The California League is a High A minor league association with ten teams. Shockingly, all ten squads operate within the state of California. All five NL West squads have a team in the CL, while the rest of the spots are filled by affiliates of the Astros, Angels, Mariners, Reds, and A’s. The Modesto Nuts represent the Rockies in the California League.
Many argue that this league is the most hitter friendly association at any level of professional baseball. Most CL hitters are downgraded as prospects because of the league’s reputation. On the flip side, scouts pay particular attention to pitchers that are successful in the Cali League. In reality, the reputation is probably a bit undeserved. The stadiums in Lancaster and Adelanto are extreme hitters’ parks, driving numbers up across the league.
Still, the CL is a tough place to pitch and the Rox get excited when pitchers have success in the Cali League. Last year, right-handed starter Juan Nicasio had an outstanding season with Modesto. Nicasio led the Cali League in strike-outs and wins, while finishing in the top ten in ERA and throwing over 175 innings. He was already considered a top prospect by many, but his success last season put him on a different level. Last month, Baseball America ranked him as the eighth best prospect in Colorado’s system and compared him favorably to the Great Ubaldo.
Juan wasn’t always a highly touted prospect. Usually, players from the Dominican Republic are put under contract by the time they are seventeen; Juan was nearly twenty when the Rockies signed him in 2006. That summer, he pitched in the Dominican Summer League, making five starts and finishing with a 2.89 ERA. For Nicasio, it was a solid debut, but hardly attention grabbing.
After coming to the United States, Juan continued to fly under the radar. Despite his advanced age, the Rockies took their time with Nicasio; he pitched in short season leagues in both ’07 and ’08. In rookie ball at the age of twenty, he went 0-3 with a 4.36 ERA . The next season with Tri-Cities was another average year for Nicasio. At that point, Juan’s future was questionable. He was an older prospect struggling against very young players, but everything would change soon.
In 2009, Nicasio made his full-season debut. He started 18 games for Asheville, going 9-3 with a miniscule 2.41 ERA. He threw 112 innings and struck out 115 hitters while only walking 23 – quite an improvement over his 19 walks in just 54 innings pitched in 2008. Still, many discounted Juan’s outstanding season because he was 22-years-old at the time.
Juan’s 2010 season silenced his critics. With 177 innings pitched, Juan was one of the Rockies’ minor league workhorses. On the year, he had a very impressive strike-out to walk ratio of 5.52. He finished 12-10 with a 3.91 ERA and a solid 1.22 WHIP.
At 6’3″, 230 lbs, Nicasio is a big guy. He uses his body well; he throws hard without maximum exertion, while maintaining solid control. His fastball is a plus pitch, consistently thrown in the mid-90s with movement. He has a true curve ball and a slurve that he uses interchangeably. Like every other starter in the Rockies’ system, he is toying with a changeup. All of his secondary pitches still need work.
Even so, Juan is impressive. Though he’s never pitched above A ball, the Rockies added him to the 40-man. He is currently in big league camp with the Rox, but will start the year in AA Tulsa. His age makes him a candidate for a quick promotion, but I don’t think he will make it to Denver next season. You can expect to see him in the Majors at some point in 2012.