Juan Nicasio is being slotted into a top 3 rotation slot entering this spring. What can the Rockies expect from him in 2013?
It's that time of year Rockies fans - Jhoulys Chacin is in the best shape of his life! Michael Cuddyer has a colorful new motto for Colorado this year (Chemistry! Toughness! Magic!), Walt Weiss expects great things from Todd Helton, and Carlos Gonzalez is entering his prime. Hey, the Rockies will even have two nationally televised games on Fox. In other words, spring training optimism is in the air. And who can blame them? It's always fun to look on the bright side of life.
Of course, there are some dark clouds - three lefties (Christian Friedrich, Edwar Cabrera, Erick Threets) are behind schedule due to various maladies. Various off-season power rankings have the Rockies among the bottom five teams in baseball. But still, the balance of spring training news is positive. And that's fine - even if I don't think the Rockies will break 80 wins this year, it's nice to envision the possibility of them doing so.
With that said, the starting rotation improving to a competitive group this season still seems like a reach at this point. Leave aside the fact that the Rockies are counting on a man who missed a year and a half to be their number 2 starter for a minute. That's another article all in itself. At least Jorge De La Rosa has a track record as a potentially great pitcher when healthy.
No, it's the faith the Rockies in Juan Nicasio as the number 3 starter that I find a little odd. Not because he doesn't have the potential to be a good starter - but simply because I'm not certain he'll ever be one on a consistent basis. Troy Renck thinks a top three of Chacin, De La Rosa, and Nicasio is all but guaranteed to happen.
As a story, it doesn't get much better than Juan Nicasio - from almost dead on the field from a broken neck to back pitching healthy in spring training (and eventually MLB) in less than six months. If he's as healthy as he claims, Nicasio very well could be a valuable starter for the Rockies this year. There's just a lot of obstacles that I see for him.
Nicasio is known as La Violencia around these parts for his powerful fastball (a pitch he's thrown 71% of the time in his MLB career), but hasn't truly been able to supplement it with secondary pitches. In the major leagues, that kind of arsenal isn't likely to cut it for long. Even worse, Fangraphs doesn't believe that this fastball is that valuable of a pitch either.
More worrisome to me is his comeback from a knee injury that kept his 2012 contributions to 58 innings pitched. Nicasio was great in 2011 until his injury, but he wasn't nearly as effective last year - his WHIP rose from 1.27 to 1.62, he allowed more flyballs (61% vs. 55%), and his walk rate increased from 2 to 3 batters per 9 innings.
Obviously, all these data points are colored by small sample size, but that's the problem with Nicasio - all we have with him is a small sample (130 major league innings). He's given us a glimpse of a workhorse pitcher who can succeed at Coors, but he hasn't done so at a consistent level.
Even with those concerns, Nicasio has shown the ability to get major league hitters out. His career ERA+ (which scales ERA to league average after adjusting for park effects) is 101. Major league average in ERA+ is 100, meaning that Nicasio has been slightly above major league average in his brief career. His career K/9 ratio is 7.8, basically meaning that he's struck out almost a batter per inning he's pitched. In the bullpen, allowed to use maximum effort with favorable matchups, that number could creep over 1 strikeout victim per inning.
Not that I'm necessarily advocating a move to the bullpen for Nicasio. I'm a firm believer in the notion that a club's five (or four, if that's your flavor) best pitchers should be their starters and pitching the most innings. In my mind, Nicasio does pass that test.
Ultimately, Nicasio could well be an excellent pitcher (park-adjusted) for Colorado this season. I just think that expecting him to be a solid member of the rotation is a bit of a stretch.