Zephyrs open at home vs. Storm Chasers _lowres

Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZA -- Zephrys' manager Andy Haines speaks to members of the media during the New Orleans Zephyrs' Media Day at Zephyr Field.

Sprinkled with four of the Miami Marlins’ top prospects, the New Orleans Zephyrs may do as well as those young players perform this season, manager Andy Haines said.

“This season is going to be a test for them,” Haines said. “They are good prospects, but they haven’t performed at this level, and (the Pacific Coast League) is a pretty competitive league.”

That three of those prospects are pitchers puts the onus squarely on the mound. Justin Nicolino, Miami’s fourth-ranked prospect, will find out right from the beginning as the Zephyrs’ opening-day starter on Thursday at Zephyr Field against the Omaha Storm Chasers.

“It’s an honor, and I believe I’m ready,” said Nicolino, 23, who was the Marlins ‘ minor league pitcher of the year with Double-A Jacksonville last season. “I’ve had a good spring, and I added a cutter (pitch), so I’m excited to get going and to pitch on opening day.”

Nicolino, a left-hander, began making waves two seasons ago when the was the Florida State League pitcher of the year with Single-A Jupiter. Last season, he again received the honor in the Southern League, when he finished with a 14-4 record and 2.85 earned-run average. The 14 wins led the league and were the most among Marlins minor-leaguers.

Not seen in those numbers was his development, said first-year Zephyrs pitching coach John Duffy, who coached Nicolino last season and near the end of the previous one after he came up from Jupiter.

“He matured a lot,” Duffy said. “You’re starting to see the body maturing. You see his man strength starting to come, and when he gets that, I think he’ll be a big asset to the big-league club.”

Right now, Haines is betting Nicolino will be a big asset to the Zephyrs.

“He’s fun to watch,” Haines said. “He’s aggressive. He’s a contact hitter. He throws strikes, doesn’t fool around. He’s got the reputation as a control pitcher, but he has good velocity on his fastball. His command is just very impressive.”

Asked to compare Nicolino to last year’s Marlins mound phenom, Andrew Heaney, Haines said Heaney was more of a strikeout pitcher, but that Nicolino is further along.

“You watched Heaney, and you saw a lot of upside,” Haines said. “You felt that down the line he was going to be something special.

“Nicolino is not as overpowering, but he’s got a bigger curve to go along with his fastball. He knows what he wants to do with the baseball. You combine his competitive makeup with his stuff, if he stays healthy, he’s on his way.”

Immediately in the way are the Storm Chasers, who have won the past two Triple-A World Series and three of the past four PCL titles. Although many of those players are gone, they have several good ones returning: catcher Francisco Pena, son of former Zephyr manager Tony Pena; first baseman Matt Fields, left fielder Whit Merrifield and pitcher Aaron Brooks.

Last season, Fields hit 28 home runs and drove in 81 runs, tops among all Kansas City Royals minor leaguers. Merrifield led the PCL in hits (batting .340), and Brooks finished with a 12-3 record with a 3.88 ERA.

Brooks, the Royals’ minor league pitcher of the year, will start against Nicolino on Thursday.

“Right off the bat, we have the Storm Chasers, then after that, we have the Iowa Cubs coming in, another big-hitting team,” Haines said. “Our first 16 games (including road games) are against Omaha and Iowa.”