The Lansing Three: Did the Marlins Reel in the Right Pitching Prospect?


It is hard to question a scouting assessment made by the Miami Marlins given their access to a variety of information from a slew of expert resources.  Most do not know how Miami and Toronto negotiated their recent trade.  However, measuring the merits of a trade is essential to an engaged fan base.  In that spirit, without seeing the scouting reports or hearing the trade discussions, I am going to profile and compare Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, and Justin Nicolino within the context of the recent trade and speculate as to why the Marlins ended up with Nicolino and not Syndergaard or Sanchez.

Aaron Sanchez

Recently ranked as the best pitching prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization by Fangraphs, Aaron Sanchez is certainly the pitcher with the highest ceiling of these three young prospects.  Drafted 34th overall in 2010 out of a California High School, this righty signed for $775,000.  He made his professional debut that same year with ten starts in the Gulf Coast League and the New York Penn League that included 37 strikeouts in 25 innings with a 2.16era.  In 2011, Sanchez moved along to the Northwest and Appalachian Leagues where he threw 54.1 innings.  During this developmental season, Sanchez collected 56 strikeouts while allowing 26 walks.  In 2012, Sanchez completed his first year of full season ball with the Lansing Lugnuts.  The Blue Jays limited Sanchez to 90.1 innings over 25 appearances.  While Sanchez struck out more than a hitter per inning and had an era of 2.49 with a whip of 1.27, he continued to struggle with his control as he walked 51 for a ratio of 5.1 per nine innings.

Aaron Sanchez is listed as 6’4” and 190 pounds.  It’s a lanky frame that is likely to fill out somewhat.  Sanchez possesses a four-pitch repertoire that includes his two seamer, a change, and a curve.  According to an interview he did for Fangraphs late in the 2012 season, Sanchez reported that his fastball sits in the mid 90s and that his change had been his best pitch this year.  In his June 17, 2012 start against the Great Lake Loons, Sanchez threw two fastballs to the leadoff batter James Baldwin III that clocked at 95 and 96.  His best secondary pitch in the game was certainly his change up which had armside run and sink to it.  His curve failed to be effective in this start often staying up or spinning way outside.  After his four-seam power fastball and his change up, his third best pitch was his two-seam fastball that had impressive bend to it.  He used the two-seamer effectively against lefties like Baldwin, to start out inside and then come back over the inner edge of the zone.  Against the Loons, Sanchez revealed his wildness as he walked five and hit one in four innings of work.

Noah Syndergaard

Possessing the best name of the three, Noah Syndergaard was ranked as the top-pitching prospect in the Toronto organization by Baseball America earlier this month (BA had him behind both Nicolino and Sanchez after the 2011 season).  Syndergaard was drafted out of a high school in Texas in 2010 four slots after Sanchez.  Noah signed for below-slot money and made his professional debut with thirteen innings in the Gulf Coast League in 2010.  In 2011, Syndergaard pitched well over three stops at the Appalachian (1.41era/1.06whip/37ks/32 innings), Northwest (2.00/1.11/22/18), and Midwest League (3.00/1.11/9/9).  In 2012, Syndergaard continued his professional development in the Midwest League where he comfortably spent all of 2012.  In this pitcher friendly circuit, Syndergaard struck out 122 batters over 103.2 innings.  Unlike Sanchez, Syndergaard demonstrated good control by only permitting 31 walks for almost a 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio.  In addition his era and whip were 2.60 and 1.08 respectively.

Another big righty, Noah Syndergaard is 6’5” and 200 pounds.  Upon taking the slab, Syndergaard brings his delivery over the top.  On May 2, 2012, Syndergaard entered a game in relief for three innings of work (a methodology used by the organization with all three starters at times to protect the health of their pitching arms).  During his third inning of work, Noah was clocked at 94 and 97mph.  While his secondary pitches seemed decent in this start, what was most concerning to me was his fastball.  Although the velocity was there, the Great Lake Loons were able to really barrel up some fastballs from Syndergaard.  The Loons’ Joe Winker just missed a homerun in their first matchup and then delivered one in their second.  It may be that Syndergaard needs to develop the movement and placement of his fastball as much as anything else.

Justin Nicolino

Entering 2012, Justin Nicolino was the highest ranked of the three starters by Baseball America.  Entering 2013, both Fangraphs and Baseball America ranked Nicolino behind Syndergaard and Sanchez.  Nicolino, also drafted out of high school in 2010 (second round), signed for $615,000 to play for the Toronto organization.  Unlike the other two pitchers discussed here, Nicolino did not sign in time to pitch professionally in 2010 and instead made his debut in 2011 with Vancouver in the Northwest League where he dominated to the tune of a 0.75whip, a 1.03era and 64 strikeouts in 52 innings.  The 6’3” lefty was dominant in his debut and earned a promotion to full season ball in Lansing where he made three starts and struck out nine over nine.  In many respects, Nicolino came out of the 2012 season looking like the most mature pitcher of the three.  About one year older than Syndergaard and Sanchez, Nicolino went 124.1 innings in 2012 and accumulated 119 strikeouts and 21 walks.  His era and whip were 2.46 and 1.07.

During ten innings of desk scouting on my computer monitor Justin Nicolino impressed.  In two starts against the Great Lake Loons in 2012, Nicolino utilized excellent fastball command to get batters out with relatively few pitches.  Against right-handed batters, Nicolino seemed to be throwing a cutter that was catching the inside corner of the zone for called third strikes or inducing weak contact.  Nicolino had a nice mix of pitches going that included a change, a rare true slider with late break, and a sweeping breaking ball with more horizontal bend than vertical movement.

The Trade

In 2011 the New York Mets secured Zach Wheeler in exchange for a few months of Carlos Beltran.  Should not the Marlins have been able to pick the pitcher they wanted from the Lansing trio of Syndergaard, Sanchez, and Nicolino, in exchange for Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Emilio Bonifacio?  One would think so.  Was Nicolino their first choice? If so, then the Marlins took a view of the Lansing three that differed from Baseball America and Fangraphs in terms of preference.  The Marlins went with the more polished pitcher, with an earlier ETA (2014), and a higher floor and eschewed the more talented and dynamic pitchers in Sanchez and Syndergaard.  In the alternative, its completely feasible that the Marlins inquired about Sanchez and the Blue Jays insisted that he not be included in the deal given all of the salary they were taking off Miami’s hands.  An explanation as to how Miami came to land Nicolino instead of Syndergaard or Sanchez would be much welcomed.