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May 24, 2013
The Situation: After an active offseason that included the acquisition of starting pitchers Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, and Josh Johnson, the Blue Jays are now prepared to send their 10th starting pitcher of the season to the mound. In addition to Johnson’s injuries, J.A. Happ has been dealing with injuries of his own and Ricky Romero has been struggling through the first two months of the season. As if that weren’t enough, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison are still several months away from returning to the mound and the club was forced to send Ramon Ortiz to the hill this week. All of that leads to the call-up of left-hander Sean Nolin, the team’s no. 2-rated pitching prospect.
Background: A sixth-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2010, Nolin has had little trouble motoring through the minor leagues. After a 6.05 ERA in six New York-Penn League starts during his professional debut, Nolin has improved at every stop. With Low-A Lansing in 2011 he posted a 3.49 ERA in 108-1/3 innings, allowing just 102 hits and 31 walks while fanning 113 batters. He followed up that strong performance with a dazzling 2.19 ERA in 17 games (15 starts) for High-A Dunedin in 2012 before being promoted to Double-A New Hampshire. In just three starts with New Hampshire, Nolin notched a 1.20 ERA and better than a strikeout per inning. After some missed time early this season due to a pulled groin, Nolin has continued his Double-A dominance with a 1.17 ERA in three more starts.
Scouting Report: Physically, Nolin fits the bill of a quality major league workhorse. He has a sturdy 6’5” frame with plenty of strength and decent athleticism. He works downhill very well and generates good leverage with his pitches because of the steep angle created by his height. Nolin’s velocity typically sits in the 89-92 mph range, but he can touch the plus range when he needs a little extra. He has some arm-side life on his fastball, and he pounds the strike zone with ease. His best pitch is a plus changeup with excellent deception thanks to very good arm speed and some sink. He is willing to throw his changeup in any count to both left-handed and right-handed hitters.
Nolin features two breaking balls, including both a slider and a curveball that can earn average marks at their best. Nolin’s four-pitch mix allows him to work through lineups multiple times, particularly as he develops his ability to sequence effectively. He has yet to master the art of leading hitters out of the strike zone and he will have to take that step to have sustained success against major league batters. If Nolin’s sequence and location continue to improve, he could max out as a no. 3 starter on a good club. Even without continued progress, Nolin projects as a fourth starter capable of devouring innings.
Immediate Big-League Future: Given the Blue Jays’ rampant rotation injuries and the ineffectiveness of several other starters they have tried, Nolin will have a chance to lock down a rotation spot over the next couple of weeks. Even modest success could represent an upgrade for a club desperate to get back on track, and that type of window could allow Nolin to stick in the big leagues despite having made only starts above High-A. —Mark Anderson
Fantasy Impact: There are a lot of reasons to think that Nolin won’t be helpful in fantasy leagues right now. As Mark mentioned earlier, this start on Friday will be Nolin's seventh above A-ball—and while not having the experience of the upper minors has worked well for Jose Fernandez, he is clearly the exception and not the rule. On top of that, Rogers Centre is not the friendliest place for a pitcher who can be flyball prone without dominant stuff, and the Orioles have the fifth-highest slugging percentage as a team against left-handed pitching.
With all of that said, Nolin still projects as a very useful fantasy starter in the future and is worth grabbing in 14-team mixed dynasty leagues and deeper. But for now, he's best left for AL-only formats in redraft leagues. Nolin will likely get at least two starts to prove that he's ready for a permanent stay in the majors, but it's certainly reasonable that he could stick over the tire fire that is Ramon Ortiz* when Josh Johnson returns in a couple of weeks. As a starter who will almost certainly get more than one assignment, he should be worthy of a $3-4 bid in a single-league format. Mixed leaguers, even those in 14- or 16-team leagues, should keep him in their peripheral vision over his next two starts. If he looks the part of someone who can stick, then it may be time to pounce.
Mark Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProspectMark