Juan Nicasio and Andrew Oliver: Mining the Minors

This column has a rather wide range when it comes to fantasy impact. It’s a nature-of-the-beast thing, trying to predict when minor leaguers are going to get their shot. And so there have been players highlighted in this space who have soon thereafter become relevant (Chris Davis) or even useful (Jerry Sands) to fantasy owners. And there have also been those mentioned — many more, in fact — who remain in Triple-A (Charlie Blackmon) or downright useless (Mark Rogers). This time, however, expect a 2-for-2 performance. At least in terms of how soon this pair of prospects will be reaching the majors.

Similar to the other version of this column, which hits on Thursdays, the Friday edition offers a take on lesser-known farmhands and veteran minor leaguers — all with a nod to their fantasy relevance and impact, specifically, for this season. To help owners, I’ll include a player’s Talent Rating; but just as important is the Opportunity Rating, which points out the likelihood that a player will make his way to the majors during this season.

Juan Nicasio, SP
Organization: Rockies
Current Level: Double-A
Statistics: 5-1 W-L; 2.22 ERA; 1.02 WHIP; 63:10 over 56 2/3 IPs
40-man roster: Yes
Opportunity Rating: 5 (out of 10)
Talent Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Obstacle(s): No Triple-A experience; pitching in Coors Field

First of all, let’s address that Opportunity Rating. The Rockies announced Wednesday that Nicasio will be making his MLB debut this Saturday, so while it’s a 10 right now, it’s listed as 5 to take into account the season going forward. This looks to be a one-time spot start for a couple of reasons: 1) It’s really more of an emergency recall than a long-awaited debut, as Colorado is dealing with the fallout of Jorge De La Rosa’s season-ending torn ulnar collateral ligament (TJ surgery); and 2) Nicasio has yet to pitch at all in Triple-A. Granted, the 24-year-old right-hander, who signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006, has good stuff and has put up some very nice numbers — especially that 63:10 K:BB — but as for his 2011 prognosis? Let’s temper expectations a bit. Especially for Saturday.

Nicasio is going up against the Cardinals. And Jaime Garcia. At Coors Field. Even if Matt Holliday (quad) isn’t back yet, that’s a true welcome-to-the-majors setting. If he gets knocked around a bit, it will only increase the already strong likelihood that he is back in the minors after the start. If he pitches well? Even then things aren’t exactly that interesting, fantasy-wise, for Nicasio. The rub is that Aaron Cook (fractured right finger) is likely to return by the end of May or first week of June, and the Rockies have other rotation options at their disposal, including the injured Esmil Rogers, who is working his way back from an injured lat, and former first round pick Greg Reynolds, a recent recall currently pitching in relief who has started each of his 58 minor-league games.

The fact of the matter is, for Nicasio to have any real chance of impacting the 2011 fantasy landscape, he needs to distinguish himself immediately — which is where the tough circumstances of Saturday’s start come into play — so that he makes the Rockies at least consider the possibility that he could be a better rotation option than Rogers and Reynolds. Otherwise, he’s better served continuing his development in the minors while Colorado gets what it can out of those guys. Frankly, that’s the much more likely result of all of this.

All that said, there’s plenty to like here, particularly in keeper leagues. Nicasio’s control has become impeccable: His walk rate is just 2.0 BB/9 in his career, but it’s actually been even better (1.7/9) since 2009. That will certainly help in the bigs. The flip side, though, is that because he’s around the plate so much, he tends to give up his share of base knocks. It’s not exactly surprising, then, that he’s allowed 8.9 hits per 9 in his career. While that has improved a bit — 48 hits in his 56 2/3 innings this year — as his repertoire (mid-90s fastball, two breaking balls and a developing change) has advanced, he’s still surrendered at least as many hits as innings pitched in four of his nine starts. And remember, this is in Double-A. How is that going to translate to the major leagues, where hitters connect more frequently and do more damage when they make contact? Especially at Coors Field. Bottom line? He’s a spec add in deep NL-only leagues where you can store him on your bench and see what happens. But it’s all but guaranteed the 2011 impact will be minimal, while offering keeper leaguers a chance to get a look at an enticing arm for 2012.

ETA: Uh, now. Then depending on how he fares and the stability of the Rockies’ rotation, he could either get a few more outings in short order — or not return to Colorado this season until August or September, if at all.

Andy Oliver, Tigers SP
Organization: Tigers
Current Level: Triple-A
Statistics: 4-3 W-L; 3.31 ERA; 1.26 WHIP; 49:20 K:BB over 51 2/3 IPs
40-man roster: Yes
Opportunity Rating: 8
Talent Rating: 8
Obstacle(s): Tigers already have five worthy starters; Jim Leyland

Like the Rockies did with Nicasio, the Tigers have already decided that Oliver will take the hill Saturday in place of the injured Phil Coke (foot). But there’s reason to believe he’ll have a bigger impact than Nicasio in fantasy circles this year, hence the higher Opportunity Rating. (Again: It’s a 10 for today, but more like an 8 going forward.) The 23-year-old lefty actually made his MLB debut last June, a year after being drafted in the second round. His 5 starts didn’t go all that well (7.36 ERA), but owners shouldn’t put too much weight in that, considering not only was it a FanGraphs-approved Small Sample Size™, Oliver was also just 22 and rushed by the Tigers, who tend to do that sort of thing with their pitching prospects.

So what should we expect from Oliver for take two? Well, no matter how poor the results were, the very fact that he got actual major-league experience should help (i.e. typical jitters won’t apply, in theory). So should the 100-plus Triple-A innings — with good results: low 3s ERA, WHIP of 1.27 and nearly a strikeout per inning — he already has on his arm. And he also gets to work in a pitcher’s ballpark. That’s the good news. The bad? Come Saturday, Oliver will face the red-hot Red Sox and the back-on-track Clay Buccholz. And if he holds Coke’s place for another turn or two, his next opponent sets up to be the Rangers in Texas. So Oliver’s got that going for, er, against him. Like Nicasio, the inital return might not be all that promising.

As far as the rest of the season, though, Oliver is in line to help owners in AL-only leagues. Even if he gets sent down after two or three starts, he should be back up later in the year as the Tigers look to make a push. And no matter what Jim Leyland is saying publicly, if Oliver proves he’s ready to handle starting every fifth day in the bigs, the Tigers would be smart to at least consider moving Coke back to his relief role to help stabilize a messy bullpen. Oliver has the pedigree and stuff to put up numbers similar to what Coke was doing (3.81 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), so Detroit would be fixing a weakness without taking away from a strength. If everything breaks right, Oliver could be a No. 4 or 5 fantasy starting pitcher in AL play, but he would have to adapt to the big leagues quickly to be worth consideration as anything more than a streaming option in mixed leagues.

ETA: Now. Duh. And even though Oliver could go back to Triple-A for a little more seasoning once Coke gets healthy, it likely won’t be long before he’s back. Early-July sounds about right, especially if he impresses in his two or three fill-in starts.


When it comes to monitoring players for this column, I’ll do the grunt work, but if you have any suggestions for minor leaguers that you would like to see tracked, discussed and evaluated in Mining the Minors, feel free to post suggestions in the comments section. I’ll do my best to get to as many as I can going forward.

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Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11

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SF 55 for life
SF 55 for life

im more interested in Oliver at this point.