The Quandry that is Juan Nicasio….
As with so many of the Rockies players, you start any discussion of them by saying how good a guy they are. With Juan Nicasio there is the added story of his broken neck, and the fact he didn’t hang it up after that event (I would have). I remember watching that game as he was laying on the ground and thinking, he had to be paralyzed. But he fought back, even as he adjusted his stride leading to a knee injury, he kept giving his full effort. Juan kept working hard and at 27 can be proud that he has done what he has done. Its more than 99.9% of people.
All that being said….
We are talking about a 27 year-old pitcher who has an arm that makes you think this story just isn’t playing out right. So lets go back to the beginning (of his career at least). Juan didn’t make it over to the States until age 20, where he threw 43.1 at Casper. Against kids younger than him he had a 33:13 K.BB ratio, and a WHIP of 1.408. He moved up the next year to Tri-City, pitching 54 innings there with similar but slightly better results 61:19 1.204. Good but nothing that said anything other than an organizational arm at that point. Nicasio’s next stop was Ashville the next year and finally he put some significant innings (now at age 22 and only a little older than the competition), throwing 112 innings, 115:23 and a WHIP of 1.188. With the added work the quality of his work increased as well. At that point Nicasio finally pushed himself into the Rockies eyes as a real potential starting prospect. Those are good numbers, period. But against younger hitters, the low walk count is not unexpected. Fewer walks also means fewer pitches, and low pitch-counts are worth their weight in gold. That year in Ashville is what likely created the hope amongst the organization that there could be a spot waiting in Denver for him.
The next year, at age 23, in Modesto, a hitters environment, he threw 177.1 with 171:31 and 1.224 WHIP as well as a nice 12-10 3.91. At this point the guys who were the starting prospects in the organization (beginning of that 2010 season) ranked ahead of him were: Christian Friedrich (he was drafted 2 years prior), Chacin (who at 21 already had thrown at AAA), Esmil Rogers (then 25, has really over-performed his talent), and then Juan. In that one year at Modesto, he pushed himself ahead of all but Chacin. That is how impressive that year was in the eyes of their scouts. In 2011 he pushed his way straight to Denver by going to Tulsa, throwing 9 starts, 56.2, 63:10 with a WHIP of 1.024 as he was 5-1 with a 2.22. He was 24 when he arrived in Denver, and only that year had played against kid his own age, against real talents. That first year he went 4-4 with a 4.14 in 71.2 and a WHIP of 1.270. The control seemed to stay right where they wanted – 58:18. While Juan never got to be a highly touted prospect (he really exploded on the seen in the Modest to Tulsa 14 month period before drawing a lot of attention), he showed the team a lot. Of the starters currently with the team or on the DL, only he and DLR were never ranked in the Top 100 MLB prospects or Top 3 for the team.
But that year from Tulsa to Coors and the operating table is where things went awry. Here is the big issue. After Tulsa, Juan never improved. I don’t mean that to say he isn’t a hard worker or anything. But the league is always learning, always dissecting you, always finding an edge. He was dominate in Tulsa and had some good outings at Coors. But he never progressed beyond the electric fastball and occasionally good slider he brought with him. They had to rush him in 2011, that was their need. But where this year we see Eddie Butler and Company toiling in Tulsa learning to refine their craft, throw secondary pitches for strikes, work counts and becoming pitchers not throwers, Juan never got that chance and opposition teams can tell.
This Spring Training we heard a lot about his work on the splitter, slider and other pitches, and seemed like there was some real improvement. His work this spring was very good – 22 innings allowing only a BA against of .160 and he had a 21:6 K/BB. We saw it opening day at Coors as he just muzzled the Dbacks. But that has really been it. He still cannot get through a lineup 3 times. And what is more…he is still the same Juan of 2011. He is still throwing 95% either 4 seamers or sliders, and neither of those two have been sharp. And his last two outings have really hurt the team. Against the Phillies, who were totally stifled during the first two games of the series, he just had nothing against their 1-4 hitters, and on a day when his team scored 9, they lost (yes, the pen had their issues, but you need to do your job).
The peripherals with Nicasio, as they always have, look good. Before tonight he was 23:7 K/BB. He had given up 25 hits in 26 innings. But he simply cannot get out the best hitters when he has to, at least as a starter. Last year, the Rockies had a great record when DLR, Chacin and Chatwood started. The games by the rest…you know the story. The Rockies talked all the way up to and including opening day at Coors that Nicasio earned the #4 spot. He was a more refined pitcher, ready to take advantage of his talent.
But now that we are a month into the season, this isn’t true. I am a fan, so I want to make sure I say this – baseball is hard. Even great athletes with good arms fail at the major league level. I understand that. But a team has to build its roster to win as many games as possible. As much as we all love Juan Nicasio, he is not one of the best 6 starters on this team right now. And given that this team has a legitimate chance to contend for the playoffs, you cannot continue to send him out there if you have options.
So what to do with Juan (I am assuming sending him to a pitching convent is out as is becoming the governess for Greg Maddux)? Last year he had a very short refresher in Colorado Springs (which he skipped on the way up), and given the issues in the 4 and 5 spot, it was not a surprise to see him come right back to Coors. But now…now the team has tough choices and alternatives . Mark Wiley, the pitching coordinator has been perhaps the best hire this team has made in a long-time, will likely be the one making the decision. This team has depth at starting pitching, not just in the form of Chacin who does need at least one more re-hab start just to get length in pitch count. This is not the Rockies of 2010 or 2011, when they rushed Nicasio to the majors because they needed his arm and because he had been electric. They have options, and not just in the short-term.
So, what do you do with Juan? He is still only 27, and as I have been saying a lot lately, guys don’t all figure it out at 21 like Fernandez in Miami or 23 like Maddux. They get it when they get it (or not at all). Jorge De La Rosa figured out the mental part of the game at 29. Franklin Morales is pitching lights out right now because at 28 he learned the cutter. Mike Scott was a sub-500 pitcher til someone taught him the splitter and he had one of the greatest seasons in modern pitching history. So, Juan Nicasio isn’t alone in this kind of struggle, and he is still young enough that we can safely say he is not necessarily finished as a pitching prospect, a starter, a big leaguer or a Colorado Rockie. We don’t know what kind of pitcher he may yet become. But clearly something has to change, if for no other reason than that this bullpen cannot keep getting 5 innings or less from his spot.
The last two starts against Philadelphia at home and L.A. on the road (where he had a 0.00 ERA last year), he threw only 4 seamer fastballs and sliders, if the mlb gametracker is to be trusted. Jordan Pacheco called the Sunday game and tonight’s was Wilin’s game, so two different catchers with the same results. We hear he has 4 pitches, a 2 seamer sinker and a splitter he throws for a changeup are the others (and theoretically a curve). But I went back and looked at the home opener against Arizona, expecting to see the broader array of pitches. He threw exactly 4 2-seamer fastballs and everything else was 4 seamer (90%) and slider (the rest). Can you really expect to get out big league lineup 3 times each game when you are throwing just 2 pitches, no matter how electric they are? And when his 4 seamer is on and his slider moves and gets called a strike, they are great pitches, as the home opener proves. But with all the game film, with all the coaching, with all things hitters have to help them, can Juan really remain a starter with just those two pitches? Randy Johnson did – he was a fastball and slider machine, but they were both 60s (the rating system on tools with 60 being top level). Juan’s fastball is maybe a 50 and his slider a 40. I just don’t see how it can work if he remains a two-pitch pitcher. And what really makes me confused is that now in his 4th year on the big league roster, how can it be they are still be trying to win the majority of games thrown by a two-pitch pitcher with right now questionable control? The old line about the definition of insanity fits here.
This team has a whole group of guys his age and younger coming. Run down the name – Tyler Anderson, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Gray, Daniel Winkler, Tyler Matzek, and Christian Friedrich. Those are six names that are all showing now or have shown equal results to what Juan did when he was coming up in the minors which earned him this extended stay at Coors. We know all of them won’t make it. Christian Friedrich may be the least likely to do so, largely due to injuries, but even if they only hit on 33%, that represent 2 arms who can step in and take Juan’s spot. The future is pretty bright for the Rockies when it comes to starting pitching, which creates a dilemma for Nicasio and the Rockies.
The easiest answer for many is to shift him to the bullpen, where they do not have a great stock of arms up and coming. Chris Martin, who made his major league debut tonight, was driving a forklift a few years back, so not exactly someone who you build your pen around (hope he has a great career, just making a point). Bullpen arms are often failed starters and the Rox have had some good success with both former starters (Adam Ontovino) and reclamation projects (Matt Belisle pre-2013). So easy answer then, Juan to the pen, and those 94s become 97 and the occasional slider makes guys step out of their boots. Sounds good…but not everyone can make the change from starter to pen work, especially after starting for so long. We have already seen that Chad Bettis, who has closed and started in his career and who has a great arm has struggled this year out of the pen. Maybe Juan can go to throwing 3 days a week instead of one without an issue. Maybe the control issues, which are less about balls and strikes and more about hitting spots, go away in the pen. But more than likely they go with him. And then there is the fact that, to use the old cliché, you can never have too much starting pitching (as the Braves and As have already discovered this year). Wouldn’t it be better to send Juan to Colorado Springs or Tulsa and have him focus on learning a cutter or a good out pitch he can throw to lefties? Isn’t it better to keep him lengthened out since you do not want to rush Bulter and Co if you don’t have to, and you know statistically that even when Chacin and Anderson come back you will likely need another starter somewhere along the line? What if like Franklin he can learn a pitch that makes his electric stuff into electric starter stuff? And who’s to say Lyles and Morales continue their great work? Juan has a 17-17 career record at this level, better than Morales, Lyles and Chatwood. The split-finger and curve are both pitches he has thrown in spring for strikes, and could learn to throw during big time game situations. How many times have we seen Juan blow throw a lineup for 4 or 5 innings with greatest of ease of any of the Rockies starters. If work on secondary pitches can help him that third time through, don’t you focus your energy there? As good as Chacin and DLR were last year, Juan probably had more shut-down stuff for the first 4 innings more often last year than either of them.
Or…maybe Juan is what he is. This is as good as he ever will be and so this is the chip you have. While his stats are not great, might he be a good trade chip along with other pieces in the team’s farm system to go out and get what the team lacks at the trading deadline or before? We know this team has holes and their position prospects after Kyle Parker are pretty weak or far away. An arm like Juan could really excite some people, especially when looking at the certain level of success that Samuel Deduno and Esmil Rogers had after leaving Colorado. There are plenty of teams that think they could turn Juan into a solid #3.
And so we get back to the title of this post…what do you do with a problem like Juan? Chacin is at least 1 more rehab start from coming back. While the 6 young arms are throwing well, no one has forced the issue and made the Rockies bring them up. There are no off days up-coming, so there is no way to skip Juan. He is clearly going to throw his next start. Hopefully, things change. Hopefully he throws such a good outing that the question of which pitchers loses his spot when Chacin is activated is so difficult they have to consult the lucky 8 ball. But right now, this team has a pretty big issue on its hands, and figuring out how to help Juan Nicasio isn’t going to be easy.