Marlins pitching prospect Justin Nicolino is a very crafty left-handed starter with a chance to be a solid contributor in the team's starting rotation. He is continuing his development at Double-A Jacksonville in the Southern League.
I recently saw Nicolino pitch in the Southern League's All Star Game that was played in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Nicolino came to the Marlins as part of a blockbuster trade that sent shortstop Jose Reyes, pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck and infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio to the Blue Jays in November 2012.
Miami acquired shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, pitcher Henderson Alvarez, shortstop Yunel Escobar, catcher Jeff Mathis, pitcher Anthony DeSclafani and outfielder Jake Marisnick in the deal, along with Nicolino. In essence, the transaction reshaped both franchises and is paying dividends for both teams.
Nicolino attended University High School in Orlando, Fla. He had a commitment to attend the University of Virginia after throwing to a 4-2 record with a 1.95 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 44 innings as a senior. Instead, Nicolino signed a professional contract after the Blue Jays selected him in the second round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Nicolino is ranked No. 3 on the Marlins' Top 20 prospects list.
Nicolino doesn't overpower hitters with a high-velocity fastball or a sharp-breaking slider that buckles knees. To the contrary, his velocity stays consistently in the 91-93 mph range, with excellent movement and late "life" that changes the eye level of the batter. Nicolino is "sneaky" fast, because he mixes in extremely well-defined secondary pitches that include a curveball and a changeup.
Adding and subtracting speeds within his repertoire and using both sides of the plate form the foundation of Nicolino's approach. He controls his entire repertoire efficiently and repeats his smooth, measured delivery pitch to pitch. There are no extraneous movements or quirks in Nicolino's release.
When I saw Nicolino in Chattanooga, he completely fooled hitters with an over-the-top delivery that took advantage of his 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame. Pitching downhill, his fastball sank out of the strike zone and he induced ground balls and swings and misses. Nicolino's high leg lift added additional deception to his delivery. He hid the ball well, and it was difficult to pick up the rotation on his pitches.
Nicolino has an excellent mound demeanor and a "feel" for pitching. He knows what pitch to throw at any point in the count and doesn't get rattled with men on base.
Though Nicolino isn't there yet, I see some of the same qualities as the Giants' Madison Bumgarner or even the Phillies' Cliff Lee in his approach, repertoire and delivery. I'm sure Miami would be happy to have a starting pitcher with similar characteristics and mechanics to either of those standout left-handed starters.
If his results do not change, Nicolino's command and control will carry him to the big leagues. He throws strikes, and he doesn't walk many hitters. In fact, last year at Class A Advanced Jupiter and at Jacksonville, Nicolino walked only 30 batters in 142 innings, for an average of fewer than two walks per game. He is pitching with the same type of command and control this season.
Nicolino finished the first half of the 2014 Southern League campaign fourth in the league in innings pitched at 82 2/3, and with the third-lowest WHIP in the league at 1.10.
For his career, Nicolino has a sparkling 2.65 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP through his first 424 innings pitched. Left-handed batters hit over 100 points less than their right-handed counterparts against Nicolino.
Unlike staff aces such as Bumgarner or Lee, Nicolino projects to be a back-end-of-the-rotation starter, but his role could certainly grow and develop with success. Ultimately contributing to a Marlins staff that is loaded with a host of young, high-ceiling quality starting pitchers, Nicolino will offer a bit of a change of pace from the higher-velocity power pitchers that may pitch ahead of him in the rotation.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.