How do you solve a problem like Eovaldi?
Starter? Closer? Both? What does 2018 hold for the hard-throwing righty?
Even if the Rays do nothing this offseason, they’re guaranteed to add what feels like a new piece for the 2018 season: Nathan Eovaldi. Despite a pair of Tommy John surgeries and a career that seems like it has lasted over a decade, Eovaldi is still only 27 years old. He will have turned 28 by the start of the 2018 season, but this is still a player in his prime.
Eovaldi made his MLB debut as a 21-year-old in L.A. in 2011, and he has played on three teams since. He has 739.0 career innings, all but 10.1 of which have come as a starter. Eovaldi had his first TJ surgery before he was even drafted, and he made it through nearly a decade of pitching before needing his second surgery.
Eovaldi came cheap to the Rays, who knew he’d be rehabbing for 2017. They paid him $2 million last year to make a few spot appearances in the Triple-A playoffs and will owe him $2 million in 2018. If Eovaldi is able to contribute in any sort of manner in 2018 they will have bought major league wins at a relatively small cost.
Eovaldi should (and should is a big word given the history of two-time Tommy John survivors) be fully healthy to start the 2018 season. Here’s a look at the three seasons before he his second TJ and subsequent move to Tampa:
Eovaldi was worth 6.8 fWAR over the three season, with a 4.42 ERA/3.81 FIP/3.90 xFIP. For reference, Justin Verlander had a 3.58 FIP and 4.02 xFIP from 2014-2016. Now, Eovaldi is obviously no Verlander, but he is a hard thrower who has a history of halfway decent success.
The natural fit would seem to be to slot him into the empty spot in the rotation that Alex Cobb will leave. As noted earlier, 98.6 percent of his career innings have come as a starter, and the Rays should have a few spots in the rotation up for battle in spring training.
Of course, Eovaldi’s name has been bandied around (including by yours truly) as a possible late-inning weapon out of the bullpen. It would save him precious mileage on his arm. Moreover, he doesn’t have the deepest repertoire of pitches in his arsenal (mostly fastball-slider-splitter), which can often play better in shorter relief stints. Finally, he has the type of velocity that could turn heads; imagine if he added a tick or two by moving out of the rotation and into the pen.
From 2014-2016, Eovaldi saw his fastball velocity increase each year, going from an already-impressive 96.77 mph in 2014 up to 97.99 in 2016, per Brooks Baseball.
FanGraphs didn’t have his velocity quite as high (peak: 97.1 mph in 2016), but they still agreed that only Noah Syndergaard and Yordano Ventura averaged a higher fastball velocity than Eovaldi over those three seasons.
Of course, the results have been far more Ventura than Syndergaard in Eovaldi’s career, as he has never quite had the production to match the stuff. Despite the spicy fastball, batters have hit .290 with a .428 slugging percentage (the equivalent of a Cesar Hernandez or Joe Panik in 2017) against Eovaldi’s fastball in his career, again Brooks Baseball. His slider (.245 BAA; .372 SLG) and his splitter (.214 BAA; .303 SLG), his second and third-most used pitches have been better pitches.
Eno Sarris is fond of noting that some righties who throw extremely hard lack any real movement on their fastball. I wonder whether that could apply to Eovaldi, who ought to dominate with a 98 mph fastball but doesn’t. If that’s the case, a move to the pen might not help. Unless he reaches the Aroldis Chapman tier of speed, he still needs a bit of movement or elite control to throw off major league hitters. If Eovaldi moves to the pen, maybe he drops either the slider or splitter to become a two-pitch guy, thus eliminating either his best pitch or second-best pitch. He’d also almost certainly be throwing harder each individual time out, so although he’d save himself the cumulative wear-and-tear of starting, he’d put putting more individual stress on his arm each time out.
That’s why Eovaldi in the rotation to start the season makes the most sense. Start the season with a rotation of Archer-Snell-Odorizzi-Faria-Eovaldi, with Andriese taking Odo’s spot should the Rays make a trade to move Odorizzi. Get 80-100 innings out of Eovaldi, and if he gets hurt in July, the timing would be perfect to bring up Honeywell. If Eovaldi manages to maintain his health throughout the season, a midseason move to the pen might still be worth it, as it would give Honeywell a spot in the rotation and keep Eovaldi’s innings from getting too high.
If all the Rays get out of Eovaldi is 80 innings of a 4.00 ERA, that would likely still be worth the $4 million total they gave him for 2017-2018. He doesn’t have to do much to live up to the pittance they are paying him – that’s the beauty of the deal they signed with him.
There are many options for Eovaldi in 2018, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
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