Juan Nicasio has been through more than most MLB pitchers. Whenever one of his teammates talks about adversity, Nicasio can win that argument by saying "Yeah, well my neck was broken after I got hit by a line drive in the head, then I returned to the big league starting rotation just eight months later". For that, Rockies fans, players, and (I suspect) management will always have a soft spot for La Violencia. It's an incredible story, one that isn't remarked upon often enough when considering the success Nicasio has had post-injury.
Even before the injury, which occurred during his rookie season in 2011, Nicasio profiled best as a reliever. He had ridden a fastball-slider arsenal (throwing those two pitches about 90% of the time) from the Dominican Republic through the minor leagues as a lightly regarded prospect whose calling card was generating a lot of strikeouts. The apex of this was his 2010 season in High A Modesto, in which Nicasio struck out 171 hitters in 177 innings to lead the minor league system in Ks.
As such, the general mood around Nicasio within this community was that he was a potential future closer, but that he should be given the chance to start first. Entering 2014, Nicasio had 55 big league starts and was a passable (but very replaceable) fifth starter for the Rockies. After a dreadful start to the season in the rotation, many fans got their wish and Nicasio made the transition to the bullpen.
Nicasio was not good as a starter in 2014. He allowed four or more runs in 8 of his 14 starts this year, lasting six or more innings in just half of them. However, injuries to other prospective rotation mates as well as (in my opinion) some positive goodwill from the resiliency he'd shown in his career kept him in the rotation until mid-June, when the Rockies were already fading well out of the playoff picture. Not so fun fact about Nicasio - his 14 starts and 93 2/3 innings pitched this year were fifth most this year for the Rockies.
In the 73 innings he threw during those 14 starts, Nicasio was 5-5 with a 5.92 ERA, 5.65 FIP, and 1.59 WHIP. Batters teed off against Nicasio, hitting .305/.361/.546 against him as a group. In addition, batters were hitting a home run against Nicasio 18% of the time when he allowed a fly ball. Nicasio was struggling to generate strikeouts (a career low 5.7 K/9) and was getting knocked around when contact was made. Finally the Rockies had seen enough and demoted him to AAA.
Upon being demoted back to Triple-A, the 27 year-old Nicasio did make four starts for the Sky Sox before his conversion to the bullpen, where he made six relief appearances. In his two months down at AAA, Nicasio threw 35 2/3 innings of 4.54 ERA ball. The most encouraging sign for Rockies fans in all of this was that Nicasio was striking out people - his 9.1 K/9 in AAA was right in line with where it had been throughout his minor league career. As calamity after calamity befell the big league club, Nicasio got the call back to the majors in mid-August in a relief role.
Upon his recall, Nicasio had 19 relief appearances, producing 20 2/3 innings of 3.48 ERA, 4.73 FIP, 1.06 WHIP, 7.4 K/9 ball. Batters hit .227/.275/.400 off of him in this role, markedly better that his starter rate. Of course, this really is just a small sample for Nicasio and I don't want to draw too many conclusions from it. Nicasio was a much more effective pitcher in a relief role for the Rockies, but not so much so that it's clear he should be an integral part of the 2015 bullpen.
2014 Grade: D
Nicasio provided enough relief in August and September to bring his evaluation up a letter grade. Call it a C+ for relief and F for starting.
What to expect in 2015
Nicasio will enter spring training as a second year arbitration eligible player, meaning that the Rockies will be paying him (should they choose to tender him a contract) at the very least 80% of 2014's $2.025 million contract. He'll be a 28 year-old pitcher with three years of team control left but without minor league options - so he'll have to stick in the big league bullpen (or rotation, if it comes to that) if the Rockies are going to hold onto him. So is Nicasio good enough to stick in the bullpen next year?
To answer that question, we need to project how much effort the Rockies will put into the addition of new bullpen pieces this offseason. LaTroy Hawkins is a near lock, as is Adam Ottavino, Boone Logan (ugh), Tommy Kahnle, and probably Rex Brothers. That leaves two (or maybe three) slots for other bullpen pitchers. Nicasio will be fighting several relievers from this year's team as well as some other potential external acquisitions for a slot in next year's pen. I think he'll squeak onto next year's roster, and I really hope he seizes the opportunity.