The Miami Marlins have one exciting young ace pitcher in Jose Fernandez and two young starters in Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez who figure to play prominent roles in 2014. However, one of their other young starting pitchers, a guy who had been a former top-10 draft pick and a prized top-20 prospect, has lost some of his luster and is at risk of losing his job in the near future. Jacob Turner may be on his last legs as a potential future piece for the Miami Marlins after his horrific 2013 season overall. Just like last year, he is at small risk for losing his starting job before the season begins, and another ugly performance like he put up both in Triple-A and the majors in 2013 would lead to major questions going forward.
Depth Chart: Starting Rotation
The Marlins want Turner to become the pitcher they thought they would get when they sent Omar Infante and half a year of Anibal Sanchez to the Detroit Tigers two years ago. Turner was the prized prospect back then, but after a nice debut for the Fish late in 2012, he had a rough 2013 season. It started in Spring Training, when he had such an ugly time controlling the strike zone and getting hammered left and right that the Marlins demoted him to Triple-A to begin the year. The team then opted to promote Fernandez over the more experienced Turner when injuries to Alvarez and Eovaldi arose. When Turner finally did arrive in the bigs in May, he started off fiery hot, but the second half was a rough stretch. He walked almost as many batters (38) as he struck out (42), and after suppressing homers at an unsustainable rate in the first half, he gave up 10 out of his 11 homers in 64 second half innings. The 3.74 ERA he finished the season with was a complete mirage, and it is very like that he was a lot worse than even the 4.43 FIP he finished with. Metrics like SIERA that estimate ERA based on batted ball distribution rather than strictly home runs put Turner's 2013 performance as closer to a 4.83 ERA.
This year, Turner has to prove a number of things. The first thing he has to do is find the player who limited walks in 2012 and had a prospect reputation as a polished control prospect. Somewhere along the way of being rushed to the bigs (again) by the Tigers, Turner seemed to have not only lost his fastball velocity, but also his ability to control the strike zone. Last year, a paltry 45.9 percent of pitches thrown were located in the traditional strike zone. Out of the 139 starting pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched last season, that mark by Turner ranked 121st. One need only look at the success of Fernandez and to a lesser extent Eovaldi and Alvarez for proof of the advantage of finding the strike zone; Fernandez was fourth in placing his pitches in the zone (55 percent), Eovaldi was eighth (54 percent), and Alvarez was 19th (52 percent) despite having more middling stuff than the other two. Despite Turner's solid walk rates in the minors and his polished reputation, he seemingly lost a lot of that skill from 2010 and 2011 to 2013. Even in 2012, he was hitting the strike zone on close to 48 percent of his pitches, which would have been significantly better; such numbers would have placed him closer to 90th in the league at least.
The loss of strikes in the zone appeared to have begun eating into the strikes while swinging as well. After I spent a good deal of time talking up Turner's strikeout potential thanks to a decent swinging strike rate, Turner proved me wrong by posting an 8.3 percent swinging strike rate and increasing contact rates. Strangely enough, the obvious explanation for this, that Turner threw such bad balls that hitters swung less out of the zone and missed fewer pitches, does not check out. Turner's swing rates out of the zone and overall remained static from 2012. Combine that with the fact that he had less control over those pitches and it brings serious concerns that his stuff is actually on the decline and he is simply getting worse with time.
The Marlins will bank on improvement from Turner or at least some reversion to his end of 2012 numbers, but the projection systems just do not see this change happening. The strikeout rate is expected to improve somewhat, but the abysmal walk rate from last year dragged walk rates up to a nine percent mark, and at that rate Turner's mediocre strikeout marks would not be good enough to compensate. Do not forget that, just a year before, Turner's issues seemed to be with command, as he was placing the ball dead center in the strike zone and getting pounded for multiple home runs. Last year, the home runs were suppressed, but the other shoe may yet drop in that department as well, further compounding issues.
Overall, the projection systems are expecting just a 4.47 ERA and about 0.4 WAR in 160 innings pitched. My prediction of just 160 innings pitched comes from a combination of a plethora of depth in the rotation and the possibility that Turner will run into a Chris Volstad situation in which he is demoted from the rotation for an extended time period thanks to struggles over the course of the season. With the Marlins boasting two potential Triple-A prospects in Brian Flynn and Adam Conley and the shadow of top prospect Andrew Heaney looming soon, the last two spots on the Marlins' current rotation are not safe. Do not be surprised if, by season's end, Turner is pitching the last month of the Triple-A season rather than in the majors in August.