27. Mike Nikorak (205 points, 27 ballots)
When Colorado made Mike Nikorak their second first-round choice in the 2015 draft and signed him for a $2.3 million bonus, the Pennsylvania high school product was seen as a steal—a top 15 talent who slid to pick 27. In fact, he’d been rumored that year as a Rockies target for the 3rd overall pick and for some was the best high school pitcher in the draft.
Unfortunately, the righty’s debut in Grand Junction went about as poorly as could be feared. In 17 2/3 innings over eight starts (the Rockies had him on a very strict pitch count), Nikorak had an unseemly 11.72 (!) ERA, 9.07 FIP (!!), 3.28 (!!!) WHIP, and walked 32 (%#&!) hitters while striking out 14. It was a small sample size against hitters who were over three years older on average, but yeesh, those are terrible numbers.
Obviously these struggles showed that Nikorak needed to repeat the level in 2016. This past season Nikorak pitched much better than that low bar, though he has been hittable and has struggled with control. Nikorak pitched 29 1/3 innings with Grand Junction at age 19 (he’s now 20) against hitters that were still 2.5 years older than him. His results were significantly better—a 3.68 ERA—but his 5.91 FIP and 1.77 WHIP combined with 5.8 BB/9 and 6.1 K/9 rates shows he was lucky to get those results.
Even more worrisome is the scouting report from Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs, who didn’t rate Nikorak in his top 24 Rockies prospects:
Nikorak was once a potential top-10 pick, as his velo and curveball both looked incredible during his showcase summer. By the next spring his stuff has ticked down and he was outpitched by other prep arms in Eastern Pennsylvania down the stretch, most notably ASU lefty Connor Higgins. Nikorak has struggled to throw strikes in pro ball. He was 88-91 during instructional league in 2015 and was 87-92 this spring. Colorado has been working to improve his arm action.
Obviously it’s hard to be taken seriously as a major league prospect if you’re right-handed, barely throw 90, and have poor control. Let’s hope the Rockies are able to get Nikorak back to a semblance of his former self.
If you’re looking for why Nikorak is still on the PuRPs list, look at the scouting report (from longer ago) that MLB.com put together for him. Nikorak is currently the No. 14 prospect for MLB.com in Colorado’s system:
When Nikorak has his mechanics in sync, he can deliver ace-caliber stuff. He can sit in the low 90s with sink on his two-seam fastball and hit 97 with running life on his four-seamer. He also can show a hammer curveball in the low 80s and even flash a plus changeup.
Nikorak is still growing into his 6-foot-5 frame and leaning to repeat his delivery and maintain a consistent arm slot. He also needs to get stronger to hold his stuff deeper into games. Youth is on his side because he's only 19, and so is the athleticism that made him an all-conference quarterback in high school before he opted to focus on baseball.
Nikorak has some serious issues to overcome given his performance as a professional so far—and the fact that his stuff has backed up. And yet, many believe there's still a No. 2/3 starter in there somewhere, ready to be unleashed. I think it would be hasty to write Nikorak off after just 47 innings as a professional, but I think his MLB timeline (a very uncertain proposition to be sure) now pushes at least into 2020.
The profile is still tantalizing enough for me to give Nikorak a 40+ Future Value as a back-end major-league starter or set-up reliever and rank him 23rd on my ballot, but if I told you I wasn't worried, I'd be lying. I just hope that this time next year he’s made it to full season ball.