Sunday, February 26, 2012

2012 Top Prospects #7: Justin Nicolino

Name: Justin Nicolino
Position: Left-handed Pitcher
Acquired: 2nd round (2010)
Opening Day age: 20
Height/weight: 6’3”/160 lbs
Best/worst tool: Changeup/curveball
Risk factor: Medium
ETA: 2013

Scouting Report

Nicolino is both polished and projectable, making him one of the more intriguing pitching prospects in Toronto’s system. Nicolino has a good frame but not a whole lot on it, standing 6’3” while weighing only 160 lbs. It’s possible -– and hoped -– that Nicolino will add another twenty to thirty pounds to his frame over the next few years, giving some extra power to his arsenal while allowing him to retain a slender and athletic build. Despite such a slender frame, Nicolino already has above average velocity on his fastball, sitting 89-92 mph and touching 94 mph with good movement. The pitch has plus potential should the velocity see a spike to the 91-94 mph range (touching 96) as he gets bigger and stronger. His best pitch, however, is an advanced changeup with plus potential that he throws aggressively. Sitting in the upper 70’s, Nicolino’s change has good arm speed and a nice separation from his fastball. Rounding out the arsenal is a curveball, though it is a step behind his other two offerings. The curve clocks in the low to mid 70’s with some loop to it, though Nicolino has tightened up the spin significantly over the past year, giving it at least average potential. Nicolino has excellent mound presence and perhaps the best baseball IQ in the system. He is an expert at pitch sequencing and finding weaknesses in a swing to keep hitters uncomfortable, a skill set he acquired as a high schooler when he only threw in the low 80’s. Nicolino has plus command of all three pitches, allowing him to successfully use all four corners of the plate against both left handed and right handed hitters. He is consistent with an easy and well paced delivery, and he follows through with smooth arm action.

2011 Statistics and Analysis

15 games (12 starts), 61 IP, 39 H, 9 ER, 0 HR, 13 BB, 73 K
6-2, 1.33 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 10.77 K/9, 5.62 K/BB, 1.33 GO/AO

In 2011, Nicolino formulated one of the best pitching seasons by any minor leaguer in Blue Jays history. Making his professional debut with Low-A Vancouver after signing too late to realistically partake in 2010 ball, Nicolino absolutely dominated the Northwest League. While his late season promotion to Lansing made him ineligible for certain titles, he ranked (or would have ranked) 1st in ERA, 1st in WHIP, 7th in wins, and 9th in strikeouts. All this combined to make Nicolino the Northwest League’s top rated prospect, according to Baseball America. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Nicolino’s season was that none of it appears to be fluky. The 1.33 ERA and 0.85 WHIP are both very pleasing to look at, no doubt. The scary part is that the advanced peripherals actually agree that he pitched to his true talent level. While his strikeout, walk, and home run rates were outstanding (10.77, 1.92, and 0.00 respectively), his LOB% and BABIP were very average –- translating into a FIP in the 1.50 range. This suggests Nicolino wasn’t lucky –- he was actually as good as his numbers show –- and that’s a scary thought.

Expected 2012 Assignment: Single-A Lansing

Future Outlook

Despite being drafted as a high school pitcher in 2010 and not debuting until 2011, Nicolino could move very quickly through the system. Like Drew Hutchison in 2011, Nicolino’s combination of stuff, command, and pitching smarts could allow him to reach Double-A in only his second season, and allow him to be poised for a big league promotion in only his third year –- 2013. He’s still four or five years from entering his prime, but Nicolino could have the opportunity given to rare few to develop and mature in a major league clubhouse with a major league pitching coach. While the risk is certainly there with aggressive development, Nicolino has the mental acumen to handle the negatives while taking advantage of the positives.

Perfect World Projection: Top of the rotation starter, possible All Star appearances during prime years.

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