The Miami Marlins pulled the trigger on a change in the starting rotation as part of a sea wave of moves shifting from veterans to younger talent. The Fish optioned Jarred Cosart to Triple-A New Orleans, and the likelihood is that they will replace him with current New Orleans starter Justin Nicolino.
There is no doubt about it: Cosart has not pitched well in three starts. He has eight strikeouts versus 15 walks in 74 batters faced. Even with two intentional free passes, that is a simply horrific line. The best run that Cosart had as a starter in the majors was during his second half after the trade to the Marlins in 2014. He put the ball in the strike zone 52 percent of the time overall. Last year and this season, that has not even been close, as Cosart is at a career low 44.9 percent zone percentage for his pitches. This is contributing greatly to the fact that has walk rate has ballooned, but combine that with his inability to get strikeouts with more decent control and his package so far has been terrible.
The Marlins are pulling the trigger on a demotion early on in the season, and the question is whether the move was a right one. Often times, if you have doubts about whether the performance of a pitcher is "real" or just a short-term struggle, it can be a legitimate question. Remember, we are talking about three starts that just happen to be at the start of the season, making the numbers stand out a little more.
At the same time, this is not the same situation as someone like Steve Cishek last season, when a player with a great established track record lost his job briefly after a small sample of poor play. Cosart had legitimate questions about his performance stemming from last season's terrible 69 2/3 innings. The truth is that Cosart has had about 64 above-average innings in his career which otherwise has been marred with difficulty. It was wise for Miami to cut bait early if it has an appropriate replacement.
The question now is whether Justin Nicolino is an appropriate replacement. After the 2014 season, when Nicolino won the team's Minor League Pitcher of the Year award, the Fish have been very enamored with his performance. This has occurred despite the fact that his strikeout rates have been dwindling from his time in the low minors to his transition to Double-A. That continued last year and culminated into one of the worst strikeout years in recent Major League history; Nicolino whiffed just 23 batters in 74 innings while walking 20 in a very bad debut season.
He has more or less kept up the same profile in Triple-A New Orleans that he had last season. Last year, his performance before his promotion led Minor League Ball's John Sickels to say this:
Very few pitchers with low strikeout rates, especially extreme ones like Nicolino has shown in recent years, turn out to be successful. From 2013 to 2015, the lowest strikeout rate for a pitcher with a qualified number of innings is the 12.2 percent rate that Kevin Correia put up. Only three of the ten pitchers with the lowest strikeout rates in baseball at that time put up ERAs better than league average, and only one (Henderson Alvarez) had a FIP better than league average.
Nicolino has obvious warts, and there are legitimate questions about his game. But the question is not whether the Marlins have a wart-free pitcher to promote ahead of Cosart. The important point is to see if Nicolino is a better pitcher now as compared to Cosart. The answer there is likely no, but for Miami, they may as well try him out for a short run and see if Nicolino can figure something out in the big leagues. We also should see if Nicolino's trickery can last in the short run to provide the Marlins some sort of an edge; he already displayed some of it last season while posting a 4.01 ERA with horrendous underlying numbers.
Ultimately, the Fish were making a choice between two poisons, and they chose the younger but lower-upside Nicolino. For the next couple of games, that may do, but the best guess is that it ultimately may not make any difference.