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Juan Nicasio Is a Good Reliever, But Can the Pirates Make Him a Good Starter?

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BRADENTON, Fl. – At first glance, the signing of Juan Nicasio was straight forward and made total sense. He was a guy who struggled as a starter — although those struggles took place at Coors Field — then moved to the bullpen and had success. That’s a common story, and it could be expected that Nicasio would continue putting up strong numbers in that role.

The one downside for Nicasio in the bullpen was his control. He walked 12.3% of batters last year, while also striking out 25% of batters. But the Pirates have a strong history of taking hard throwing relievers with control problems, like Nicasio, and fixing the control. So once again, it all made sense that they signed him for $3 M.

The Pirates don’t seem to be settled on just making Nicasio a reliever though. They’re also looking at him as a starting option, and it appears he’s the top depth option early in the year before the prospects are ready. And that means you can probably expect Nicasio to make a start with the Pirates this year, since it’s unreasonable to expect all five starters in the rotation to stay healthy or productive until mid-season.

So what did the Pirates see in Nicasio that made them so aggressive for him early, and so committed to using him as a starter at some point this year? The big thing they saw was his change in approach in the bullpen.

“We saw the stuff play in some shorter gaps,” Clint Hurdle said. “You look at a man’s career that’s pitched in Colorado then goes somewhere else, it’s almost like a disclaimer. To be a starter in Colorado, the numbers are going to be skewed. You’ve got to dig deeper, you’ve got to peel back some layers and look for some other things. I think going to L.A. revealed some other things. He got down in elevation, he pitched at sea-level. Pitched on the West Coast helps. Pitching in that ballpark — it’s a pitcher’s ballpark — helps. On a good team. Those things all help. But the actual stuff just played. The fastball velocity jumped a little bit. Some swing and miss pitches jumped out at him, we hadn’t seen as much of before. Confidence grew.”

Hurdle mentioned that he was a starter in Colorado, and normally you’d discount his poor numbers there. But his numbers on the road weren’t exactly great for most of his time there. The Pirates say they saw something, and that would have to be something available to their advanced stats department, which isn’t showing up on FanGraphs for all to see.

They’re not just relying on these numbers though. The Pirates feel that Nicasio could carry his success from the bullpen back to the rotation, with a change in mentality.

“We talked to him about taking the reliever mentality, inning-by-inning, and instead of trying to pace himself for seven innings, go be a reliever for seven one inning stints consecutively,” Huntington said, while noting that Nicasio’s changeup and breaking ball both improved out of the bullpen.

Nicasio had control issues in his first outing of the spring, but had a nice appearance on Sunday, throwing two shutout innings with no walks and two strikeouts. Hurdle doesn’t focus on the results, but noted what was working for him.

“Crisper stuff. Good use of the fastball down and he elevated when he’s ahead,” Hurdle said. “The slider and the changeup he used well. He had all of his pitches working, throwing strikes, working quick.”

All of those things line up with what the Pirates saw out of Nicasio in the bullpen last year, and what they want him carrying over to the rotation. But a two inning start in Spring Training isn’t going to tell much about Nicasio’s chances as a starter going forward.

That said, Nicasio looks a lot more like the typical reclamation project for the Pirates than Ryan Vogelsong or Jon Niese. He has the velocity, with the ability to top out at 97 MPH. He can get some strikeouts, and gets a league average amount of ground balls. His big struggle has been control, which the Pirates tend to find a way to fix. Usually there is some other behind the scenes change that helps pull everything together. In this case, it seems to be a change in mentality as a starter.

I’d say that Nicasio seems like a long shot to turn things around in the rotation in Pittsburgh. But you could have said the same thing about J.A. Happ or Edinson Volquez before they turned things around. Still, I don’t think it would be easy for Nicasio to become a successful starter, and I don’t think the Pirates think it’s as easy as their previous success stories. If that was the case, they would have signed him as a starter, rather than using him as a number six starter.

Nicasio looks like he’s going to be a solid reliever, and a great option if his control numbers improve. As for the starting role, I think you can expect him to start for the team at some point this year. If that works out and he’s the next big reclamation project, then I’ll say the same thing I’ve said after all of the previous seemingly impossible projects: Ray Searage needs a statue.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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