The Miami Marlins acquired two starting pitchers last year whom they expected to be contributors this season. One of those players, Jacob Turner, has run into some trouble and may be out of a major league job to start the season. The other, Nathan Eovaldi, is actually performing well enough in spring training in order to assure his spot, but he is arguably the more difficult prospect to predict. Eovaldi has an excellent fastball, a playable slider, and no tools against left-handed hitters. He has yet to develop in terms of strikeouts as a result, but could 2013 be the year he begins to put it all together?
1. Ricky Nolasco
2. Jacob Turner
3. Nathan Eovaldi
The Miami Marlins have to be concerned about Eovaldi's ability to perform given his struggles from last year. As we have discussed before, Eovaldi's legitimate issues versus left-handers seem hard to resolve in just one offseason. When we looked at his pitches via Pitch F/X, we saw that neither his changeup nor his curveball are developed enough to realistically get hitters out at the major league level. This leaves Eovaldi depending on a fastball that does not generate swings and misses despite its highly-effective velocity and a slider to get both sides of the plate out. Left-handers do not generally fall for sliders, and Nathan Eovaldi's is not exactly Josh Johnson's or anything.
Still, the positive side of the coin is that Eovaldi's slider is playable, and there are certainly only a few pitchers who could boast as strong a tool as a high-velocity fastball like Eovaldi. The fastball is considered "flat," but he can afford to throw a flat fastball at 94 to 95 mph and still get hitters out. Batters struggled to put good wood on it, and you can imagine him being able to get hitters to miss more often at it once his secondary pitches develop. The slider still remains a decent tool as well, in that it effectively gets some swings and misses against righties. He is doing a decent job of controlling it as well, which is more than can be said about some of his other pitches.
Eovaldi's performance in spring thus far shows a pitcher who may be getting a better hang of his stuff. He has struck out 14 batters in 18 2/3 innings, and that is by far his most significant improvement from last season. Of course, this is just five starts' worth of information, but it is at least a positive sign that could lead to good things in 2013. If Eovaldi can strike out at least seven batters per nine innings, the Marlins will see that as a great forward step in his development.
But what are the odds that he does that, given that we know about his struggles? Last year, it looked like he was beginning to "figure things out" towards the end of the year. Much like his tiny spring training sample, Eovaldi notched 27 strikeouts in 29 innings in September of last season, so if anything he has been trending in the right direction most of the time.
But will that trend continue in 2013?
The Fans are, unsurprisingly, the most optimistic about Eovaldi's chances. After all, he did post a 4.13 FIP for the entire year last season, including a 4.16 mark with the Marlins. His strikeout rate went up to 15.4 percent with the Fish, and most systems expect him to manage at least that mark in 2013. Most of the projection systems, however, do not see much of an improvement for Eovaldi, as they have essentially projected just a tad above his career marks in strikeouts and walks.
So how come the numbers are so different from Eovaldi's surprisingly decent career ERA of 4.15 and career FIP of 4.18? Eovaldi has also been able to hold home runs to a minimum, and that is where the systems are expecting to see a change towards the league average. Most systems expect him to suppress home runs a bit, but not to the extent that he was doing earlier. In particular, ZiPS seems to be expecting some heavy regression to the mean for Eovaldi in terms of home runs, even with him spending one full year in the homer-suppressing Marlins Park.
Where does the overall projection lie? An average of all of the systems gives an average ERA (including the FIP marks) of 4.41. This is very similar to what some of the systems were expecting of Jacob Turner, which is surprising given Turner's success with the Marlins last year. But while Turner had a nice 42-inning stretch in the bigs, it is easy to forget that Eovaldi has 154 innings of performance in the majors thus far, all at a 4.10 ERA level.
Projection: 165 IP. 1.3 WAR
Much like Turner, I am giving Eovaldi a chance at getting most of the major league innings without ruling out the possibility that he might struggle and get a Chris Volstad-like demotion towards the end of the year. Either way, I will put the expectation of a few lost innings in and keep his projection at 1.3 wins for the year. That is not a lot, but it is fairly close to what we expected from Eovaldi after last season ended, and I think the Marlins would take that as improvement simply because he was able to survive through most of the season in the big leagues.
With the Fish, it is going to take baby steps to see improvement in their players, and Nathan Eovaldi is no exception, He may have the highest ceiling among the Marlins' starting cast right now, but he still has plenty of work to do to reach that sort of potential, and 2013 is just the first step.