Spring training stats don’t mean anything. If they did, 1B Mark Johnson would be wrapping up a Hall of Fame career and Edinson Volquez wouldn’t have been given a chance to deliver his incredibly solid 2014 campaign.
But sometimes they mean a little something. In 15 innings this spring, Juan Nicasio has yet to allow a run and has struck out 24. Many people are painting his performance as an open competition for a starting rotation spot for the Pirates coming out of Spring Training. The bloodlust amongst the fanbase for Jeff Locke’s head have Nicasio targeted for his spot, but in my opinion the only competition is between Nicasio and Ryan Vogelsong.
As I showed a couple of weeks ago, the 38-year old Vogelsong had terrible splits last year and pretty much may be just a 5 inning starter at this point. But it’s not as if the 29-year old Nicasio is some savior, either. Last year, he was solely a reliever for the Dodgers and was pretty effective for them. In 58 innings, he delivered a 3.86 ERA/2.83 FIP with a 10.09 K/9. However, he had a very high walk rate at 4.94 BB/9. For his career, as both a starter and reliever with the Rockies and Dodgers, his walk rate is 3.42 BB/9 — not an ideal number.
His only full season as a starter came in 2013 with the Rockies. In 31 starts spanning just 157 innings, Nicasio had a 5.14 ERA/4.25 FIP and a 6.79 K/9 with a 3.65 BB/9 rate. The rest of his career as a starter before and after that season were very spotty, never pitching more than 93 innings. Nicasio isn’t a reclamation project in the same guise as Burnett and Volquez, two pitchers that were once great but needed some tweaks. There just isn’t the same base of work to build off of with Nicasio.
The fact that Nicasio is even pitching at all is a minor miracle. Back in August 2011, he took a liner back to the mound off his face with such force that he broke the C-1 vertebra in his neck and had a small plate installed.
Nicasio was signed for $3M after the Dodgers non-tendered him. Vogelsong was signed for $2M after the Giants gave up on him. Although each is only here on a 1 year deal, Nicasio actually has two years of team control, if the Pirates see fit to offer him arbitration after this one.
Having Nicasio in the bullpen where his fastball can play up to 95-97 mph, as it did last year in relief, could be a more versatile asset than having him as a 5 inning starter sitting 92 mph with mediocre stats. But the fact remains that Ryan Vogelsong may not have much left in the tank, contrary to what he told Ray Searage upon signing here.
If the choice is watching Vogelsong struggle to get through 5 innings or have Vogelsong assume a pure long relief/mop-up role, the answer for me is to put him in the bullpen. See what you have in Nicasio as a starter, even if he too is just a 5 inning capable starter at this point.
The 5th starter, whoever it may be, just needs to hold the fort down long enough for either Tyler Glasnow or perhaps Jameson Taillon to show enough progress (and have the calendar move past the mid-June Super Two deadline) for one of them to debut in Pittsburgh. For me, I would start off with Juan Nicasio on the bump.