Editor's note: This week across the NBC Sports Regional Networks, we'll be taking an in-depth look at some of the top free agents in baseball. Thursday is dedicated to Nathan Eovaldi.
Trivia: Who was the key piece in a 2012 trade between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Marlins that sent Hanley Ramirez to L.A.? Yes, Nathan Eovaldi. You, of course, knew that.
Eovaldi later went from Miami to New York to obscurity in Tampa Bay. The Red Sox sent left-handed pitcher Jalen Beeks, a 12th-round pick, to the Rays last season so Eovaldi could help in the stretch run. That changed his world.
He dominated in the postseason. Eovaldi allowed a run in a seven-inning start against the New York Yankees in the ALDS. He came out of the bullpen late in Games 1 and 2 of the World Series. He lost Game 3 of the World Series but was lauded by his teammates for the 97 pitches he threw in relief during the longest game in series history. Eovaldi finished with a 1.61 ERA after 22 ⅓ postseason innings on the mound. He has a World Series ring, and a flood of offseason suitors, to show for it.
He's about to cash in after becoming what is more en vogue: a valued hybrid pitcher. Multiple innings? He can do that. Set up for the closer? He can do that. Spot start? He can do that. Previously, pitchers were banished from the rotation to the bullpen as punishment. Now, being able to do both is a way to previously unavailable contracts, a path which Eovaldi will take this winter as he heads into his age-29 season, representing the kind of versatile pitcher the Nationals currently lack.
Washington was more than aware of Eovaldi before he was traded to Boston. Nationals manager Davey Martinez mentioned being impressed with Eovaldi during a casual conversation with reporters in the dugout in July. Eovaldi had recently thrown six scoreless innings, allowed a hit and struck out nine against the Nationals. The liveliness of his stuff was not in doubt. Eovaldi has always thrown hard. Even his “off-speed” stuff is thrown at an above average pace; he throws 93-mph cutters. However, location was an issue.
In the postseason, Eovaldi’s walks per nine innings dropped drastically from his career average. Though, it appears his October work is an outlier for someone who has long possessed blistering stuff. Overall, the focal point here is when he was dispatched. It was in line with changes the league is making, and the Nationals are behind on.
The organization debated what to do with raw Jefry Rodriguez last season. Martinez hinted at bullpen consideration for the 6-foot-6 Rodriguez, then often added a thought about how well he felt Rodriguez was doing in the rotation. It was a strange assessment of a pitcher who finished with a 5.71 ERA.
How unrefined was Rodriguez? He worked on developing a changeup in-season after reaching the big leagues. It’s not unusual for pitchers to tinker throughout the year. It’s even less so for them to try harnessing a new pitch in spring training. But to basically work from scratch after leaping from Double-A Harrisburg to the National League East showed just how much progress was still ahead.
Which is why Rodriguez likely would have been better off as a 4- to 6-out pitcher as opposed to a rotation member. Less things to worry about. Less variety necessary to gain outs. Less overall exposure.
A run through those likely to be in the 2019 Nationals bullpen shows two prime options to pitch multiple innings: Justin Miller and Wander Suero.
Suero pitched multiple innings in 14 of his 40 appearances last season. That was the highest percentage on the team. Miller did it eight times. Most came earlier in the season. He was torched by the end of it.
“[Miller] comes in and for a long period of time he was really good,” Martinez told me late in the season. “When things went bad, this guy pitched the fourth, the fifth inning. The fifth, the sixth inning. Did everything imaginable and did really well. In the course of the year, you get the fact, he’s pretty tired. Here’s a guy who wasn’t doing anything, came back, is pitching, now he’s in the big leagues and he’s asked to do all these things. I appreciate him very much for doing that. He gets it. He understands it.
“Moving forward, these are the things we really need to pay attention to because if you want to keep these guys throughout the year and keep them fresh and really actually play for something in October, those are your guys. The Doolittles, the Hollands, the Millers, the Sueros. And Suero is going to be outstanding. Can he pitch for two innings? I don’t know. Can he pitch for one inning? Yeah. But these are things we need to find out moving forward because here’s a guy who can get four outs and be very effective. We need a guy like that.”
The Nationals are acutely aware of their bullpen shortage when it comes to relievers who can throw multiple innings and even provide a spot start. Martinez harped on the idea throughout his first season. Eovaldi’s postseason showed how valuable that flexibility can be. His next contract will show how costly it’s becoming.
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