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.