Prospect Q&A: Marlins LHP Justin Nicolino on Being Traded, Turning Down WBC Team Italy, Hitting off Noah Syndergaard
Justin Nicolino completed his first bullpen session this morning. Excellent news, right Marlins fans?
Ready for even better news? Nicolino’s month-old throwing program is to get ready for the 2013 Minor League season, not the World Baseball Classic. More on that later. First, some background: Nicolino (@J_Nicolino22) was the best prospect in that 10-player, mid-November trade that sent All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes from Miami to Toronto. (I wrote here why I thought the Jays won the deal, despite Nicolino’s inclusion.) Now the Marlins’ No. 4 prospect (and baseball’s No. 86 overall), the 21-year-old left-hander will likely begin April at Class A Advanced Jupiter.
I caught up with Nicolino, who started throwing Dec. 16 and is working out with Cardinals farmhand Joe Cuda, this afternoon from his home in Palm Harbor. (He moved from Orlando to the Clearwater-Dunedin area when he was still in Toronto’s system but has relocated again.). Enjoy our chat.
Me: Let’s start with the newsiest item. You were asked to pitch for Team Italy in the WBC but declined?
Nicolino: Yeah, I got that phone call this past Sunday. I got a call from the pitching coach and he asked me if I would want to pitch for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic. They asked me if I wanted come out and do that. For me, it was an honor. To get called and be given an opportunity to pitch, I think for anyone, it’s an honor. When I talked to ‘em, I just said that with the trade and everything that’s happened this offseason, I wanted to get down [to Florida] and get used to the way the Marlins did everything. That way, I can go into Spring Training knowing [how the Marlins do things]. I didn’t want to go play for Team Italy and not know anything about the Marlins, or the Marlins not knowing anything about me firsthand. I told [Team Italy], ‘Maybe down the road, call back and it might be different.’
Me: Obviously, you’re an American-born Floridian, so would it have been weird to pitch for bella Italia and against Team USA?
Nicolino: Yeah, definitely. Being an American and having Team USA — that was the funny thing that came up in my conversation with my agent. A couple years down the road, whenever I get that phone call back, ‘What would you want to do: Team USA or Team Italy?’ At that point, four years down the road who’s to say what I’d do and who’d I pitch for.
Me: Just out of curiosity, where does your Italian heritage come from?
Nicolino: I know my grandpa is Italian, but I’m not sure how far it goes back. The biggest thing for me was getting that phone call and them asking. That’s something people dream of, like getting that call to play in the big leagues, same with getting to pitch for a country.
Me: OK, back to the Minors. How do evaluate your 2012 season in the Blue Jays organization, at Class A Lansing?
Nicolino: All in all, it was an unbelievable year. I got to pitch with a group of great guys. A big thing for me was I had a great routine, I stayed on my routine and I finished the year healthy. That’s something that’s important to me.
Me: Looking at the numbers, you had success, too. What did you do especially well this past year?
Nicolino: I think it was just me staying composed and doing what I had to do, not trying to do too much, not trying to be different.
Me: Conversely, what didn’t go like you hoped it would?
Nicolino: I started working on a slider and I wasn’t confident in it. For me, when I start learning a pitch, I want to have full confidence in it and be able to throw it in any count. Looking back on it, it was a tough pitch to learn.
Me: We’ll talk more about your repertoire in a minute. You mentioned your strong supporting cast in ’12; obviously, you were a part of a great trio in the Class A Lansing rotation. Did you ever expect that two-thirds of said trio would be traded during the offseason? With Noah Syndergaard being shipped to the Mets, Aaron Sanchez is the last man standing with the Jays…
Nicolino: I just think it’s baseball. It’s a business. It’s part of the game. I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t in any way upset about it. I understood it. It’s just crazy how much has changed in the last four months. The way I look it at it, it’s going to be good for all [three] of us. We all get to do what we love to do still. We were all close and we’re going to stay in touch and still pick each other’s brains just like we would if we were still in the same organization.
Me: And now that you and Syndergaard are both in National League East organizations, you could be facing each other in an MLB game one day?
Nicolino: Yeah, that’s something me and Noah have already talked about, facing one another. He throws pretty hard, so I’d have to get the bat-head around a little faster, but it’s definitely something we’re both looking forward to.
Me: What was your reaction to the trade when it happened? What did it mean to be traded in a deal that included established, All-Star-caliber big leaguers like Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson.
Nicolino: It was a huge honor. When I first got that phone call, I wasn’t told much information. I was just told that I was going to the Marlins. We were going to find out [the other names] eventually, but at first I had no idea who it was for. Once I finally found out, and people started calling me [saying], ‘You seeing this?’ I got to sit down and take a breath a little bit because it was overwhelming. For me, I was shocked because some of these guys I grew up watching. I remember watching Buehrle’s perfect game and I remember watching Jose Reyes coming up into the game. Being a part of [the trade] was an honor, a great feeling; it was something I still look at it, and it amazes me that I was a part of a trade like that. I went from playing out of the country to playing in my home state. The big thing for me too is that their manager, [Mike Redmond], was my Minor League manager in 2011. To go in there and have an idea of how he manages, it makes it that much more fun to hopefully, eventually get there and play for him.
Me: I see you were born in Orlando. What did you think of the Marlins as a team growing up?
Nicolino: It will be nice to eventually put on that Marlins uniform and pitch in Florida, where I’ve grown up. I went down to Sun Life [Stadium] when I was younger and saw them play. I just remember going down there and watching Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis. I forget what game it was, but I went to a game where Dontrelle Willis hit a home run. I was so young, I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know pitchers hit home runs.’ To me, it was kind of confusing.
Me: Were you encouraged that center fielder Jake Marisnick was headed to Miami with you? You guys played together briefly at Class A Lansing in 2011 — how good can he be?
Nicolino: Definitely. Jake is unbelievable to watch play. He’s the kind of guy you want on your team. You know he’s going to balls to the wall every day. That’s someone you want behind you in the outfield.
Me: As we mentioned, the Blue Jays were awfully deep in young pitching talent. The Marlins seem to be, too, with righty Jose Fernandez and lefties Andrew Heaney and Adam Conley. Are you familiar with some of the guys in their system?
Nicolino: I definitely heard of all those guys, and I have heard great things. I’m looking forward to getting to pitch with these guys and pick their brains and maybe put that into my game some now.
Me: I know you haven’t pitched for the Marlins yet, but how have you gotten introduced to the organization so far?
Nicolino: It’s basically been a bunch of phone calls, [talking] about how I’ve done things [in the past]. Meeting people-wise, I got to meet a few people right after I got traded to get MRIs and physicals.
Me: Were the Marlins one of the teams you spoke with before you were drafted in 2010?
Nicolino: Actually, the Marlins were the first team to come and do a home visit. I sat down with an area scout named Brian Kraft in 2009 or the beginning of 2010, and he told me about how the Marlins do things. Hopefully, down the road, I’ll get to talk to him again about him coming to my house when I was a high school senior.
Me: Tell us about your repertoire and what you’re working on with your pitches? Good fastball, good breaking ball and a very good changeup, correct? What do you need to improve about your pitches going forward?
Nicolino: Basically, I’m big on repeating delivery. I don’t like getting out of my delivery and arm slot with all my pitches. That’s something I’m going to work on every year, because I don’t want [hitters] seeing me tipping pitches because I’m changing something. When I was with the Blue Jays, that was something I talked with [my coaches] about a lot, and now with the Marlins, it’s something I want to embed in their head: If I get out there and my delivery is [off], I want them to let me know. I’m not changing anything just because I’m going to a new team.
Me: I know you were a part of Lansing’s piggybacking system last year. How much are you looking forward to being a part of a normal, five-man rotation, and do you have to make any adjustments this winter or next spring to be prepared for that? (This Twitter question comes from @JaysProspects.)
Nicolino: I’m definitely looking forward to it. The Marlins just said, ‘In Spring Training, be ready to go and pitch some innings.’ With Lansing and the piggybacking system, at first it was weird. We all looked at each other and never really heard about. To be honest, I think it benefitted all of us… It was them helping us to build up to five or six innings. We’re at an age now where it’s getting to a point where we’re going to have to start to eating up innings. We’re prepared for that now.