Originally written on Baseball Professor  |  Last updated 2/5/12

One of my favorite time-killing activities is looking through MLB team depth charts. I’m a very forgetful person, and with 750 players in the majors at any given moment (and another 450 rounding out each team’s 40-man roster) there are a lot of players who just sort of slip my mind.

Juan Nicasio was one of these players. Then, one day last week, I was looking at the Colorado Rockies depth chart when Nicasio’s name stood out to me. I had completely forgotten about him. I’d forgotten how great he was in the minors, how elite his walk rates were and how excited I was when he was called up. I even forgot he was hit in the head by a line drive, fell to the ground, smashed his head on the mound, broke his neck and had a metal plate inserted to fix it.

Now Nicasio’s back, and he’s a prime 2012 fantasy baseball sleeper.

How many innings will he throw?

Apparently Nicasio was throwing to hitters behind an L-screen back in the Dominican Republic in January, and he’s projected to be in the Rockies’ rotation out of spring training this season. He threw 177 1/3 innings in high-A ball in 2010 and was on pace for almost 190 last season split between double-A and the majors, so he’s not one of the many young starters who’ll be on an innings limit in their first full season.

Of course, the rehab from surgery to insert a plate in your neck probably limits your ability to keep your arm in tip-top shape, but assuming Nicasio is ready in time for spring training and can devote himself to getting his strength back, I don’t see a reason he can’t throw 180 innings for the Rockies this season.

What about his ERA and WHIP?

And, if his minor league numbers shed any light on the kind of pitcher Nicasio is, those 180 innings could be very valuable. He’s a fastball-first pitcher with good velocity (94.1 mph last season) and great control (1.99 BB/9 in the minors, 2.26 for the Rockies last season). In his 71 2/3 innings in the majors, he induced ground balls 45.9 percent of the time and allowed fly balls just 32.1 percent of the time. His HR/FB rate (11.4%) was a little high, but that’s not an unusual rate for a pitcher that calls Coors Field home.

Even though Nicasio’s 3.65 FIP was noticeably lower than his 4.14 ERA, I’d caution not to get too excited about the difference. His 22.0 percent line drive rate allowed last year was very high and led to a BABIP of just .304. With a line drive rate that high, we could have expected his BABIP to be higher. However, even though opponents hit .261 off him (league average was .251), his low homer and walk rates neutralize much of the damage those extra hits cause. In terms of opponents’ OPS, Nicasio’s .735 OPS against was exactly league average.

Assuming Nicasio maintains that low-2.00s walk rate in 2012 and posts a similar .261 OBA (which might even be high but is probably a safe estimate), he’d end up with a WHIP somewhere around 1.25. That’s far from great, but a 1.25 WHIP would have ranked 43rd of the 98 pitchers who threw at least 160 innings last season.

If I had to project Nicasio’s 2012 ERA, and since I’m writing this post I pretty much have to, I’d say something around 4.00 is likely. However, because we’re touting Nicasio as a buy-low sleeper, someone you can probably get undrafted well into April even if he starts hot, let’s say he could post a 3.50 ERA or maybe slightly better.

Strikeouts and wins?

Nicasio’s strikeout total has plenty of room to grow as well. Last season with the Rockies, Nicasio struck out 7.28 batters per nine innings, but his career minor league rate was 8.92. In three of his last four stops in the minors, he averaged over a strikeout per inning. I don’t think I need to tell you how many Ks Nicasio would end up with if he struck out nearly a batter per inning over 180 innings (hint: around 180), but for now it’s safe to project him for around 7.50 K/9. That rate over 180 innings would yield 150 strikeouts.

Colorado has a pretty solid offense that ranked eighth in the league in runs last season and is expected to perform just as well again. With solid run support, 180 innings of Nicasio would likely win between 10 and 14 games. Last season Jhoulys Chacin won 11 games over 194 innings of 3.62-ERA ball.

Projecting and ranking Nicasio

Let’s provide three projections for Nicasio’s 2012 season: the likely projection (i.e. pretty safe but still assumes health), the sleeper projection (i.e. what he could reasonably be expected to produce if things start to break right) and the best-case projection (i.e. absolutely everything breaks right)

  • Likely projection: 150 IP, 10 W, 4.00 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 120 Ks
  • Sleeper projection: 170 IP, 12 W, 3.70 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 145 Ks
  • Best-case projection: 190 IP, 14 W, 3.40 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 180 Ks

The likely projection would yield a PSR of -0.22, which would have ranked 260th last season (we conveniently engineered PSR so that 0.00 ranks around 250th, or right where the cutoff is between last player on you roster and first player on free agency). The sleeper projection would yield a PSR of  1.69, which would have ranked 169th last season. The best-case projection would yield a PSR of 3.94, which would have ranked 92nd last season.

So, assuming Nicasio is healthy and remains a member of the Colorado rotation for most of 2012 (likely), he projects as one of the best players on free agency all season and will likely be a rotating spot starter for whichever team needs a timely boost. If things go well for Nicasio and he pitches to his FIP last season, he becomes a top-50 starting pitcher that would certainly have been worth drafting. If everything breaks right and Nicasio absolutely breaks out (long shot but it could happen) he becomes a top-100 player overall and a top-30 starting pitcher whose PSR would have sandwiched him between Daniel Hudson and Madison Bumgarner last season. Again, it’s a long shot, but that’s why we call them sleepers.

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