The Situation: Miami’s scheduled starter, Tom Koehler, woke up with a barking neck and back on Saturday and couldn’t pitch, so the Marlins recalled Justin Nicolino to make the spot start. Miami’s brass likely saw this situation coming, as Nicolino was held out of his scheduled start in New Orleans earlier this week.
Background: Nicolino was a second round pick in 2010 out of University High School in Orlando. The southpaw was part of the package of prospects Miami received from Toronto in exchange for Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes following the 2012 season. That year, he cracked BP’s top 101 prospect list on account of his advanced pitchability, potentially plus changeup, and good command. In the interim, the hype surrounding Nicolino quieted slightly when it became apparent that he wouldn’t miss many bats, and he ranked eighth on the Marlins Top Ten Prospects list this past spring.
Scouting Report: The 23-year-old Nicolino profiles best as a backend starter. He uses a simple and repeatable delivery that allows him to consistently throw strikes with all of his pitches. His best off-speed pitch is a changeup, which gives him a weapon for right-handed bats.
Nicolino commands his low-90’s fastball well. It’s a sinking two-seamer with arm side life and he employs it to generate weak contact and ground balls. He can consistently move the pitch around the strike zone, and on his best days, he has good command of it.
His best off-speed pitch is a change up that flashes plus. It features the same sinking action as his two-seamer, but the drop is sharper and the offering plays up because he’s consistent with his arm speed. He has a tendency to miss down with the change, but when he locates it properly, righties will chase it as it dives out of the zone.
Nicolino also throws a curve and a cutter. When I saw him in May, the curve was inconsistent: it generally features 1-7 action, but it can get slurvy when he overthrows. It’s not an out pitch, but it changes eye levels and gives hitters another look to worry about. He likes to use it to steal a strike early in counts. The cutter complements his fastball, though he’s struggled to locate it at times, and it’s very hittable when left out over the plate.
The knock on the left-hander is that he won’t miss bats, and it’s a fair criticism. His fastball topped out at 91 when I saw him, but he sat lower than that and none of his off speed pitches profile as consistent swing and miss offerings. That said, Nicolino has proven throughout his career that he can keep the ball down and out of the middle of the plate, and he should induce enough weak contact to survive in the rotation and carve out a career as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter. Cavernous Marlins Park is a perfect fit for Nicotine’s skill set and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him post ERA’s in the upper-3’s in his best seasons.
Immediate Big League Future: Jarred Cosart and Jose Fernandez are on the mend, and Koehler hasn’t been placed on the disabled list, so Nicolino’s first trip to the big leagues will likely be a short stint. Miami’s starters have struggled this season though, so a strong first outing just might help him earn a chance at a longer stint when the need arises down the line. —Brendan Gawlowski
Fantasy Impact: The Toronto Blue Jays’ present lack of rotation depth, and subsequent efforts to facilitate a trade remains one of the hottest storylines in baseball as we inch closer to the All-Star break. The root of the Blue Jays current pitching problems can be traced back primarily to the Noah Syndergaard deal from December 2012, but it looks even worse in hindsight when you factor in that Toronto also shipped out promising pitching prospects Anthony DeSclafani and Justin Nicolino in a deal with the Miami Marlins a month earlier (of course, we might be saying the same thing about their middle infield depth if they hadn’t gotten Jose Reyes).
Fittingly enough, Nicolino made his MLB debut on the road at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati last night, squaring off against DeSclafani, who has since evolved into a vital cog in the Reds rotation (3.33 DRA through 13 starts coming into last night). If you seek further proof that the baseball gods have a sense of humor, the pitcher Nicolino is unrealistically compared to (and was also included in that 2012 trade), Mark Buehrle, turned in a quality start north of the border earlier on Saturday afternoon.
The oft-heard Buehrle-lite comparisons are not without merit. Nicolino, who failed to crack Bret Sayre’s Top 100 Fantasy Prospects list entering the season, doesn’t possess overpowering stuff, as evidenced by a meager 5.17 K/9 in 13 starts at Triple-A New Orleans this season. He relies primarily on his stellar command and control to be effective. Nicolino hardly ever issues free passes (1.69 BB/9 over 576 professional innings) and has also excelled at keeping the ball in the park throughout his minor league career.
Nicolino isn’t a future fantasy star. He’s pretty much the “bizarro-world” version of Vincent Velasquez. He may own the lowest ceiling of any of the recent batch of pitching prospects to reach the majors, fantasy-wise, but the southpaw’s command and control give him one of the highest floors. Considering that a large majority of pitching prospects are lottery tickets, Nicolino is a safer investment than betting on the roadrunner to finally fall prey to Wile E. Coyote.
If he’s hitting his spots consistently and inducing weak contact like other control artists (Tommy Milone and Kendall Graveman for example), Nicolino should be a lock for 32 starts annually down the road. Long-term, he profiles as a serviceable back-end of a fantasy rotation starter in mixed leagues and a legitimate asset in NL-only formats. Given the current abysmal offensive climate in the NL-East (heck the entire National League while we’re at it), and the fact that he will pitch regularly in the spacious dimensions of Marlins Park, there is some fantasy intrigue if Nicolino can nail down a permanent rotation spot. For now though, he remains best left on the waiver wire in 15-team mixed formats. And even in NL-only leagues, given the uncertainty of playing time the rest of the way and the lack of strikeouts, it’s a tough sell to bid more than about $7-8 for his services. —George Bissell