Nicolino is focused on making improvements

JUPITER, Fla. -- Some humbling outings at the end of 2013 have motivated Justin Nicolino heading into this season.

The 22-year-old, ranked as the seventh-best lefty-pitching prospect by MLB.com, left Double-A Jacksonville with a bitter feeling.

"This offseason was a big offseason for me," Nicolino said. "I left Jacksonville not happy with how I finished up there. I want to prove to myself that I was better than that, and I have stuff to improve on this year."

Nicolino opened last year at Class A Advanced Jupiter, where he impressed over 18 starts, going 5-2 with a 2.23 ERA. He was promoted to Double-A, where he endured some struggles in his nine starts, posting a 4.96 ERA in 45 1/3 innings.

Overall, Nicolino enjoyed a solid season, combining for an 8-4 record with a 3.11 ERA in 142 innings.

Nicolino is one of many promising pitching prospects in the Marlins' organization. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder likely will open the season at Triple-A New Orleans, but he has the potential to surprise, and could possibly win a big league rotation spot. However, chances are, his debut could come midway through or late in the season.

The Marlins have high expectations for Nicolino, who was acquired from the Blue Jays in November 2012. Within the organization, Nicolino is considered a serious student of the game. The lefty has an above-average baseball aptitude, and he has a real understanding of how to pitch.

Nicolino attended University High School in Orlando, and he now lives in the Tampa area. During the offseason, he trained at Cooper Speed-Strength School. Several big league hitters, like Denard Span (Nationals), Matt Joyce (Rays) and Clete Thomas (Twins), also train there.

"Those are big league hitters, they've been doing this a while," Nicolino said. "Span stood in one of my bullpens.

"I asked him, 'How did I look?' I asked him if he could see if I was doing anything differently. Having something like that helps out. Being able to talk to those guys, it helps my game out that much more."

His cerebral approach reminds some in the Marlins organization of Greg Maddux. Not that his stuff moves like the Hall of Famer's, but his ideas about pitching and ways he tries to set up hitters are similar.

Early in Spring Training, Nicolino is studying his teammates. He closely is watching Nathan Eovaldi, Jose Fernandez and Kevin Slowey, in particular.

"When I'm throwing my 'pen, I'm basically focused on what I'm doing," the lefty said. "But I'm a student of the game. All the big leaguers are throwing in that first group. I love watching Eovaldi pitch. Even in his bullpen, he attacks it, like he's attacking in a game. The same with Fernandez.

"Slowey, he's been doing it forever. Just to watch those guys, and see how they approach a bullpen, that's why they have success in a game. For me, that's the kind of approach I try to take."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter