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Why the Mariners should sign Nathan Eovaldi (and why they won’t)

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Eovaldi is the most exciting free-agent pitcher on the market, and will almost assuredly be wearing another team’s uniform this spring

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox - Game Two
I love this weirdo, and he will never be mine, the Kate Preusser story
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

I am 99.9% sure the Mariners should sign Nathan Eovaldi, and 100% sure they will not, and that bums me out, so before we get into the nitty-gritty, a story:

I was at Safeco early during the Rays series, waiting to meet some friends, and there was an opposing pitcher throwing a bullpen, so I went to watch. There’s not a ton of info you can gain from watching a bullpen: there’s no live batters, usually (although in this case Mallex Smith was standing in, his giant Florida-shaped pendant sparkling in the afternoon sunlight); there’s no radar gun; nothing is swung at or put in play. All you can do is watch for location and perceived velocity, maybe see what pitches they’re throwing (which you can do by watching how the pitcher moves his glove to indicate to his catcher what pitch it is; there’s a handy guide here), and get an overall impression of how conditioned the pitcher looks, how quickly he tires. I like to watch too in order to get a sense of where a pitcher is at mentally—is he working on something new, how he responds to adversity, how dialed-in he seems, what his overall body language says. I couldn’t see who the pitcher was that day—I couldn’t see his face clearly, and he wasn’t wearing a numbered jersey—but he was grunting with effort, muttering to himself in between pitches, pounding his glove angrily when he missed his spots. The level of intensity was palpable, electric. When it was over, the pitcher stood and listened to his pitching coach for a few minutes, nodding intently, shook his batter and catcher’s hands, and then—only then—did Nathan Eovaldi crack a smile.

Intent is a buzzword in coaching circles these days—throw your pitches with intent, have an intentional plan in the batter’s box, swing with the intent to do damage—but intention is earned more than it’s learned. In order to have intent, there has to be something driving it, an engine fueled by an intensity, a white-hot need, something that teeters at the edge of desperation but never tips into panic. Intent comes—not only, but largely—from being picked last, left out, overlooked, damaged. Being gifted with intent is a side benefit of having to take the hard road someplace.

Nathan Eovaldi has had a hard road to his baseball career. His once-promising draft stock fell when he had to have Tommy John surgery in his junior year of high school, back in 2008, before baseball had a ton of data on how pitchers typically recover from TJ surgery. The Dodgers took him in the 11th round and gave him 250k to skip college. Eovaldi made steady progress through the Dodgers’ system before being called up in 2011 after a strong performance at Double-A Chattanooga, just four years after being drafted out of high school.

After posting a fine-not-great FIP of just over 4 for the Dodgers, they decided they could do without his services and in 2012, traded Eovaldi to the Marlins as part of a package in a deadline deal to acquire the services of then-shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who replaced then-shortstop Dee Gordon, out for the season with a thumb injury. The trade was looked at largely as a salary dump for the Marlins, oh hey look that sentence just autocompleted, run then by the despicable Jeffrey Loria. At the time, Eovaldi was seen as less-valuable than then-top-prospect Zach Lee, barely cracking BA’s Top 100 prospects. As a Marlin, Eovaldi’s results were slightly better than the mid-rotation starter he had projected to be, with an FIP in the mid-3s, and the Marlins were able to flip Eovaldi to the Yankees after just two seasons for veteran infielder Martin Prado and David Phelps. [Mariner adjacency increases.]

As a Yankee, Eovaldi had one solid season (3.81 FIP) and fell off some in 2016, when it was announced he’d need a second TJ surgery and would miss all of 2017. Eovaldi became a reclamation project for the Rays, and was again made trade bait when he was sent to the Red Sox, giving him a grand total of five teams played for in 850 innings pitched, or one team per 170 innings.

Oh, and one World Series ring. He has one of those now, too.

I’m not sure if even the Red Sox scouting staff knew what they had in Eovaldi, who posted a strong K-BB ratio but a fairly pedestrian 4.28 FIP and allowed a lot of balls to leave the yard (18.3% HR/FB) during his time with the Rays. In about the same number of innings for the Red Sox, Eovaldi’s FIP dropped drastically thanks mostly to his home run rate stabilizing more towards his career numbers. September baseball is played on the moon by aliens, but Eovaldi had a K/9 of over 12 for the month. One factor contributing to Eovaldi’s breakout season: re-introducing a cutter that he’d lost during his time in Miami, a pitch he’s finally healthy enough to throw, much like our own Marco Gonzales. He also mixed up his pitch location, throwing his high-heat fastball higher in the zone and his slider lower to induce more whiffs.

Eovaldi might have made a lot of stops along his journey to becoming a regular starter, but he managed to pick a new wrinkle up along the way in each place. The Dodgers taught him the cutter. The Yankees taught him to not throw the fastball all the time. The Rays taught him new pitch grips. (I don’t know what the Marlins taught him. Maybe how to brew Cuban coffee or do his taxes or something useful off the baseball field, hopefully.) The Red Sox marshaled all this knowledge into a fire-breathing starter/shutdown bullpen piece and re-introduced him to the baseball world as a terrifying figure on the mound. You don’t make those improvements without being a willing student, and those improvements don’t stick without going out and working on them with intent every day you can. That mindset makes Eovaldi an ideal match, philosophically, for a Mariners organization that’s said they want to be more growth-minded, and has actively shed players and coaches they don’t consider to fit that mold while bringing in people who do.

Unfortunately, it’s also those improvements that will almost ensure Eovaldi isn’t a Mariner come this spring. No player improved his free agency stock more than Eovaldi, who is, to my mind, the most appealing free agent starting pitcher on the market. Some will point to Eovaldi’s injury history as a red flag; besides the two TJ surgeries, Eovaldi missed April and May this season with loose bodies in his TJ-repaired elbow. He also missed significant time in 2013 with right shoulder inflammation. But the 28-year-old Eovaldi has a higher ceiling than Patrick Corbin, who’s coming off a career year that looks like an outlier, or Clayton Kershaw, whose left arm has an atlas’s worth of mileage on it. Voldemort cosplayer J.A. Happ is 36, Dallas Keuchel’s peripherals are all headed in the wrong direction, and Charlie Morton’s fastball velocity is dying at an alarming rate. Eovaldi’s health may be a gamble, but he offers the highest reward to similar amounts of risk with any of his counterparts. Pitchers who throw triple digits and are still in their 20s do not make their way to free agency often.

After being stung in the Drew Smyly deal, though, the Mariners might be more cautious about red flags for health. And after a rash of free agency spending under Jack Z, the organization has quailed at handing out large contracts under Dipoto’s leadership; the largest free agent contract Dipoto has handed out is Juan Nicasio’s 2/$17M deal. In his piece breaking down the Mariners’ 2019 salary commitments, Grant estimated that the team has about $160M committed, vs. the $171M they spent this year. $11M isn’t a huge AAV to fill holes in the rotation, at DH, and/or at CF, so it seems like payroll will need to increase substantially in order to upgrade all (or any) of those roles.

Going off last year’s numbers, Tyler Chatwood—as young as and healthier than Eovaldi, but with nowhere near his peripherals—got 3/$38M, or around 12.5/year. Alex Cobb—with a similar although less-extensive injury history but none of Eovaldi’s velocity or post-season heroics—got 4/$57M, or 14.5/year. Yu Darvish got 6/$126M from the Cubs, which won’t happen for Eovaldi due to not having as extensive a track record, and also looks pretty terrible one year in. Cobb’s deal isn’t quite a happy medium here, and Eovaldi will almost certainly outdo it thanks to his higher ceiling and lower age. My guess is Eovaldi will seek more years (5) for a lower AAV, but teams will be more willing to offer something more like Cobb’s deal with more money and escalators for innings pitched. 4 years for $16M AAV feels to me like a reasonable starting point, and I think that’s lowballing it (in contrast, Grant, our money expert, guesses 4/55-60). That’s already $5M above what the Mariners paid in all of payroll last year, and as John pointed out on Twitter, Dipoto’s recent comments make it sound like the team is willing to sit back this year, let the Astros continue their spate of dominance, wait for Félix’s money to come off the books, and re-load for 2020:

Maybe there’s wisdom in this middle road. Maybe waiting until the 2019-2020 off-season and trying to capture a 31-year-old Chris Sale, a 30-year-old Zach Wheeler, or a 29-year-old Gerrit Cole is the way to go, provided any of those players are healthy, effective, and willing to become Mariners. Barring a trade, starting pitching help for the Mariners won’t come from their farm system anytime soon unless 2017 draftee Logan Gilbert, who doesn’t even have a FanGraphs page yet, proves to be some kind of minor-league wunderkind.

But Nathan Eovaldi is here, now, pitching with intent. You never know what will happen in a baseball season; the Mariners won the season series against the big-bully Astros, and barring everyone on the team forgetting how to hit in July and August and the A’s all simultaneously drinking Felix Felicis, would have contended for a postseason berth. When Kyle Boddy from Driveline guested on the podcast (it’s a really interesting episode and you should listen to it here), the former professional gambler talked about how in gambling, to win big you have to risk big—smart, but big. Because of his health and his cost vs. the club’s payroll position, Eovaldi is a big risk. But he also represents a huge possible payoff, a potential ace-level pitcher who is just beginning to blossom into dominance; the kind of pitcher the Mariners don’t have in their system, and don’t have the prospects to trade for. He’s also a smart risk; Eovaldi has a proven track record of learning and improving when offered the tools to do so, and represents the growth mindset the Mariners so badly want to inculcate. He may have a TJ history, but so do roughly a quarter of all pitchers.

Nathan Eovaldi would be a great signing for the Mariners. All indications are the Mariners will not sign him. I guess a growth mindset only applies to what the Mariners want out of their players, not their payroll.