sides of the plate might make him a better candidate to start now than Brian Flynn. Unlike Flynn, however, he represents an important piece in the Marlins' long-term future, and will benefit from additional seasoning in the minors.
Marlins fans expecting Nicolino to blossom into a first- or second-tier starter that overpowers hitters will be disappointed. He is not of that breed - rather he is solid middle-of-the-rotation piece that relies on precision and deception to obtain outs.