First Pitch: Should Juan Nicasio Be in the Pirates’ Rotation?

BRADENTON, Fla. – The Juan Nicasio bandwagon is leaving the station.

Almost two weeks ago, I wrote that Nicasio looked like the typical Ray Searage reclamation project, even more so than Ryan Vogelsong or Jon Niese, who were the starting pitching options brought in this off-season. Nicasio didn’t look like he was guaranteed for success — and for that matter, neither did guys like Edinson Volquez or J.A. Happ — but he had much better stuff than the other guys.

The Pirates saw things they liked from Nicasio in Colorado, even though his numbers as a starter weren’t good (and that’s after removing the Coors Field effect). They saw things they liked when he moved to the bullpen in Los Angeles, and believed he could carry his reliever mentality over to the rotation. His slider also was much better last year, and he was able to keep the fastball down, but elevate it when he needed to. Overall, it was “crisper stuff” as Clint Hurdle described it.

At the time of that article, it looked like there was a good chance for Nicasio to make a start for the Pirates at some point this season, due to his role as the number six starter. After today, there might even be a chance that Nicasio could make that start sooner, rather than later.

Neal Huntington said today that Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and Jon Niese would take the first three spots in the rotation, with Jeff Locke, Ryan Vogelsong, and Juan Nicasio battling for the final two spots. That’s pretty noteworthy, as it was previously assumed that Vogelsong and Locke had their spots in the rotation, and Nicasio was destined for the bullpen. Huntington also clarified that it wasn’t exactly an open competition, but the fact that there might be some sort of competition is good news for Nicasio.

Following those comments, Nicasio went out and pitched a gem against the Twins. He threw five shutout innings, giving up two walks and five hits, and striking out eight. This came against guys who are primarily going to be starting for the Twins this year. It also follows a start where he threw four shutout innings against the Orioles, with no walks, one hit, and ten strikeouts. The Orioles start could be chalked up to the fact that their lineup might set a strikeout record this year. But it’s getting hard to ignore the overall results here. Nicasio has yet to allow a run in 15 innings, with a 24:5 K/BB ratio.

A rotation decision shouldn’t be based on Spring Training stats, nor should it be based on 15 innings of work. That’s all encouraging for Nicasio, and Locke and Vogelsong aren’t doing themselves any favors in the stats department (although Vogelsong looked good in his most recent start at Pirate City). So I wouldn’t give Nicasio a spot in the rotation just yet, all based on the stats.

You go back to the stuff, and it gets more intriguing. This is a guy who has been consistently hitting 91-95 MPH this spring, showing a much better fastball and more control than he has in the past. The slider and changeup are much improved, indicating that he might be carrying that success from the bullpen over to the rotation. If these trends continue, Locke and Vogelsong couldn’t touch Nicasio in the stuff department, and Jon Niese couldn’t either, for that matter.

If there’s an argument for Nicasio in the rotation, it isn’t the numbers. It’s the stuff. His fastball and the improvements he’s shown with the secondary stuff in the last year give him a great one-two combo. He had a .298 wOBA and a 92 wRC+ with the slider in 2014 as a starter. That dropped to .233/56 in 2015 out of the bullpen, which was by far the best of his career. The fastball saw some improvements, but still struggled with control. He’s not having the same control issues this spring, and Ray Searage has a track record of removing that from pitchers (SEE: Volquez, Liriano, Happ, Burnett, and almost every other reclamation starter or reliever).

I’m not ready to say that Juan Nicasio should be in the rotation right now. But it should definitely be a competition, and he’s definitely making a strong case for the spot. It would be one thing if this was just Spring Training stats. But these are Spring Training stats that are coming against MLB starters, and backed by some impressive stuff that the other rotation members don’t have. Honestly, the main reason I’m not saying Nicasio should be in the rotation right now is because of an ultra conservative approach to not make much of a few Spring Training appearances, and because there are two weeks remaining in camp.

The idea does sound appealing, though. Nicasio looks like a classic Ray Searage reclamation project, and his stuff gives him a chance to be more than just a filler until Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon arrive. He also has one year of control remaining beyond 2016, so if he does work out, they’ve got a good starter with a nice upside for 2017. If the worst case is that he starts in the bullpen, then the Pirates will have an excellent long man, allowing early hooks for Vogelsong and Locke. But it’s fun at this point to dream about the next big Searage reclamation project, and imagine him helping the Pirates for more than two months or one year.

**Site Updates: Pirates Prospects Meetup in Bradenton This Tuesday. Our meetup will be tomorrow after the game at Pirate City, which will now include the A-ball teams, rather than Triple-A and Double-A.

**Juan Nicasio is Officially Competing With Locke and Vogelsong For a Rotation Spot. Huntington’s comments on Nicasio, along with the bullpen and other roster matters.

**Pirate City Notes: Taillon Has Rough Outing vs Indianapolis and Altoona Hitters. Notes from Wilbur Miller at Pirate City today, and video of Taillon from myself. He was using the changeup a lot more often than usual, which could have led to the poor results. This is one of those cases where you don’t know whether it’s good news that the upper level hitters did so well against a top pitcher, or whether it’s bad that a top pitcher struggled.

**“That’s the last time I ever have to sit in the office and be sent back down.”. If you missed it from last week, a look at what Taillon was doing in MLB Spring Training, and what he will be working on in minor league camp. Also, some very candid comments about his future.

**Francisco Liriano, Daniel Bard Roughed Up in Split Squad Contest. Ryan Palencer breaks down the poor outings from Liriano and Bard, with the latter showing his second total lapse of command in a row.

**Elias Diaz Experiencing Lateral Right Elbow Discomfort. Hopefully this won’t be a big issue, since Diaz is the top depth option for the Pirates this year.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Strong Reports For Hudson, Robinson Shows Plus Defense. John Dreker breaks down the latest from a few draft prospects who could be in the Pirates’ range.

  • Hate to make too much out of spring stats and success, but the way Nicasio is pitching you can certainly dream on some huge upside in the rotation…certainly worth a shot on a team with fairly established questionmarks at the #4 and #5 spots in the rotation.

  • Clint will start Nicasio in the bullpen because he’ll say that he likes him better there than he likes Vogelsong or Locke. Which makes no sense, as you’d rather have whomever you like best in the starting rotation.

    • I agree with Booma. If Nicasio can consistently be effective then he should get the consistent innings versus a Vogelsong, whose stuff isn’t nearly as good. Rather have Nicasio`s stuff going five or six innings than RV with his junk. Let RV pitch in long relief and/or mopup situations.

  • Is this a trick question? Of course, you take a guy with arm talent who is pitching well over those other turds—i.e. Locke and Vogelsong. In fact, right now, there are 3 other Locke’s I’d rather have in our rotation than our “Robin” (holy inferiority complex Batman), namely: the philosopher, the guy from Lost and the punter for the Vikings. There are also probably about 8 pitchers in the WPIAL’s with better arm talent than the LV connection.

  • I wonder if they’ll all get one start in order to get one more start for Cole in extended spring training.

  • I have been saying from the beginning that I was hoping that Nicasio would win a rotation spot just because of his “stuff”. If Ray has fixed the control problems, then he is definitely our #4 (or #3 depending where Niese slots).

    So now, it is down to Locke or RV for #5. Since Locke “traditionally” has good first halfs, make him our #5. And then bring up JT or TG for the second half.

  • Bottom line, the Pirates need to get off to a fast start. The hot hand(s) get the job initially. I’m happy to see there is a competition.

  • Nicasio certainly is showing some compelling results thus far in ST and some good results previously, though obvious ups and downs…. For me? If anyone cares :)…. I’ll just wait it out and see what happens the next couple weeks of ST and be tickled to death we have a potential option (perhaps) to get in the conversation (already there) or beyond that…. Wouldn’t be a bad thing if he just knocked down that door (was that Bum Phillips?) and made the decision obvious, that would have to be a good thing and not a knock on the other two competing…. should be fun seeing what happens, of course, my fingers are crossed we have something special while tempering that optimism the best I can 🙂

  • I am torn between my belief that spring training stats shouldn’t matter and the fact that this team needs to get off to a good start. Because the division has been so close the last few years, I would have Nicasio join the starting rotation and let Vogelsong pitch multiple innings from the pen as needed. If Nicasio doesn’t work out, send him back to the bullpen.

    • The Rotation will be alright – worry about the hitting. A few guys are hitting, but this team is not producing anywhere near the runs it must produce in order to be successful once the season starts. Just remember the 18-22 record the Bucs posted out of the gate in 2015, and it would not have been that good if not for the Rotation led by Cole, Liriano, and Burnett.

      We seem to have good hitters who are just not putting anything together. If we are going to contend in 2016 the whole lineup must contribute. Having to move ‘Cutch up to #2 in the order because we lack a true leadoff hitter and guys like Harrison and Polanco are not getting it done spells big trouble for this team. I sure hope they start to put it together in the next few weeks.

  • I was hoping to get over to Pirate city today but we have a new client coming in and I got stuck with him. Hopefully you can do another event during the season (hopefully a weekend). Hope everyone has a blast.

  • I know it’s early for Nicasio to say he’s “fixed” but I’m always surprised by how quickly these reclamation projects are improved. With Happ it took the Pirates a week to turn him from a 4+ ERA back end starter to going on lights out domination for 2 months. I wish I had Ray Searage as a coach in High school!

  • Seems to me that all three are likely to make a start before Cole does, so we should get to see if Nicasio’s ST carries over to April. If Nicasio looks great, I’d have no issue with giving him a slot in the rotation until he shows he’s not fit for it. I don’t see why the Pirates would have an issue with that, given their slow starts the last couple of seasons.

  • Tim: You make an awfully good case for Nicasio to be in the Rotation based on changes he has made over the past year, which includes a full MLB season where he became a solid relief pitcher. He also comes with parts of a few years as a SP in Colorado. Therefore, his performance so far in ST is just icing on the cake.

    A few questions. Does he have a workable third pitch? Even though he only has 4 years of MLB service time, I think we got him as a FA. Therefore, unless we sign him to an extended deal, he will become a FA again after 2016? If that is the case, and we know he can be a SP/RP, would you advocate trying to sign him to at least a second year right now?

    • PiratesFan1975
      March 22, 2016 5:59 am

      He’s still in his arbitration 2 and 3 years the next two years. An extension isn’t required. They control him through arbitration in 2017 and 2018 if they want him.

      • PF 1975: I think he could have still been in Arb if he had not been non-tendered by the Dodgers in Dec 2015. I am not sure of the rules, but non-tendering enabled him to become a Free Agent immediately, and he is no longer bound to one team after this season. Who is our resident rules guy?

        • You have to have at least six seasons of service time to become a free agent. He will have five years and 84 days at the end of the 2016 season. That means Pirates control his rights next year and he will be arbitration eligible.

  • The option of course exists to use an unconventional approach with those spots in the rotation, as well, piggybacking a couple guys to keep them from getting exposed or simply having quick hooks on their starts. Having so many possible relievers who can go multiple innings kind of gives them that luxury, so that even if they need to use that quick hook on back-to-back starts, as long as Liriano’s solid the next game, the bullpen doesn’t get wiped out.

    I’d actually be inclined to go that sort of unconventional route with the way the roster is constructed this year. I’d use Nicasio as a starter, though, in that scenario, because he has the biggest single-start upside to just shut another team down and not have to use the other starter to piggyback.

    • That’s a pretty radical approach even for the progressive Pirates. I’m inclined to believe they will choose Locke and Vogie unless Nicasio makes it all but impossible not to choose him to be in the rotation to begin the season.

  • piraterican21
    March 22, 2016 12:31 am

    For all credit that raging sea gets for fixing these cast off, it confuses me a bit that Locke is still a mess Morton was a mess and Glasnow seems far away from grabbing the 5th spot later this year.

  • I think if i were the pirates. I’d probably Start Vogelsong and Locke unless either of them really struggles with control or just falls off the face of the earth in Spring Training and have Nicasio out of the bullpen. You have to remember Locke is working on new mechanics and so is mostly throwing 1 or 2 pitches i believe trying to locate them in the strike zone. Now if either Vogelsong or Locke begin to just pitch poorly in early April and into May, then you can always slide Nicasio into the Rotation.
    After last year’s slow start, I can’t imagine management wanting to have that happen again.
    The question becomes can Vogelsong and/or Locke be a good bullpen arm if you take one of them out of the rotation. If not, I think at some point you release one of them. Vogelsong was a 1 year deal, so you don’t lose much if he pitches poorly and gets cut. Locke i’m not sure where he is contract wise, but he could possibly be waived too and maybe the pirates might try to get him into the minors however, highly likely some team struggling would grab him to see if they could fix Locke.

    • Robert Dawson
      March 22, 2016 12:37 am

      All the more reason to start Nacisao over Vogalsong. He has more upside and could be a starting option past this year. Vogalsong is disposable..

    • Locke is working on a new delivery which is basically the same as his original one that had when he stunk up the joint a few years ago. If you take the fact he’s LH out of the equation he would’ve been gone last year. He had 10 quality starts last year out of 30. Which means in 20 out of 30 he didn’t give his team a reasonable chance to win. I’ve seen enough of him. Then he has the kahoona’s to think he shouldn’t have to compete for a spot in the rotation. Must be hanging with Bryant

      • Nothing like a shot at his manhood based on no evidence to really lend credibility to an argument.

        • Has nothing to do with manhood, it’s the audacity in his thinking that he shouldn’t have to compete for a spot in the rotation. He’s had 3 good months in his career, but yet he thinks he has arrived. Which is a joke. If he was RH he wouldn’t even be considered for a spot in the Pen

          • Go ahead and show me the quote where he said he feels he doesnt have to compete for a spot.

            Hot takes for dayz.

            • It was a sound clip on the fan radio station

              • Where he absolutely didnt say “yeah, I really dont have to compete for a spot.”

                But since Pedro and his weird hat are gone, and Morton left town, we get to enjoy this more. Yippie.

                • I heard the sound clip twice. But I guess since you didn’t hear it, it didn’t happen. Glad to know you’ve read every article & heard every interview. Let me know when your check comes in the mail.

                  • Its BS, and you can bluster all you want and it doesnt change it.

                    I have no doubt he said something you disliked on The Fan and you took as proof that he expects the job, but I also have no doubt it wasnt explicitly stating he feels he doesnt battle for a job. He’s never said he felt he should have been given a job, and 2-3 weeks ago he literally said “i’ve always had to fight for the job every spring”. What a douche!

                    This is “Pedro got fat and is lazy” 2.0. Dont be a flawed player in PGH, because then you also get labeled lazy, a headcase, or entitled. Pedro was lazy (after he didnt care enough), Morton was a headcase, Locke is entitled. Running out of negative buzz words for the next back end rotation arm fans dislike. Watch out Kingham.

                    • jamminjoe66
                      April 1, 2016 1:37 am

                      I’ve never said a word about Pedro or Morton. That’s just you being a douche. I would take Morton over Locke any day.
                      Locke even stated if he knew he was competing for a spot in rotation he would’ve approached things differently.
                      I know I don’t sit & read every article or listen to every interview or sound bite. But I know what he said in this particular sound bite.

                    • I never said you said it, i said that fans said it over and over. Pirate fans love a whipping boy.

                      Its what Pirate fans have done for the last 10 years. There will be one player who is ML caliber but inconsistent, and a segement of the fanbase will make his lack of talent into more than that.

                      Pedro was lazy for many fans, Morton was a headcase who couldnt handle pressure. Now Jeff Locke has become an entitled guy who thinks he deserves things handed to him.

                      Not a coincidence that this narrative went from almost never talked about to the biggest of the offseason the moment Pedro and Morton left. He’s the new whipping boy when fans are upset that he isnt AJ Burnett talent level.

      • If Locke wasn’t a lefty, he would have never made the MLB.

    • I think people are weary of Locke and his constant justifications every time he has a poor outing. This is a winning team and he needs to produce or be replaced. The Pirates have options this spring and one guy is making a very strong case to be a better option as a starter.

      • So long as we ignore than its not a 2 man race for the rotation, yup.

        But wait! Ryan Vogelsong is still alive and we still need a 5th starter even if we concede the 4 to Nicasio. The Pirates have options, and 3 weeks ago we all knew we disliked Vogelsong for valid reasons.

        Now, Locke justifying that he isnt trying to stuff the stats sheet in spring training is enough to like Vogelsong more.

        Its Ryan Vogelsong. Yes, that Ryan Vogelsong. He’s not better than Locke, and no amount of random dislike for Locke ignores that.

    • What?

  • Robert Dawson
    March 22, 2016 12:26 am

    I’d say if he keeps up what he’s doing he deserves a shot at starting. He has good stuff! Lock is inconsistent and Vogalsong is on his way’s worth a shot

  • From what I see now.. I’d take him over locke

    • piraterican21
      March 22, 2016 9:35 am

      I do believe that he deserves to begin the season in the rotation with Volgenson in the pen. If he somehow fails I wouldn’t rule out him becoming our future closer.