Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.
Pierce Johnson, RHP, Chicago Cubs (Profile)
Level: Class-A/Double-A Age: 23 Top-15: 6th Top-100: 77th
Line: 54.1 IP, 35-46 BB-K, 32 H, 3.48 ERA
The Chicago Cubs organization has one of the stronger minor league systems in baseball — but that’s on the strength of its hitting prospects.
Prior to the season, the Cubs Top 10 Prospects list featured just three pitchers — and Pierce Johnson was the highest-ranked arm at No. 6, one slot ahead of fellow hurler C.J. Edwards who has dealt with an injury for much of the year. A former first round draft pick, Johnson was selected 43rd overall in 2012 out of Missouri State University.
The 23-year-old hurler has had a modest pro career to date. His 2013 season was split between two A-ball affiliates where he produced solid — but hardly eye-popping — numbers, especially given his pedigree. Johnson opened the 2014 season on the disabled list before receiving his assignment to the Double-A level. He’s been hampered by lower leg injuries all season long.
He’s certainly missed bats — just 28 hits in 43.1 innings — but Johnson has struggled with his control and has walked an alarming 32 batters (a walk rate of 6.65 BB/9). The injuries — including one in late May to his left leg — could be part of the reason for his uncharacteristically high walk rate. His control has improved only marginally since his return from the most recent trip to the DL: Johnson has walked six batters in his last two starts (9.1 innings).
Johnson has also struggled to command his offerings — including his fastball. He’s been constantly falling behind in the count, which has prevented him from setting up his breaking balls; because hitters know he’s not throwing his pitches for strikes, they have been sitting back and waiting for his fastball, an offering which is solid but hardly overpowering.
Justin Nicolino, LHP, Miami Marlins (Profile)
Level: Double-A Age: 22 Top-15: 3rd Top-100: 63rd
Line: 118.1 IP, 15-55 BB-K, 112 H, 2.97 ERA
When the Toronto Blue Jays and Miami Marlins paired up for their blockbuster trade towards the end of 2012, Nicolino was the headlining prospect that headed south to Florida. Since that time, though, his prospect valuation has hit a speed bump or two.
The former second round draft pick has watched lesser-known trade mate Anthony DeSclafani pass him on the depth chart (and reach The Show) while he pitched at Double-A for much of the past two seasons. Nicolino, 22, has displayed outstanding control throughout his career as a baby fish (including a 1.14 BB/9 rate in 2014) but he’s struggled to miss bats. Since coming over to Miami, his strikeout rate has yet to surpass 6.15 K/9 and it currently sits at just 4.18 in ’14. The southpaw with a killer changeup has been hurt by a modest breaking ball and the lack of a true put-away pitch.
Once mentioned in the same breath as fellow Jays pitching prospects Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard (now with the Mets), Nicolino is now likely on the outside looking in at the Top 100 prospects list. Although he will almost certainly pitch in the big leagues, his future role looks to be that of a No. 4 starter.
The outcome of the 2012 trade now leaks somewhat bleak for Miami. Big league starter Henderson Alvarez has been solid despite an inability to miss bats, which limits his ceiling. Among the prospects, DeSclafani is exceeding expectations (and might now possess the ceiling of a back-end starter) but the others — like Nicolino — have stumbled. Outfielder Jake Marisnick has yet to prove he can hit. The same can be said for shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. Known for his glove, his defense has not been strong enough to overshadow his .277 on-base percentage or 71 wRC+ in the big leagues.
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