The Miami Marlins' farm system was ravaged after a series of trades knocked out what little high-level depth it had left. Those trades served to bolster the main roster, but the consequence is that the Fish may be stuck with this roster for the foreseeable future due to limited trade flexibility and a lack of replacements in the minors.
One of those potential replacements however is Justin Nicolino, the left-handed starter who is widely viewed as the team's third-best prospect. Nicolino was the pitcher of the year in the organization last season after what appeared to be a dominant Double-A campaign in 2014, but there were plenty of problems with his game even with that year. Nicolino may be the Marlins' best bet for immediate pitching help in the coming years, but his profile is a dangerous one in the Majors.
The Scouting Report
Nicolino serves up marginal offerings and depends a lot on command and control to get by. His fastball is a typical left-handed offering, working in the high-80's to low-90's with enough sink to coax ground balls on weak contact. He also boasts a plus changeup, which is probably his best offering and a critical one as a left-hander facing predominantly righty hitters. Like the fastball, Nicolino works the changeup low to help induce ground balls, but like the rest of his pitches, it does not get much in the way of whiffs. His third offering is a curveball that lacks hammer-style 12-6 movement and ranges below average to average.
The Camp Quesiton
Nicolino is here at camp for a second straight season, but he is only there to work against big-league hitting until an eventual demotion. His goal should be to establish either a revamped or improved curveball to get more whiffs or to double down on his contact-control gameplan. Settling in to one or the other should give Miami a better idea of what type of player they may have in the next two years.
Nicolino has a chance to work this upcoming season in September, but with the Marlins getting a commitment from Dan Haren and having acquired a lot of middling swingman players like David Phelps and Aaron Crow, the Fish may not need Nicolino to start immediately in 2015. That may be just as well, since it avoids rushing him and gives him another minor league season to prove he can get whiffs like he did in Low-A ball a few years ago. Expect a full-time promotion, if he makes it, in 2016.
I asked a few questions about Nicolino to our two new prospect mavens, Jason Tate and Jarrett Cowgill. Here are the responses to a quick roundtable on the lefty starter.
1. What is Justin Nicolino's biggest strength?
Michael: His control has been impeccable throughout his career. He has walked 4.2 percent of his batters faced his entire career, including an insane 2.9 percent last season. Walks are the bane of non-strikeout pitchers, and being able to limit them is imperative for a guy who depends on his defense to make outs for him.
Jason: His tall frame, high baseball IQ and a deceptive overhand throwing motion that creates an excellent downward plane on his pitches, allowing him to keep his strikes low in the zone, and generate weak contact. This was evident in his .03% HR/FB ratio in 2014. Also, being labeled a command and control style pitcher, he registered an impressive walk rate per nine innings of 1.06 in 2014. With pinpoint control on his fastballs in the strike zone, his arsenal of pitches play up.
Jarrett: Nicolino's biggest strength has to be his command. His control of all three of his pitches rate as above average; impressive for someone just 23 years old. More impressive is the fact that he walked only 20 batters in just over 170 innings pitched last year.
2. What is his biggest weakness?
Michael: It's hard to get Major Leaguers out when you cannot get strikeouts. Nicolino's kind of strikeout issues just do not play well in the big leagues. There are tons of would-be starters who can pound the strike zone but, with the bat speed and recognition of Major Leaguers in their way, get hammered instead of allowing soft grounders for outs. His lack of whiffs is a huge detriment.
Jason: His below-average curveball that has been labeled more of a slurve at 77-80 MPHs than a 12-6 hammer out pitch. Leading to the dramatic statistical regression shown in his strikeout to walk rate, that fell from 24 percent in Low-A to 11.8 percent after being promoted to Double-A Jacksonville in 2013. The guy needs a "whiff" factor pitch besides the change.
Jarrett: Is lack of strikeouts a weakness? It is? OK. Lack of strikeouts. The kid's stuff is not going to blow anyone away, evidenced by the fastball topping out at 90 mph or just a shade above. He pitches to contact, and while that is great to a point, major league hitters tend to hit baseballs farther than Double-A hitters when they make contact. There have been no red flags so far during his career, but it is something to keep an eye on.
3. What is Nicolino's ceiling?
Michael: Nicolino fits the Marlins' recent profile of low-ceiling, high-floor pitchers epitomized by Andrew Heaney. Nicolino is a bit worse than Heaney, who had no issues or cautionary signs of impending problems while he motored through the minors. As a result, his ceiling is a bit lower than Heaney's, but sits right at a number three starter in the rotation. Henderson Alvarez is a perfect example of what Nicolino could be if he extended his game to its logical extremes.
Jason: Future ace, or even a strong number two in the Marlins rotation behind Jose Fernandez. If he can hone in on the consistency with his curveball like we all hope he can, and astound at the Major League level like he has at the minors, he has a chance. After all, he was named the 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year and finished ranked first as the top control starter in the organization.
Jarrett: Nicolino's ceiling appears to be a No. 3 starter. His lack of a dominant pitch will likely prevent him from taking a top two spot in a rotation, but his excellent command of his pitches profiles well in the middle of a rotation. Just look at that 1.103 career WHIP!
4. What is his floor?
Michael: Fifth starter or swingman fodder. Nicolino definitely has a floor as a guy who may never quite cut it in a rotation, but being a lefty does help keep you on rosters more often than not, even with underwhelming stuff. Look at guys like Kevin Correia or Jeremy Guthrie as examples of guys who are in and out of the league with strikeout issues.
Jason: Worst case scenario for a healthy Justin Nicolino would entail holding down the back end of the Marlins rotation, either as a fourth or fifth starter. Again, it all rides on his curveball.
Jarrett: His combination of less than overpowering stuff and his tendency to find bats conspire to stunt his growth; he may get shelled upon his promotion to the big leagues. It is hard to project him as a bullpen arm due to his lack of an elite pitch, though he could find a home in middle relief. In the end, he just commands his pitches too well to fall out of the rotation. His floor is a fourth/fifth starter.