Free-agent Juan Nicasio makes big pitch for spot in Pirates rotation
The three are being looked at as the team’s fourth and fifth starters.
March 21, 2016 1:12 PM
Juan Nicasio delivers against the Houston Astros at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Neal Huntington and Juan Nicasio have impeccable timing.
Hours after the Pirates general manager said Nicasio has a chance to make the starting rotation, Nicasio strengthened his already impressive spring training resume with five scoreless innings against the Minnesota Twins. Nobody has scored a run against Nicasio in 15 innings this spring, and he has struck out 24 batters in that span.
“I’m not surprised because I’m working hard,” Nicasio said. “I know I can do it now.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers non-tendered Nicasio, a 29-year-old right-hander, rather than pay him whatever the arbitration process deemed an appropriate raise on his $2.3 million salary in 2015. During that season, his first exclusively as a reliever, he had a 3.86 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 58⅓ innings. The Pirates scooped him up for $3 million with the idea that he could start or relieve and now have a decision to make.
Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Jon Niese are in the rotation, Huntington said. The final two spots will go to some combination of Nicasio, right-hander Ryan Vogelsong and left-hander Jeff Locke.
“We don’t want to say it’s a wide-open competition, yet at the same time we brought Juan here for a reason,” Huntington said.
Whoever does not make the rotation will pitch out of the bullpen.
Monday, Nicasio had to work to keep his scoreless spring intact. He put runners in scoring position in the first, third and fourth innings, but escaped each time. He struck out three in a row in the first, struck out two batters to end the third and got an inning-ending double play after a one-out triple and a walk put runners on the corners in the fourth.
“It was good that he worked with more men on base than he did five days ago, just for training purposes,” said bench coach Dave Jauss, who managed the split-squad roster that traveled to Fort Myers to face the Twins.
Locke has a 7.07 ERA in 14 innings. Vogelsong has allowed four runs in nine innings.
Nicasio started for the Colorado Rockies for four seasons before moving to the bullpen in 2014. He had a 5.03 ERA in four years with the Rockies whose home games are at Coors Field, where the large outfield and thin air make pitching difficult.
“When we signed him, we worked off the normalized numbers coming out of Colorado,” Huntington said. “On the surface, they don’t look all that pretty, but we think there are some things that we can help, whether it’s approach, mechanics, our ballpark, our defense.”
Nicasio credited his strong spring to pairing an improved slider with his fastball. Previously, he said, he disliked throwing the slider to right-handed hitters.
“Now, I can throw a slider backdoor, back foot, for both sides, when I want it for a strike and when I want it for a ball,” he said. “So, now, I have a lot of strikeouts.”
The increase in strikeouts started last season in the bullpen. After averaging 6.8 and 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 2013 and 2014, he struck out 10 batters per nine in 2015.
“Every year, you learn more about how you pitch,” he said.
Nicasio said he did not know which way the Pirates are leaning. Locke has not pitched in relief since 2012 and has two such appearances in the majors. Vogelsong had a 5.68 ERA and .933 on-base plus slugging percentage allowed in 11 relief appearances last season, his first extended major league relief experience since 2006.
“It took its toll on me a little bit, maybe physically and mentally, going back and forth” from the rotation to the bullpen last season, Vogelsong said.
The Pirates do not place too much importance on spring statistics, but Nicasio’s performance will force a tough decision. Or not.
“It’s not difficult,” Jauss said. “Decisions when people are doing good are really good decisions. When people are struggling, then they become difficult, because then you have to decide rather than them get to decide.”
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG. Stephen J. Nesbitt contributed reporting.
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