Nicolino pitching for the Lansing Lugnuts in April 2012 (Image courtesy MLBProspectPortal.com)

Prospect Positional Primer: Left Handed Pitcher

Late last fall, with inspiration from Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus, I began writing a series of articles which I titled “Positional Primers”. I broke down the Blue Jays system into seven categories; catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, centerfield, right handed pitcher, and left handed pitcher. In each article, I highlighted a number of players at the position being discussed, talked about what they’ve done and where they stand, and what to possibly expect moving forward. The lists weren’t prospect rankings or a depth chart, they were simply another, broader way of looking at some players in the system who are interesting, but won’t necessarily be included on my top 30 prospect list later this year.

In terms of page views and feedback (both positive and negative, but thankfully mostly the former), the series was one of the most popular things I’ve done in my two-ish years of writing about the Blue Jays. As such, I’ve decided to break down the system once again, and hopefully another year of experience and knowledge will make the list that much more thorough and interesting to the readers.

The seventh and final part of the series will look at left handed pitchers, perhaps the most unusual position in all of baseball. As Barry Zito displayed during the MLB playoffs, when coming from the left side, smarts and deception can be just as valuable as raw stuff. Left handed pitchers almost always find themselves in demand, as even when they’ve seen their stuff significantly diminished, there’s always the lefty specialist role that every team needs to fill. The bane of Adam Lind, Randy Choate, is an excellent example, as despite racking up just 20-50 innings every year, he still finds a team willing to pay him a million dollars a year to do it. Hopefully, the left handed pitcher prospects in the Blue Jays system can be significantly better than LOOGYs, however.

  • Top left handed pitcher prospect to reach MLB (last 5 years): Ricky Romero
  • Left handed pitchers in 2012 Top 30: 3
  • Left handed pitcher WAR leaders in MLB (last 5 years): Ricky Romero (10.4), Brett Cecil/Scott Downs (3.6)

The King in the North

Justin Nicolino – 2012 team: Single-A Lansing
10-4, 124.1 IP, 112 H, 34 ER, 6 HR, 21 BB, 119 K
2.46 ERA (2.54 FIP), 1.07 WHIP, 8.61 K/9, 1.52 BB/9, 1.64 GO/AO

NOTE: Just a day after writing this section, Nicolino was traded to the Miami Marlins. While he’ll no longer be under consideration for my top 30 prospects ranking starting next week, removing him would too drastically alter the shape of this primer. So, enjoy, Marlins fans?

Justin Nicolino was the picture of consistency last season. From April through the end of August, he appeared in five or six games each and every month, never missing a start. Furthermore, his month-by-month ERAs ranged from 0.00 (in April), to 4.28 (July). At his best, he was untouchable. At his worst, he was an average pitcher. You can break it down even further; after Nicolino was separated from Aaron Sanchez and given his own spot in the rotation on June 16th, he made 16 starts, and 15 of those 16 were for five innings or more. Beyond just the strength of his statistics, every time Nicolino took to the mound, he gave his team a good chance to win, and gave his bullpen some much deserved rest. From a 20 year old pitcher in Single-A, that’s remarkable.

The reasoning behind Nicolino’s surprising polish and maturity is simple; he learned how to be good when he was a bad pitcher. While Nicolino has good height at 6-foot-3, he doesn’t have a ton of muscle mass, weighing in around 170 pounds. Incredibly, that’s a significant improvement upon high school, when he may have cracked 150 pounds soaking wet. The 16/17 year old Nicolino was struggling to touch 85 miles per hour, so he forced himself to learn how to pitch, not just throw, far earlier than most prospects. He practiced changing speeds, moving balls out of the swing plane, doubling up on pitch and location, and scraping the edges of the plate for much needed called strikes.

It wasn’t until he turned 18 that he finally began to see some muscle development and bulk, and suddenly he was finding the high 80’s with relative ease. Now 20 years old, Nicolino can get his fastball up to 88-92 miles per hour consistently, while still maintaining the pinpoint control and command he learned when he was younger. The pitch has some arm side run to it, which helps make up for the presently solid-average velocity.

Nicolino’s best pitch is his changeup, which further protects his fastball and allows the velocity to play up even more. He throws it in the high 70’s (roughly 10-12 mph of separation from his fastball), and has excellent arm speed. It fades down and away from right handed batters with circle-changeup movement, and Nicolino has shown impressive feel for the pitch. It could be argued that the change is already a plus pitch on the Major League level, and could grade even higher as he continues to mature as a pitcher. Without question, it’s the best changeup in the system. Rounding out the repertoire is a curveball that has flashed above average potential with good break and tight rotation, but is still lacking consistent form.

His command and control is also the best in the system. Nicolino is an expert at pitch sequencing and his baseball intelligence is off the charts. After seeing batters, he quickly makes adjustments for their second and third plate appearances, using his strengths to target and expose their weaknesses. He’s going to find himself in Dunedin next spring, and he should continue to find success as he ascends the minor league level. A stop in New Hampshire next summer is all but guaranteed, and Nicolino is on track to be the first of the Lansing Three to see Toronto – perhaps as early as the summer of 2014.

The Question Mark

Daniel Norris – 2012 team(s): Rookie-Bluefield, Low-A Vancouver
2-4, 42.2 IP, 58 H, 40 ER, 4 HR, 18 BB, 43 K
8.44 ERA (3.81 FIP), 1.78 WHIP, 9.07 K/9, 3.80 BB/9, 1.26 GO/AO

Norris pitching for the Bluefield Blue Jays in the summer of 2012 (Image via YourVanCs.com)

Just about everything that was said about Matt Dean and Jacob Anderson on the corner infield and corner outfield primers respectively can be repeated here. Norris was a 2011 draft pick who was signed to an above slot bonus (2 million). He made his professional debut with Bluefield in 2012, and despite receiving excellent grades across the board for his stuff, he crashed and burned in the Appalachian League. The difference is, with Dean and Anderson, they were very raw, and some early career struggles were expected. That’s not quite the case with Norris. In Tennessee, he pitched for the highly regarded Science Hill high school, and received a substantial amount of innings in a competitive environment. I was hoping/expecting he’d start his career in Lansing, but when I saw the Bluefield assignment, I thought he would breeze through short season ball. That didn’t happen, and given how hard and consistently the rookie league hitters pounded Norris, there are some serious questions about him moving forward.

The questions are less about the stuff and more about the mechanics, which were a problem during his high school career as well. Norris has a complex windup, which has lead to consistent inconsistency with the delivery. His timing gets thrown off and his pitching arm lags behind, leading to a late release point and pitches peppering the upper half of the zone. Norris is supremely athletic and an excellent student of the game, so if anyone can get past mechanical woes, it’s him. Norris works from a straight 3/4 arm slot, and while his arm action is good, there’s some effort there. It’s not enough that you need to start throwing the reliever label around, but it’s something to monitor, particularly if he undergoes velocity fluctuations like he did throughout 2012.

At times, Norris will pitch 89-92, while other times he’ll get it up to 93-95 miles per hour. Regardless of the pitch speed, the movement is excellent, as Norris will throw it with sink as well as with two-seam fastball action. When his mechanics are smooth he shows good fastball command, but when he falls apart, it goes downhill quickly. Norris has two potentially plus offspeed pitches in his curveball and changeup. The curve is thrown in the upper 70’s, and he has flashed some very tight spin and late break when mechanically sound. Other times it gets loopy, and he throws it in the dirt more often than not. The changeup was advanced coming out of high school and continued to improve despite his poor season overall. It has straight sink and is thrown between 80 and 83 mph, with sneaky arm speed. Norris will throw a slider as well, and it shows some tilt, but it can take away from his curveball as the two can start to blend together and act like a slurve.

The Blue Jays now find themselves in an interesting predicament with Norris. He was widely considered one of the top prep arms during the 2011 draft, and the idea of sending him out for a second year of short season ball must leave a very bad taste in the mouths of the development guys, poor numbers or not. The fact that he managed to throw over 40 innings and that his strikeout, walk, and groundball rates were strong may be enough for the front office to decide Single-A Lansing is the best course of action, and I completely agree. There are plenty of reasons to hold prospects back, but coddling a top arm because you spend a lot of money on him and his numbers weren’t great isn’t one of them. If Norris is as good as he was expected to be and that we all continue to hope he’ll be, he will figure things out. Wasting another year in short season isn’t going to accomplish anything.

On the Rise

Sean Nolin – 2012 team(s): High-A Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire
10-0, 101.1 IP, 81 H, 23 ER, 7 HR, 27 BB, 108 K
2.04 ERA (2.91 FIP), 1.07 WHIP, 9.59 K/9, 2.40 BB/9, 0.93 GO/AO

Sean Nolin (RIGHT) poses with his Dunedin teammate, infielder Kevin Nolan, in June (Eddie Michels, Toronto Sun)

Back-to-back impressive seasons have moved Nolin firmly onto the prospect radar, as the continued refinement of his stuff and command have seen his profile rise from a potential number five starter or swing man, up to a potential number three or four starter. A sixth round pick back in that bountiful 2010 draft, Nolin had a shaky short season debut with Auburn, but made palpable strides with Lansing in 2011. He carried over that success to Dunedin (and subsequently New Hampshire) in 2012, and had one of the best seasons of any pitcher in the organization. With New Hampshire eliminated from postseason contention, he returned to Dunedin to close out the year, starting the D-Jays’ final playoff game, a 3-0 defeat. The only negative of Nolin’s year was a strained back that cost him nearly two months between early June and late July.

Nolin has a big, durable frame at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, and he uses the strength in his lower half well through his delivery, as he drives towards the plate. His arm slot is overhand, which is further benefitted by his height, and makes it really surprising that Nolin has been a fly ball pitcher throughout his minor league career despite such a steep downward plane on his pitches. This is likely due to the fact that despite showing above average velocity (sitting 88-92, touching 93-94), his fastball doesn’t have very much natural movement. It’s the typical four-seam fastball that will have its vertical trajectory drop between one and three inches due to spin, whereas sinkers or two-seam fastballs will usually drop anywhere between four and eight inches.

The two offspeed pitches Nolin features, his changeup and curveball, both project to be solid-average to above average offerings with continued development. The curveball made huge strides during the 2012 season, as it has leapfrogged the changeup to become Nolin’s second best weapon. He’ll throw it in the mid 70’s, and it has a nice plane of break in generating plenty of swings and misses. The straight changeup is a close third, and at 77-80 miles per hour it has nice velocity separation from the fastball. The arm speed is pretty good, but Nolin can often throw it with a little too much firmness, weakening the sink and leaving it susceptible to left handed batters. The overall package is still more control than command, but Nolin made improvements last season, particularly with his fastball. At his age and size, there’s not much physical projection left, so further development will revolve around him continuing to learn how to pitch and commanding the offspeed stuff.

Having already pitched two years of full season ball, Nolin is on track to be the first of the next wave of arms to reach Toronto. With his well-rounded three pitch repertoire he should be ready to pitch in the big league rotation by early 2014, but if the Blue Jays are in the playoff hunt in late 2013, he could temporarily serve out of the bullpen in a lefty-punishing role (with Dunedin in 2012, he had a 37-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 28 innings against lefties). He may lack the ceiling of pitchers like Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard, but he’s the only potentially above average starter in the system with experience at the Double-A level – where he’ll return to start the 2013 season. Hopefully the organization can avoid a repeat of 2012 where they prematurely promoted Drew Hutchison due to poor pitching depth at the major league level, as Nolin may make such a decision very appealing.

Dream on Me

Matt Smoral – 2012 team: N/A

Matt Smoral has all kinds of length (Image courtesy of Jim Olexa and Cleveland.com)

At 2 million dollars, Matt Smoral received the largest signing bonus of any Blue Jays selection from the 2012 draft, ahead of even Toronto’s top two picks, first rounders D.J. Davis and Marcus Stroman. There are two main justifications as to why Toronto was forced to hand over such a substantial bonus. The first is that, by ability, Smoral was a mid-first round talent (Baseball America ranked him 24th overall), and the only reason he fell was a foot injury suffered in April that required surgery. The second aspect is tied to the first, in that Smoral had every reason to pass on the Blue Jays offer and pitch in college. The foot injury damaged his value, and three years at a reputable program in North Carolina could boost him into potential top-5 pick status in 2015. The Blue Jays got the deal finished, and while the surgery eliminated any chance of a draft year debut, Smoral should be 100% ready when spring training rolls around in February.

Smoral’s size and repertoire have drawn some half hearted Randy Johnson comps, and while that’s really fun to think about, Smoral has a long, long (long) way to go before he should even be mentioned in the same breath as one of the best pitchers in baseball history. His height is the first thing you notice, as at 6-foot-8 (or 6-foot-7, depending upon who you ask), Smoral is the tallest guy in the room everywhere he goes. He’s got some solid mass at 225 pounds, but much of it is located in the lower half, whereas his arms and chest are still a little on the skinny side. As the 18 year old continues to physically develop, that should only further augment a fastball that already sits between 90 and 94 miles per hour – velocity that comes very easily to him. Smoral delivers the ball from a low 3/4 arm slot, which gives it some natural cutting action and creates a very difficult angle for hitters to pick up the ball from, particularly lefties.

The arm slot is extremely beneficial to his slider as well, and the breaking ball is already being called his best pitch. Future grades of plus and even plus-plus have been thrown on the 82-85 mph offering, as it’s extremely hard and has sharp break. Smoral will throw a low 80’s changeup, but thanks to his overpowering 1-2 combo it was seldom used in high school. He has good arm action on the pitch and it has late sink, but Smoral can occasionally have difficulties getting on top of the ball and leaves it up. He’s been known to throw a curveball as well, and he’s actually shown the ability to get some nice spin rotation on it, but the pitch takes a back seat to the power slider and is clearly his fourth pitch at this point. Smoral is very athletic for his size, and given the strides he’s made since the summer of 2010, scouts are very optimistic on his development moving forward.

If the front office’s decisions from 2012 are any indication, Matt Smoral is looking at a Bluefield assignment to open up his Blue Jays career. Smoral has upside for days, but given the layoff he’ll have had (it will be 14 months between competitive, non-intra-squad games) and the lack of innings he threw as a whole in 2012, the organization is going to play it safe. Much like Norris, Roberto Osuna, Joe Musgrove, Kevin Comer et al. last season, Smoral is likely to find himself paired with another pitcher, throwing 3-4 innings in a game every four or five days for at least the first part of Bluefield’s season. From there, if his foot is holding up, Smoral should see his workload expand, and may even find himself in Vancouver before the summer is finished. He’s a long way away, but at 6-foot-8, there’s a whole lot of pitcher to dream on here.

The Bullpen Guy

Griffin Murphy – 2012 team(s): Rookie-Bluefield, Low-A Vancouver
1-2, 39.1 IP, 26 H, 8 ER, 1 HR, 13 BB, 44 K
1.83 ERA (2.51 FIP), 0.99 WHIP, 10.07 K/9, 2.97 BB/9, 1.03 GO/AO

Murphy pitching for his high school team, Redlands East Valley (The Press-Enterprise, Mark Zaleski)

Hey, remember that much talked about 2010 draft? Here’s yet another promising arm who joined the organization in it, with Murphy being selected in the second round and receiving an 800 thousand dollar signing bonus. While not a true reliever as of yet (he made just two starts against 15 relief appearances in 2012, many of which went for multiple innings), all signs point to Murphy eventually filling that role as he ascends the minor leagues. He falls into the numbers game, as while in some organizations he may be viewed as a potential back-end starter, there’s simply not going to be any room in Toronto’s rotation if/when he arrives. The Bluefield assignment was rather disappointing (he could have at least pitched in Vancouver to open the year, if not Lansing), but he made the most of his opportunity, with his season highlighted by a scoreless streak that eclipsed 25 innings.

As I touched on above, the reason why I feel Murphy will eventually move to the bullpen is due to a lack of room, not a lack of a viable third pitch. Quite the contrary, in fact, as between his fastball, curveball, and changeup, Murphy features three pitches with average to above average potential, and all have shown some impressive polish. His best offering of the three is his fastball, which has fringe-plus velocity from the left side, clocking in between 89-92 miles per hour, touching 93-94. The movement is merely average, but Murphy has excellent fastball command, locating the pitch safely on the corners both inside and outside.

Throwing from a high 3/4 arm slot, Murphy does his best to get on top of the ball and create a downward plane on his pitches, particularly his offspeed stuff. The curveball has 12-to-6 movement (or close enough), and has nice form and shape while being thrown in the mid 70’s. It has sharp break when he’s throwing it well, but when he fails to get on top of the ball it loops with an easy to pick up arc to the plate. He has good arm speed on the straight change, and the pitch shows solid sink at the plate. The command of the offspeed isn’t quite to the level of his fastball command, but still falls within the average range.

Murphy is more than ready for Lansing, and given that the organization will likely have the Lugnuts once again employ a piggyback system to open the year, he could prove to be a very valuable asset to have there in 2013. He’s in a similar boat to that of the recently departed Anthony DeSclafani, as while the bullpen is his best and likely eventual role, it’s easier for him to develop his pitches and command if he’s throwing 100 innings in a season instead of 50. The Blue Jays could piggyback Murphy with one of the younger arms they’re being very protective of – like a Roberto Osuna, for example – or simply use him as a long/swing man to throw multiple innings of relief a few times every week. With a full year of innings under his belt, Murphy could then be placed on the fast track, with a bullpen debut in Toronto as early as late 2014 not out of the question.

Remember the Name

Jairo Labourt – 2012 team: Gulf Coast Blue Jays
0-3, 38.0 IP, 38 H, 16 ER, 2 HR, 23 BB, 39 K
3.79 ERA (3.65 FIP), 1.61 WHIP, 9.24 K/9, 5.45 BB/9, 0.70 GO/AO

Like Alberto Tirado on the right handed pitcher primer, Jairo Labourt was an under the radar international signing, though he came a few months later in January of 2011. He was eligible to be signed in the previous July, but it wasn’t until his stuff improved a notch over the fall and winter that he really began to draw attention. The Blue Jays delivered the left hander a bonus worth 350 thousand dollars, and because he technically signed during the 2010 period, he was able to pitch that same summer. Working for the Blue Jays Dominican League affiliate, Labourt made 12 starts, throwing just over 36 innings while carrying a 2.23 ERA. He jumped stateside as an 18 year old this past summer, and showed both an uptick in velocity and strikeout rate. He’s very much still a work in progress, however, evident by the 5.45 walks per nine.

The 18 year old Labourt doesn’t have as much physical projection left as most Latin American pitchers, as at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he’s already a fairly big and muscular guy. He’s athletic as well, which noticeably translates into his delivery. It’s very smooth and the mechanics are clean, but Labourt has struggled to consistently repeat the motions, which has lead to the control problems I mentioned above.

Labourt’s fastball has already flashed plus velocity, as while the pitch sits in the 88-92 mph range, it’s touching as high as 94. He attempts to play up the velocity even further by using a changeup, but it’s still very raw and can be picked up with relative ease. Unsurprisingly, he’s been pumped by right handed batters early in his career, as in 2012 alone he surrendered 30 hits and 14 walks in just 24.2 innings against them (5.11 ERA). He’ll need to significantly improve the pitch moving forward. Working in his favor, however, is an advanced curveball with tight spin and plenty of depth. It’s an excellent chase pitch, and has been a big factor in his above average strikeout rate thus far in his career.

It’s probable the Blue Jays will continue to move things along slowly with Labourt, so Bluefield appears to be the most appropriate destination in 2013. His inning totals have been satisfactory thus far, but with Labourt now 18 and entering his third year in short season ball, I expect the reins will be loosened slightly, with perhaps more four and five inning starts. The organization would likely prefer to see him work his way into the 50-plus innings range next year, allowing for a full season assignment in 2014 without too many workload restrictions. His stuff from the left side makes him a name to follow, and if he can harness in some of that control, he could make some serious waves next summer and beyond.

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Tags: Daniel Norris Griffin Murphy Jairo Labourt Justin Nicolino Matt Smoral Sean Nolin

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