During the past week and a half, we have discussed two of the five Miami Marlins who may become critical core pieces who could support future superstars Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich as the team rebuilds to contention. While Fernandez and Yelich will attempt to serve as the Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez of this generation of Marlins, some players have to become the Anibal Sanchez's and Dan Uggla's of this team's latest era.
The next potential core piece is another pitcher who was acquired in a midseason trade in 2012, former Los Angeles Dodgers farmhand and righty starter Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi spent much of the 2012 year as a starting pitcher in the major leagues, unlike his fellow midseason trade counterpart Jacob Turner. Like Turner, however, Eovaldi came with some pedigree from the minors, mostly in the form of an electric but flat fastball and the promise that such a skill brings. Before 2012, Eovaldi was a fringe top-100 prospect in baseball, and the fact that he was trusted enough by the Dodgers to start in the majors consistently at age 22 shows that his Double- and Triple-A performances inspired confidence. The fact that he survived with a passable 4.30 ERA at that age is also encouraging.
But can Eovaldi develop everything he needs to do to become a core member of the future Marlins pitching staff?
Why is Eovaldi a Key to Success?
Eovaldi, like Turner, is a key to success because of his minor league pedigree, and that pedigree is contingent upon an effective fastball. Eovaldi throws a tantalizing heater that clocked in at 94.1 mph last season between his time with Los Angeles and Miami. While the pitch is generally described as "flat" in that it has little lateral or vertical movement, pitchers with that kind of heat as starters are hard to come by and often get away with more than the average six-inning guy. Eovaldi's velocity has long been vaunted, and that remains his best skill as a starting pitcher.
But unlike Turner, he does not boast the strong control or command that scouts loved about Turner. What Eovaldi has, thanks to the fastball and the promise hidden in his secondary pitches, is what Turner apparently lacks: upside. While Eovaldi may be the riskier bet among the two starters, he also has the better chance of becoming an elite pitcher if he can simply figure out those pesky secondary offerings. Former Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen noted during Eovalldi's hot stretch in September that he resembles a young Justin Verlander, While the comparison may be apt to a degree, even having the stuff to be compared to a Verlander makes you instantly more interesting than a slow-and-steady guy like Turner.
Eovaldi is not just a fastball either, even at this stage of his development. Last season, his slider was actually his best pitch according to Pitch F/X, accumulating 1.6 runs per 100 sliders thrown. After multiple Pitch F/X breakdowns of Eovaldi's game last season, we discovered that at the very least, he has a slider that can get righties to swing and miss. Sure enough, he struck out 17.3 percent of right-handers last season and posted a 3.70 FIP against them versus his atrocious 4.48 FIP against leftes.
Indeed, left-handers appear to be the primary obstacle against Eovaldi in 2013 and beyond. Against righties, he walked just seven percent of hitters faced and exhibited none of the problems with placing pitches in the zone. When he was able to work with just a fastball and slider with the platoon advantage, he did not have a terrible issue with control. But as soon as Eovaldi faced the left-handers, he collapsed; he struck out just 13.1 percent of lefties with a 10.3 percent walk rate and a 4.48 FIP in comparison.
The primary reasoning behind this is that his tertiary offerings have yet to even come close to being refined. Eovaldi features a curveball and changeup along with some use of his slider and the primary use of his fastball against lefties. Neither the curve nor change are any good as of right now, as both were more than one run worse than average per 100 pitches last season. The curveball has the issue of a lack of movement and the inability to fool hitters, while the changeup has an extreme problem with proper strike zone placement. These issues match Eovaldi's scouting report heading into 2012, as most reports specifically mentioned his working on these pitches.
Initially, it seemed as though Eovaldi was mixing in a cutter as well, but the pitch not only promptly disappeared but was ineffective while still in use. With no one on the Marlins to teach him its proper throwing, perhaps it was best that Eovaldi focus on just refining one of those third offerings to use against lefties. This setback is the primary barrier between him becoming an effective starter versus a bullpen option.
Eovaldi may be the most difficult of the Marlins' five players to predict going forward. He seems to have proper use of his fastball and slider, but his struggles against lefties are so prominent that, if he continues to falter, he may be shifted to the bullpen quickly. If he cannot resolve that, it is likely he will be unable to fix his ongoing control issues and thus never become a starting pitcher option.
Where does he rank among the five players and their chances at becoming contributors? Eovaldi likely sits at fourth among these players, a tad behind Brantly but with more upside than perhaps all of the players in front of him. If he ever figures out his secondary pitches and puts up an extended streak like his September (22.1 percent strikeout rate, 3.72 ERA, 2.61 FIP), the National League may be in trouble. But if he cannot face left-handers effectively, he may languish as a middle relief pitcher for the rest of his career.