The Miami Marlins do not have many options at starting pitcher given their recent fire sale trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, but the club has found itself what it believes is some depth in the form of good performances from fifth starter candidates Wade LeBlanc and Kevin Slowey. As a result, the team feels that it may be able to allow one of its young starters to work in the minors for a while before inevitably returning to the majors. Because of Jacob Turner's early spring struggles, he is the one in danger of losing his job.
But prior to spring training, Turner had to be considered the team's next-best option at starting pitcher behind "ace" Ricky Nolasco, whom I covered yesterday. Turner came in late last season and performed admirably well, and the Marlins may decide instead to save up his major league time for another day when he could use the big league experience now.
1. Ricky Nolasco
2. Jacob Turner
Last season, numerous questions began popping up regarding Turner. He had moved up quickly in the Detroit Tigers' farm system, but what pitcher has not done the same given the Tigers' aggressive promotion approach? As late as 2011, he was still showing off fantastic command and decent, if unspectacular, strikeout rates. He put up a good showing in Double-A that year, putting up a 3.40 ERA and 3.68 FIP while striking out 19 percent of batters faced and walking just 6.8 percent of them, so he seemed ready for the relatively smaller jump to Triple-A.
But despite starting the season on everyone's top-100 prospect lists (Turner was ranked 22nd by Baseball America, 15th by MLB.com, and 18th by John Sickels of SB Nation's Minor League Ball), Turner's well-documented Triple-A struggles were so evident that many had soured on his prospects over the course of the year. It seemed the Tigers did as well, since they traded him after making it fairly known that it would take a large package to acquire him. The Marlins sent half a season of Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante, which was a fair offer but hardly the sort of deal that inspires comments of a large trade haul.
Turner's Triple-A struggles all involved the strikeout. He was whiffing just 15.5 percent of batters in Triple-A Eerie, and that number dropped when he arrived in Triple-A New Orleans with the Marlins' organization. This continued a trend of strikeout concerns that began with whispers before the 2012 year. I covered his problems with the strikeout during the season and mentioned that although the numbers were terrible, the underlying performance should yield better results. After looking at his swinging strike and contact rates, I concluded the following:
But the point here is that, with the kind of stuff that Turner has displayed even in a down year this season in Triple-A and in his poor showings in the majors, he is likely to be capable of striking out more batters than he has thus far. That is a positive sign for Marlins fans.
And sure enough, I was right.
But presuming he can stick around for a few seasons and hold onto these sort of contact numbers, Turner's strikeouts now have a very good chance of hitting the league average and possibly even breaking 20 percent. The examples of pitchers like Marlins starters Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez, in particular Sanchez due to his gradual strikeout improvement over multiple seasons, have to be encouraging to Marlins fans.
The Marlins saw Turner's strikeout rate climb to a healthy 17.1 percent while he was with the team last season. While that is still decently below the league average (19.8 percent in 2012), it is at least in the range of acceptable major league players. Other names who have racked up a 17 percent strikeout rate in the last three years include Bartolo Colon, Jake Arrieta, and Jason Hammel. Again, the names are not inspiring, but given Turner's youth, they are at least a decent start.
Of course, Turner's game was not all sustainable last season. His 3.39 ERA had to be helped by a fluky .220 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) with the Marlins, and that is sure to climb in 2013. His walk rate was fluky low at 5.9 percent, especially for a player whose walk rates had begun climbing at each and every level despite his superior control reports. The Marlins naturally would expect Turner not to perform as well as he did last season because of these problems, but thankfully, the Fish should not be too concerned about strikeout issues in addition to these problems.
Still, the overall package for Turner remains underwhelming. Despite the comparisons to other young pitchers like Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez who increased in strikeout rate as the years went by in Florida, Turner's odds of doing the same are not nearly as strong. His rate could very well easily climb up to 20 percent, but expecting him to start whiffing hitters like Johnson would require him to up his velocity beyond 91 to 92 mph. His supposedly strong control has also come into a bit of question, especially with his nine-plus percent walk rate in Triple-A. All of these stand to see some improvement, but the overall result is less "ace" than "third starter."
The advantage for the Marlins in this case is that Turner may be ready to be a capable third starter now, if not in 2014. And that brings us to the projections for Turner this year.
The projection systems, in particular ZiPS and Steamer, do not see much good in the coming year for Turner. Personally, I feel PECOTA and the Fans are closer to the truth than the former two systems, given Turner's late-season performance and underlying swing metrics, but one cannot merely ignore his bad Triple-A marks and the poor Detroit performance from 2012 as well. In an average of these systems, one gets an expected ERA of 4.43. If you are like me and weigh the PECOTA and Fans projections a little heavier, you could look at maybe a 4.39 ERA that is not significantly different.
Projection: 145 IP, 1.1 WAR
This win projection is based on just 145 innings of work, because I believe that the sentiments are putting out regarding Turner's potential job in jeopardy could very well cost him part of the season. When you factor in potential injury complications, I would be willing to take a 145-inning projection for Turner next year. Without the overtures of a potential demotion, I would have predicted closer to 160 or 170 innings, and at that level, we could have expected 1.2 wins from Turner.
The question marks regarding the non-Miami Marlins section of Turner's 2012 campaign still loom large despite all of the positive signs. Since we cannot ignore them just yet, we will have to consider that 2013 may be a bit of a rough season for the young pitcher. Hopefully, the rough year still boasts some potential progress to be made.