When the Pirates signed Juan Nicasio for $3 million this past winter, becoming the fifth starter was probably not the plan. The 29-year-old’s monster spring has earned him a spot in the Pirates’ rotation, a role he beat out fellow newcomer Ryan Vogelsong for with a scoreless spring. The former reliever threw 15 scoreless innings and struck out 24 batters while allowing just 10 hits.
Quite simply, Nicasio forced his way into the rotation. Vogelsong will start out in the bullpen and is durable enough to become a starter should Nicasio falter when the games count or any Pirates’ pitcher gets injured.
Pittsburgh will live and die with its pitching staff. Newcomers Nicasio and Jon Niese will look to add depth to a pitching staff with returning veterans, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole and career Pirate, Jeff Locke.
Meanwhile, at least to start the year, Vogelsong and reclamation project, Neftali Feliz, have high upside towards providing the Pirates with bullpen depth behind Tony Watson and closer Mark Melancon in a loaded NL Central.
Pittsburgh has found success turning player’s careers around, such as reinventing Liriano as a front-end arm, reviving AJ Burnett’s career after being boo’d out of New York, developing Cole into a legitimate ace and now relying on Niese and Nicasio, two guys who were casted away by their former teams.
Nicasio has a career 4.88 ERA in 70 starts and 71 relief appearances, pitching to an ugly .277 BAA and 1.47 WHIP. Last season, the righty had his best year since his rookie season in 2011, albeit showing great signs of luck over anything else. With the Dodgers, Nicasio threw to a 3.86 ERA and struck out 65 batters in 58.1 innings. He did issue 32 walks and a 1.56 WHIP, implying anything but stability or dominance.
Nevertheless, spring training breeds competition and though Vogelsong wasn’t awful, it will be Nicasio who gets his first chance to write a redemption story at the age of 29 on a team full of them. The Pirates will need him to pitch every bit determined as he should be in a walk year on a contending team, along with Niese and Vogelsong.
If those three can add depth to an otherwise thin pitching staff and get the offensive benefits of a full season of Jung Ho Kang (minus April), Josh Harrison in the everyday lineup, a triple platoon at first base and another year of development from Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, there is hope Pittsburgh can finish in a playoff scenario in baseball’s toughest division.