Welcome to Chapter 100 of Fish Stripes’ All-Time Marlins Countdown! Today’s edition includes Andy Fox, Justin Nicolino, and Armando Almanza!
123. Andy Fox
The New York Yankees drafted Fox, a recent high school graduate from Sacramento, CA, in the second round of the 1989 Draft. It took Fox seven seasons and 737 minor league games to reach the big leagues. On April 7, 1996, Fox made his major league debut as the Yankees’ starting second baseman for the second game of a double-header. He went 0-for-3 with one strikeout in his debut, but would get his first major league hit four days later.
Although he didn’t have any plate appearances during the 1996 postseason, the rookie was a part of the Yankees’ World Series victory. Fox was used as a pinch runner in the division and league championship series against the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. He also pinch ran and was used as a defensive replacement in the World Series against the Atlanta Braves.
Fox spent the majority of his 1997 season in the minor leagues and was traded before the 1998 season to the Arizona Diamondbacks. During his first season with the Diamondbacks, Fox showed his defensive versatility, appearing multiple times at each of first, second, and third base, and each outfield spot. The following season, almost all of his starts came as a shortstop. Mid-way through the 200 season, the Diamondbacks ended up trading Fox to the Florida Marlins for outfielder Danny Bautista.
After being traded to the Marlins, Fox filled in wherever he was needed. A fractured finger which required surgery kept him off the field for over three months to start the 2001 season and he saw little playing time when he returned. He saw the most playing time for the Fish in 2002, where he started 112 games at shortstop. It was also only the second time in Fox’s career that he tallied over 300 at bats in a season. Although he played in 70 games for the Marlins the following year, he did not appear in their postseason run which led to the franchise’s second World Series win. Valued mostly for his flexibility on defense, Fox’s career batting line with the Marlins was .235/.326/.338. Over his four seasons with the Marlins, Fox played every position except pitcher and catcher. He was also awarded the 2002 Marlins Charlie Hough Good Guy Award.
After the Marlins granted his free agency, Fox signed with a few teams hoping for more playing time. He would end up playing only a combined 46 games for the Montreal Expos and Texas Rangers in 2004 and did not make it back to the big leagues in 2005.
Upon retiring, Fox began coaching in the minor leagues. In 2007, he returned to the Marlins and assumed the first base coaching role. He currently works in the Boston Red Sox Player Development department.
122. Justin Nicolino
Nicolino, a left-handed pitcher, had a commitment to attend University of Virginia but chose instead to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays after being selected in the second round of the 2010 Draft. After two stellar Single-A seasons in the Midwest League, Nicolino was part of a 12-player, fire sale between the Blue Jays and Miami Marlins. The Blue Jays sent Nicolino, Henderson Alvarez III, Anthony DeSclafani, Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarría, Jake Marisnick, and Jeff Mathis to sunny South Florida; the Marlins dished Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and José Reyes to frigid Toronto.
Nicolino did not disappoint in his first two seasons in the Marlins’ organization. He was named the Florida State League’s Pitcher of the Year while he was with the Jupiter Hammerheads in 2013 and the Southern League’s Pitcher of the Year while he was with the Jacksonville Suns.
After starting the 2015 in Triple-A, Nicolino made his major league debut on June 20, 2015 in a start against the Cincinnati Reds. He allowed only four hits over seven shutout innings and recorded the win. He would go on to start 11 more games for the Fish in 2015, striking out a total of 23 batters in 74 innings and holding a 4.01 ERA. Nicolino began the 2016 season as a starter, but was moved to the bullpen in September. Most of his appearances the following season were out of the bullpen as well.
Although he flashed promise at times, Nicolino’s inability to strike batters out proved to be a problem. His fastball velocity, which sat around 90 MPH, was among the slowest in the league. Additionally, each of Nicolino’s expected statistics (xBA, xSLG, xwOBA) were in the bottom 11% of the league across his three major league seasons. Below are Nicolino’s career Statcast statistics, from Baseball Savant.
Nicolino bounced around with a few teams after his 2017 season with the Marlins. Most recently, he played in the Chinese Professional Baseball League for the Rakuten Monkeys during the 2020 season.
121. Armando Almanza
Almanza, a left-handed pitcher from El Paso, Texas, attended New Mexico Junior College where he pitched the school’s first no-hitter in 1992. In the following year’s draft, the St. Louis Cardinals selected Almanza in the 21st round. He appeared in 23 Rookie-ball games in 1993, but would not pitch the following season due to an injury.
Across three Single-A season from 1995-1997, Almanza held a combined 2.99 ERA. After another strong minor league season in 1998, the Cardinals traded Almanza to the Florida Marlins for 1997 World Series hero Edgar Rentería. Along with Almanza, the Marlins also received pitcher Braden Looper and utility man Pablo Ozuna. After beginning the season in the minor leagues, the Marlins called up Almanza mid-way through the season. He made his debut on July 29, 1999, pitching 1 innings in relief of the starter who gave up seven runs early on against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Almanza dazzled during his first season with the Fish. He gave up only three earned runs across 15 innings, allowing only eight hits. When adjusted for league and ballpark factors, his 1.72 ERA was 155% better than league average (255 ERA+). In hindsight, however, Almanza did probably benefit from a bit of luck during the 1999 season. When considering only the events he had control over, Almanza posted a 3.33 FIP—more than a run and a half higher than his ERA.
As expected, Almanza would end up regressing closer to league average during the rest of his Marlins tenure. Almanza pitched in 51 games during the 2003 season, but an elbow injury which would require surgery kept him from appearing in the team’s September push for a postseason spot and the eventual 2003 World Series win.
A free agent after the 2003 season, Almanza signed with a few different teams in an attempt to make a comeback from his elbow injury. He appeared in 13 games with the Atlanta Braves in 2004 and six games with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2005.
In 2012, Almanza was honored by his hometown and inducted as part of the year’s El Paso Baseball Hall of Fame Silver Anniversary Class. Additionally, his El Paso Baseball HOF page notes that he coaches youth and high school baseball in the area.