JUPITER, Fla. -- Some humbling outings at the end of 2013 have motivated Justin Nicolino heading into this season.
The 22-year-old, ranked as the seventh-best lefty-pitching prospect by MLB.com, left Double-A Jacksonville with a bitter feeling.
"This offseason was a big offseason for me," Nicolino said. "I left Jacksonville not happy with how I finished up there. I want to prove to myself that I was better than that, and I have stuff to improve on this year."
Nicolino opened last year at Class A Advanced Jupiter, where he impressed over 18 starts, going 5-2 with a 2.23 ERA. He was promoted to Double-A, where he endured some struggles in his nine starts, posting a 4.96 ERA in 45 1/3 innings.
Overall, Nicolino enjoyed a solid season, combining for an 8-4 record with a 3.11 ERA in 142 innings.
Nicolino is one of many promising pitching prospects in the Marlins' organization. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder likely will open the season at Triple-A New Orleans, but he has the potential to surprise, and could possibly win a big league rotation spot. However, chances are, his debut could come midway through or late in the season.
The Marlins have high expectations for Nicolino, who was acquired from the Blue Jays in November 2012. Within the organization, Nicolino is considered a serious student of the game. The lefty has an above-average baseball aptitude, and he has a real understanding of how to pitch.
Nicolino attended University High School in Orlando, and he now lives in the Tampa area. During the offseason, he trained at Cooper Speed-Strength School. Several big league hitters, like Denard Span (Nationals), Matt Joyce (Rays) and Clete Thomas (Twins), also train there.
"Those are big league hitters, they've been doing this a while," Nicolino said. "Span stood in one of my bullpens.
"I asked him, 'How did I look?' I asked him if he could see if I was doing anything differently. Having something like that helps out. Being able to talk to those guys, it helps my game out that much more."
His cerebral approach reminds some in the Marlins organization of Greg Maddux. Not that his stuff moves like the Hall of Famer's, but his ideas about pitching and ways he tries to set up hitters are similar.
Early in Spring Training, Nicolino is studying his teammates. He closely is watching Nathan Eovaldi, Jose Fernandez and Kevin Slowey, in particular.
"When I'm throwing my 'pen, I'm basically focused on what I'm doing," the lefty said. "But I'm a student of the game. All the big leaguers are throwing in that first group. I love watching Eovaldi pitch. Even in his bullpen, he attacks it, like he's attacking in a game. The same with Fernandez.
"Slowey, he's been doing it forever. Just to watch those guys, and see how they approach a bullpen, that's why they have success in a game. For me, that's the kind of approach I try to take."
Fernandez gets nod for Grapefruit opener
JUPITER, Fla. -- High-energy Jose Fernandez has shown in his first few bullpen sessions an eagerness to face hitters.
The 21-year-old won't have to wait much longer to see some game action.
Manager Mike Redmond on Saturday named Fernandez the Marlins' starter for their first Grapefruit League game, when they visit the Cardinals on Friday at Roger Dean Stadium. St. Louis is going with Carlos Martinez.
Fernandez is not expected to throw more than two innings.
The reigning National League Rookie of the Year, Fernandez comes off a stellar 12-6 season in which he posted a 2.19 ERA. Due to an innings limit, he was shut down after he beat the Braves on Sept. 11 at Marlins Park. His season came to a halt after 172 2/3 innings.
The Marlins have yet to officially announce Fernandez as their Opening Day starter, but that is considered a formality. The club will likely relax the right-hander's innings limit in his sophomore season. It could approach 200, but the team will remain careful.
"Innings-wise, we'll wait and see how he does, and how that goes as we get further along in the season," Redmond said. "But we treat all our young pitchers the same way. We try to protect those guys and keep them as fresh as we can throughout the course of the year."
Fernandez's pitch counts per game likely will be about the same, in the 110 range.
"It's like with every young guy, we're going to take care of him," Redmond said. "We'll see how things go in spring, as far as how built up he will be. Pitch count-wise, he will stay about the same. We're going to take care of him early."
The Marlins open their exhibition season on Wednesday against the University of Miami in Jupiter. Angel Sanchez, acquired from the Dodgers last July in the Ricky Nolasco trade, will get the nod against the Hurricanes.
Alvarez, other Marlins plea for peace in Venezuela
JUPITER, Fla. -- The threat of violence in Venezuela led to Marlins pitcher Henderson Alvarez bringing his wife and two-month-old daughter to South Florida on Thursday night.
A Venezuelan native, Alvarez initially was planning on having his family join him later in Spring Training. But he worked it out where they could leave the country early, due to two incidents where his family was impacted by tear gas.
At Marlins camp on Saturday morning, Alvarez, accompanied by several teammates, posed for pictures while holding the Venezuelan flag. Several players held up handwritten signs with the word "Paz" ("peace" in Spanish).
"With the picture, I'm hoping to send a message to Venezuela to have peace," Alvarez said. "To leave the violence behind."
Alvarez is from Valencia, and his other family members there are fine.
"My daughter is the one who was affected. She was affected by tear gas -- twice -- so I sent for her," Alvarez said. "I sent for her and my wife to go to Miami."
The message the Marlins sent is similar to what the Tigers did on Friday. Detroit players, including Venezuelan natives Miguel Cabrera and Anibal Sanchez, also took pictures holding their country's flag as a sign of solidarity.
With the popularity of baseball in Venezuela, Alvarez is hopeful that the big leaguers' plea for peace can help end the violence in the country.
"As baseball players, our message has more of a potential to [reach people]," Alvarez said. "Detroit sent out a picture [on Friday]."
Not just Venezuelan players posed in the Marlins' picture.
Cuban-born Jose Fernandez, Arquimedes Caminero of the Dominican Republic and A.J. Ramos from Texas, were among those standing in support.
Marlins take some hacks on first day of live BP
JUPITER, Fla. -- Giancarlo Stanton made the only swing he took in live batting practice count. The slugger blistered a Henderson Alvarez fastball over the fence in left-center on Saturday afternoon.
Other than that monstrous blast, Stanton tracked pitches in his first couple of rounds in the cage.
Stanton was not alone taking his swings.
Saturday was the first day of live BP for the Marlins. Pitchers were behind screens, and the hitters were under the cage commonly called "the turtle."
"It starts the process about seeing pitches, and working on your timing," manager Mike Redmond said. "We'll do this for a couple of days, and we'll do a couple of simulated days like we did last year."
The first day of live batting practice usually provides an advantage for the pitchers, who arrive at Spring Training a few days earlier than the position players.
A former player, Redmond quipped that it's always a fun day for the hitters. He exaggerated that hitters bring about eight bats out there to get carved up by the pitching.
The Marlins open their exhibition season on Wednesday against the University of Miami. They begin Grapefruit League play on Friday against the Cardinals.
"When we start the games on Friday," Redmond said, "guys will at least have a few days of seeing some live pitches."