Jumpin For Justins: Look For More Young Talent In May

 Time Could Be Soon For Nicolino, Bour   

By Sean Millerick

Aside from the 3-11 hole the Marlins dug for themselves after spending the offseason being plauded by pundits, the big story for the Marlins in April was the early emergence of J.T Realmuto as the team’s new starting catcher.  So impressed has the club been with his athleticism and handling of the pitching staff that they were comfortable completely cutting ties with incumbent Jarrod Saltalamacchia; that decision was made despite the facts that Jeff Mathis is still on the DL and that the club still owes Salty nearly $15 million in salary.  8-6 since his promotion, and winners of 7 of their last 10, things are finally clicking in Miami after an injury-marred slow start.  As the calendar turns to May though, look for one last April injury and a slumping starter to open the door to more young talent helping the cause in 2015.

Since a nightmare debut that saw him allow 7 runs in his first and only inning, Mat Latos has given up three runs or less in four consecutive starts.  Of course he’s also only pitched into the sixth once during that stretch.  Tonight’s departure had nothing to do with a high pitch count however- but with a strained hamstring.  If he were to miss his next start, don’t be surprised to see promising prospect Justin Nicolino get the call.  Working on a streak of 18 scoreless innings and counting, Nicolino is 2-0 with an ERA of 0.79 for the Zephyrs in his first year of work at the AAA level.  This follows up on a stellar 2014 campaign that saw him go 14-4 with an ERA of 2.85- during which he put up a 1.06 WHIP that would have been good for seventh best in the majors.  His career line of 40-14/2.56/1.103 going back to 2011 screams promotion.  Oh, and he’s a lefty.

Nicolino is going to pitch in the majors in 2015.  The reason this is especially relevant now is that the Zephyrs rotation lines up almost perfectly with Latos’ next turn in the rotation.  As of Wednesday night, Nicolino is scheduled to pitch Friday for New Orleans.  However tomorrow is his fifth day, his last start having been April 25th; an off-day and a suspended game in the interim have sort of thrown off the rotation order.  If Nicolino is either moved up and does pitch the Thursday game, or is scratched from his Friday start, feel free to take that as a sign his moment has come.  If Latos can go, then the pressure will be on him to perform.  Signed to be at worst the third best pitcher on the team when at full strength, he has so far been the weak link of a rotation down both phenom Jose Fernandez AND ace-in-absentia Henderson Alvarez.  In a rotation that has gone eight straight games without a starter taking a loss, the pressure is on for all to keep their jobs.

Another area worth paying attention to is first base, as free-agent acquisition Michael Morse is hitting just .224 to start the year, and has gone just 8 for 39 with 2 RBI in his last 10 games.  Miami has gone 7-3 in that stretch despite this, but is not getting anything close to the production they envisioned when signing Morse to bat behind superstar slugger Giancarlo Stanton.  What makes matters worse is that he is struggling at the plate at the same time another young prospect has been providing some timely pop.  Big 6’4″, 250lb first baseman Justin Bour has gone 5 for 6 with two clutch RBIs since his call-up; Bour is also 3 for 3 as a pinch hitter.  This is a guy who hit over .300, with 18 home runs last year at New Orleans.  As the sole blemish on a lineup that is rapidly pounding its way out a season-starting slump, Morse should also feel some added pressure.

Now this all might seem like a lot of albeit alliterative but still negative naysaying for a team that is playing as well as Miami has these last ten games.  Since the nadir of 3-11, they’ve gone 7-1 and pushed their way to fourth in the NL in scoring while shaving more than a full point off their ERA.  But you’d do well to check your doubts, and bring your thoughts back to curb-checked catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  Despite the huge price tag, all the remaining millions…he was still pulled from the lineup because the new priority is performance.  Grant it, still within the confines of a reasonable budget, but on performance- playoff caliber performance.  While you shouldn’t look for the Marlins to add an eight figure player at the deadline, the club has provided ample proof it will eat already spent money if it improves the product on the field.  And if discarding a $7.5 million first basemen or a $9.4 million pitcher puts Miami in a better position to play into October, by season’s end, this front office will have considered that money well spent.

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