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A review of the Marlins-Blue Jays trade pitching prospect choice

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The Marlins could have had Noah Syndergaard in their 2012 trade with the Toronto Blue Jays. They chose Justin Nicolino instead. How did that decision look at the time?

New York Mets v Miami Marlins Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images

After the disappointing 2012 season, the Miami Marlins traded Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and two other players to the Toronto Blue Jays to acquire a slew of prospects and players at the big league level. Thus far, the only players left on the Major League roster from that trade are shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, who has a seemingly infinite leash, and Jeff Mathis, who is some sort of sorcerer. Justin Nicolino, the team’s major pitching prospect from the deal, was demoted on Monday in favor of a journeyman Quad-A pitcher in Paul Clemens. Nicolino threw 55 2/3 innings of mediocre ball and, over the course of a still-young 129 2/3 innings career, owns an overall 4.51 ERA and 4.56 FIP.

We all know Nicolino’s problems, and this is not to harp on that. This article is to harp on something brought up by the Miami Herald’s Clark Spencer about what could have been in that trade.

According to sources with knowledge of trade discussions with the Blue Jays in November, 2012 — the 11-player exchange in which the Marlins salary-dumped Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle — the Marlins were given a choice of three prized prospects who had spent the previous summer at Single A Lansing.

[Noah Syndergaard], [Aaron Sanchez] and Nicolino.

Take your pick.

At the time, it wasn’t the easy choice that it appears now.

Spencer asks if you could imagine the dream scenario of Noah Syndergaard, currently playing the role of elite ace and Marvel superhero for the New York Mets, was on the roster instead of Nicolino backing up Jose Fernandez. Spencer says that, at the time of the deal, it was not an obvious selection between the three highly-regarded pitching prospects.

Let’s look back and see.

Stats
Player, 2012 Low-A IP K% BB% ERA FIP
Noah Syndergaard 103 2/3 29.1 7.4 2.60 2.36
Justin Nicolino 124 1/3 24.0 4.2 2.46 2.70
Aaron Sanchez 90 1/3 25.7 13.5 2.49 3.57

Of the three, one would probably look at Syndergaard’s stats and consider him the best performer. Nicolino and Syndergaard were close, and both were depending on stuff primarily to limit home run contact and lower their FIPs, but Syndergaard was probably the better pitcher. In the minors, it may be better to get by via striking out hitters rather than limiting walks, particularly in the early levels. Batters are less disciplined in the low minors, likely leading to more strikeouts and fewer walks naturally, but the best ceilings lie in hard-hitting stuff rather than elite control.

Still, in looking at both pitchers, you could easily see Nicolino’s stats being close to Syndergaard’s. They both had similar ERAs and FIPs, and it is not as though Nicolino’s strikeout rate was disappointing. A 24 percent strikeout rate is nothing to scoff at, and he did something similar in his short-season league play from the previous season. Numerically, they are pretty close and a good deal ahead of Sanchez, who was obviously struggling with walks.

Scouting

This is where it gets interesting. Spencer notes the Baseball America rankings.

Baseball America in 2012 ranked Nicolino as the No. 5 prospect in the talent-laden Jays organization. Sanchez was No. 6. Syndergaard was No. 7.

However, these guys were pretty closely ranked, and there was no consensus in terms of order. John Sickels of Minor League Ball had them ranked differently, with Syndergaard placed at third, Nicolino fourth, and Sanchez down to tenth.

I think it is more important to point out what smart scouting-types like Sickels said about these players. Here was his blurb on Syndergaard.

3) Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Grade B+: I'm a believer in his stats, his size, his command, and his fastball, and I think the secondary stuff will come around. Can easily be in the A-range next year.

Compare that to Nicolino’s blurb.

4) Justin Nicolino, LHP, Grade B+: I think Syndergaard's ultimate ceiling is a bit higher, but Nicolino isn't far behind, and is more polished with his secondary pitches. Could also be in the A-range next year.

Both graded out at the same B+ level, making them essentially even prospects. But note the essential difference between the players: ceiling. Syndergaard was the prospect built to be an ace; he is a Thor-like 6’6", 240 pounder with an imposing frame and high velocity coming out of his right arm. He was a big Texas farmhand from Mansfield, Texas, and ended up being a supplemental first round draft pick in 2010. By contrast, Nicolino was seen as a safer player, a more polished pitcher with good secondary offerings and a lower ceiling. He is 6’3" and 190 pounds throwing in the low 90’s from the left side.

It is an odd thing to compare the two in terms of their outlook from back then, particularly when you know the Marlins’ preference for players in the draft. The team has always swung for the fences in terms of midwestern hard-throwing right-handers; witness the selection of high schooler Tyler Kolek versus the more polished collegiate Carlos Rodon in 2014. The team had swung towards trying to find left-handed pitching for its future rotation, but even then it took a tall lanky midwestern lefty in Andrew Heaney. Nicolino was a surprising choice for Miami, a lower-ceiling option in the low minors.

It is one thing if the Fish were trying to decide between pitchers who might have different arrival times. However, both Nicolino and Syndergaard were coming off seasons in Low-A, and Nicolino was a year older than Syndegaard at the same level. Given how Miami loves upside in its prospects, why would it take the lower-upside guy?

Then again, we know that the Marlins have liked to build their rotation full of strike-throwing ground-ball pitchers, and Nicolino had the control element of his game down in the minors. It only serves to make an odd dichotomy: the Marlins look for high-upside fireballers in the draft and seek low-upside strike-throwers in the majors.

Syndergaard at the time was the guy more likely to become an ace and more likely to bust. Miami chose Nicolino, and clearly in retrospect it was the wrong decision. However, both pitchers were similarly regarded at the time, and Miami wanted a safer bet. The decision to take the higher-floor pitcher may eventually haunt Miami for a long time, but it was a very defensible move at the time.