Marlins prospect Justin Nicolino primed to break through in 2015

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We already know the Marlins should have a strong starting rotation this in 2015. That’s not exactly breaking news. Even without a hypothetical James Shields, the Marlins return a young staff that includes an All-Star in Henderson Alvarez, a guy who found his groove in the National League in Jarred Cosart, an innings eater in Tom Koehler and a new potential ace in Mat Latos.

The rotation will be capped by either Brad Hand, David Phelps or perhaps Aaron Crow. That’s fine and dandy to start the season; if the fifth starter scuffles, the Marlins will give the next guy up a chance to keep the spot.

But when the inevitable occurs and the team needs to look elsewhere to fill out the rotation, the Marlins do have an arm or two waiting in the pipeline. Right now, Justin Nicolino seems to be the closest prospect ready to contribute at the major league level, and if his performance last year is an indication, his callup could be impending.

Nicolino is the last-remaining prospect from the 2012 trade with the Toronto Blue Jays after the Marlins traded away Anthony DeSclafani to acquire Latos last month. Considered the Marlins number 2 prospect by MLB.com, Nicolino just turned 23 in November, and was dominant at Double-A Jacksonville last year. In 28 starts, Nicolino went 14-4 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.068 WHIP while surrendering just 10 home runs across 170.1 innings. That ERA led the Southern League and his innings pitched ranked second.

The problem with Nicolino is that he didn’t strike anyone out. He whiffed just 81 batters last year, good for a 4.3 K/9. His career average in the minors is 6.7 K/9, so it’s unclear what caused the drastic dip. But he keeps the ball in the yard, and that alone can keep a guy pitching in MLB for a long time.

Scouts say Nicolino owns a low-90’s fastball with good movement, a plus-changeup – his best pitch – and a sweeping curveball. All three pitches project to be above-average Major League pitches, and he has remarkable control; Nicolino issued just 20 walks in his 28 starts in 2014.

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He also has the advantage of pitching left handed. The Marlins will likely begin the season without a southpaw in their rotation, unless Brad Hand wins that final spot. Even right now, Nicolino is probably a better option than Hand, but there is no reason to rush his development. Justin Nicolino is not Jose Fernandez, so don’t expect to see him on the Opening Day roster is the Marlins suffer some injuries in Spring Training.

Nicolino should be the first man up if the Marlins rotation needs help mid-season. If that happens, it probably won’t be until after the Super 2 deadline. However, if he owns Double-A like he did last year, expect Nicolino to be in the conversation by the end of the season. Jose Fernandez should be back by then, but the Marlins shouldn’t feel apprehensive about giving Nicolino a chance to help the team amidst a playoff push. If you recall, Dontrelle Willis did just that for the 2003 Florida Marlins. No, I’m not saying Justin Nicolino is the next D-Train. I am saying that a pitcher can only spin his wheels in Double-A for so long before a team’s hand must be forced. (The Marlins traditionally don’t promote their top prospects to Triple-A.)

So, rest assured, Marlins fans. When James Shields inevitably breaks your heart after signing with a different team, know that the Marlins rotation will still be in good shape. Help is on the way.

Next: Where does the young Marlins rotation rank?

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