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40 in 40: Juan Nicasio

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The newest big bullpen arm was once neither

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Juan Nicasio’s major league career was almost over before it really began.

Signing with the Rockies in 2006 out of the DR at the relatively late age of 19, Nicasio worked his way up through Colorado’s minor league system, posting strong numbers at each of his stops. It wasn’t until an injury befell Rockies starter Jorge De La Rosa that he was summoned to the majors, though, straight from Double-A Tulsa in May of 2011. Nicasio was impressive in his debut, going seven innings of six-hit ball without allowing an earned run. His performance helped Colorado hang in to win the game and put an end to a four-game losing streak. From a fan perspective, it was exactly the kind of performance you dream about a top prospect turning in; a deus ex machina emerging from the depths of the minors to provide a spark and turn the season around.

The dream would be short-lived. On August 5, Nicasio was pitching against the Washington Nationals when a sharp line drive off the bat of Ian Desmond struck him in the temple. Nicasio fell to the mound, fracturing the C-1 vertebrae in his neck. It’s not clear if he lost consciousness or not; he can’t remember. The visibly shaken trainer for the Rockies, Keith Dugger, guessed he had. He held the young pitcher’s hand as Nicasio was stretchered off the field and put in an ambulance to the hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery that affixed pins and a permanent metal plate to his neck.

Eleven days later, Juan Nicasio returned to Coors Field.

Florida Marlins v Colorado Rockies Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

By Spring Training 2012, he was back on the mound, reportedly hitting as high as 97 with his fastball.

Unfortunately, in 2012, Nicasio’s body would let him down again, as he injured his left knee fielding a ground ball and needed anthroscopic surgery. When he returned in 2013, he struggled badly enough to be demoted to the bullpen; in 2014, the Rockies DFA’d Nicasio, eventually trading him to the Dodgers for a PTBNL (Noel Cuevas, who has not yet made the majors, but had a strong 2017 after struggling some with consistency).

This is the point at which stories like this can take a bad turn. “Former star prospect who suffers a career-threatening injury and struggles to rebound before being dealt away in a low-level deal” isn’t always a story that ends happily. But the Dodgers had a plan for Nicasio. They moved him into the bullpen full-time, and his K/9 shot up to over 10, and he posted a career-low FIP of 2.83. He began getting batters to chase outside the zone more, almost 30%. He also largely scrapped his changeup—a necessary pitch as a starter in Colorado, but not his best—and built his average velocity from the low to the mid-90s. There was another, change, too.

Colorado Rockies v Cleveland Indians
Nicasio in 2011
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Dodgers have long been one of the organizations at the forefront of pushing the importance of conditioning and good nutrition to their players; someone who worked for a Dodgers affiliate one summer told me their minor leaguers aren’t allowed white bread.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Nicasio in 2015. Like you just used the “size image up” button
Photo by Matt Brown/Angels Baseball LP/Getty Images

With the Dodgers, Nicasio built his upper and lower body into a prototypical power reliever, something he continued in 2016 after signing with the Pirates, where he continued to post a prodigious strikeout rate while cutting his walks way down. An unfortunate career-high 13.6% HR/FB rate kept him from getting the accolades he probably deserved, but he returned in 2017 with more of the same, this time with an even lower BB% and a much lower HR/FB rate. Despite these improvements, the Pirates put Nicasio on waivers as a cost-cutting move late in the season, where he was promptly scooped up by the team from across the state (Matt Snyder has a good writeup about the epic miscalculation the Pirates made here). The Phillies were then able to flip Nicasio to the contending Cardinals to help them down the stretch in return for a lottery ticket in the form of Eliezer Alvarez, and Nicasio finished out the season pitching out of the Cardinals bullpen.

He couldn’t have had a better debut as a Cardinal, collecting a four-out save, touching 98 with his fastball, and making this play against his former team:

Afterwards, Nicasio told reporters through his translator, “I really like high-leverage situations.”

As a Mariner, Nicasio will most likely face his share of high-leverage situations in a bullpen that will need to bring the dominance the starting rotation lacks. He’s leaned into the role of late-inning threat, and has built the body to match—the same body that almost failed him early in his career. Nicasio’s commitment over the last two years to building a body that can be durable and powerful on the mound, that fits the role of a late-inning reliever, shows that he understands the link between physical conditioning and performance, making him a good fit for the Dr. Martin-led Mariners.

Juan Nicasio’s MLB career so far has been marked by extreme amounts of change. Now, after being passed around from team to team like a white elephant gift over the past few years, he’ll have a chance to settle in for a while on a team that boasts a strong Dominican presence, a team that will especially benefit from the kind of durable power arm Nicasio brings and his love of high-leverage situations. This might be the best step in his journey yet.