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Marlins Rotation Candidates: Justin Nicolino

The last man standing from the 2012 Blue Jays trade tries to make the most of his last chance in Miami.

You will be not so surprised to learn that Nicolino was hit hard by the Cubs in this appearance last season: 4.0 IP, 7 H, 3 R (2 ER) on 6/24.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Who’s more to blame: the former Marlins front office or their former player development staff?

Doesn’t really matter at this point. The 2017 sale of the franchise brought with it wholesale changes to the decision-makers in those departments. Evaluation tools and philosophies are different—and hopefully, better—moving forward.

Following the example of several recent World Series champions, the Marlins have switched their focus to amassing young, impact talent. The intent is to nurture these controllable players into the core of a consistent major league contender. There’s finally a future worth getting excited about.

However, we can’t escape the reminders of mediocrity under the previous regime. Like left-hander Justin Nicolino, who is vying for a spot at the back end of the 2018 starting rotation.

Nicolino came to Miami with a strong pedigree—second-round draft pick in 2010, dominant in his first full season of pro ball in 2012. The following winter, he was regarded as a consensus top-100 prospect in baseball. The Blue Jays decided to sell high, sending him south with six other players in their controversial trade with the Marlins.

Nicolino was called up from Triple-A New Orleans in June 2015 for his MLB debut and sent back down, then recalled and demoted again, up and down, up and down, up and down. Which brin—WAIT, not done yet! He went back and forth two more times, and the Marlins brought him up again in August 2017, where he remained through the end of the season.

*check Nicolino’s transaction log one more time before continuing*

Which brings us up to speed (finally). The 26-year-old survived Friday’s first round of cuts from major league spring training, partially because all that movement left the Marlins out of minor league options. Deciding not to carry him on the Opening Day roster would mean making him available to the other 29 clubs, an embarrassing turn of events considering what was originally expected.

Did the Marlins overrate Nicolino as a key piece of that Blue Jays trade package? Or did their coaches just fail to prepare him for advanced batters in the upper minors? By any standard, his 4.65 ERA and 4.84 FIP in 50 MLB regular season appearances is disappointing.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

There’s still time to salvage this situation, but not much of it. Nicolino will either earn one of the three rotation openings or seek employment elsewhere—manager Don Mattingly intends to fill the mop-up roles in the bullpen with pitchers who have options remaining, according to Craig Davis of the Sun Sentinel. That roster manipulation ensures the team always has fresh arms for emergency situations.

Within that same Davis report, Nicolino explains how he spent the entire offseason searching for solutions. There were conversations with Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer, rededication to his slider and recognition of what previous caused his struggles:

“Now with the mentality of throwing a slider, I’m basically throwing through the baseball instead of trying to manipulate the baseball. It’s allowing me to get on top of everything else—it’s out front, it’s better bite, better depth. I’m just gripping it and ripping it.”

Don’t be so quick to pooh-pooh these adjustments. Nicolino had a very difficult time enticing swings-and-misses with his old pitch selection. His 9.8 percent strikeout rate is by far the lowest in the majors since 2015 among 204 pitchers who completed at least 200 innings. It’s possible to overcome that by limiting hard contact and keeping balls in play on the ground in a homer-happy league, but he has not been checking those boxes, either.

So at least Nicolino is barking up the right tree. Has it helped?

The 2018 spring training stats are—and always will be—inconclusive. As of Tuesday morning, Nicolino has pitched six innings in three games, already allowing one home run, but also racking up six strikeouts. To his credit, these outings came against relatively strong preseason competition (8.3 Opponent Quality on Baseball-Reference’s 1-to-10 scale).

Based on in-game execution and backfield workouts, the Marlins have a tricky assessment ahead. Do they believe Nicolino can become a competent starter despite his little league velocity, good enough to hold some value as a trade chip or even reassert himself as part of their long-term plans?

If the potential is still real, he would be worth carrying on the 25-man roster one last time.