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Nathan Eovaldi is the free agent no one saw coming

Armed with a nasty cutter, the right-hander has re-invented himself posdt-Tommy John.

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Championship Parade Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

When the Yankees traded for Nathan Eovaldi, giving up just Martin Prado and David Phelps, they saw in Eovaldi what a lot of teams do right now. He was throwing triple-digits at that time, and pre-Tommy John, and a bit of tweaking with his repertoire could unleash his limitless potential.

A 104 and 112 ERA- in pinstripes, respectively, did not convince fans of anything, and not enough for the Yankees to hold on once he had Tommy John. So they let him walk, only for him to be re-discovered and re-deployed by the Rays and Red Sox.

They were on the right track, though, and it’s those adjustments that not only nudged him in the right direction, but will lead to a lucrative deal this offseason. The first innovation was the addition of a cutter in 2016:

The next was adding spin to his pitches. In 2015, his average spin rate was 1918 RPM. In 2016, it was 2110. In 2018, it was 2134. Combine that with a fastball that is thrown noticeably higher, and you get effective velocity combined with more “zip,” something that Eovaldi missed out on in the past. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that opposing hitters are making less and less contact:

This could also mean it’s partially a trap of a signing too, for a couple of reasons. For one, this is an incredibly limited sample; we’re talking about a small 2016 sample of the additional cutter, and then something like 21 starts and the postseason, which has some recency bias. There’s also the recent injury history, combined with the fact he, still, has yet to put up a 200-inning season.

It’s also possible that we’re only really focusing on his fastball/cutter tunneling, which, while incredibly effective, is still just two pitches. Even though his four-seamer is not a majority of his repertoire, he throws that combo nearly 70% of the time, even more than when he sat on the four-seamer. If he doesn’t integrate the splitter and especially the slider, which is the only other positive value pitch per FanGraphs since he abandoned the change, then as tape develops he starts to look more and more one-dimensional.

That being said, he’s very likely going to get something in the range of $40-50 million and three or four years, with a possible vesting option dependent on a clean bill of health for his elbow. Let’s say that the assumptions are true, and he’s not really a stud starter and he’s something more like a fireman reliever. If we’re assuming something like six wins (if all goes well) over three or four years, that’s absolutely worth something in the range of $45-50 million of value. That’s what the market bears.

All of this is to say: props on Eovaldi for rebuilding his form after surgery, and establishing his value to the extent that almost every team, no matter their contention window, can find a place for him within their bullpen and rotation. If he expands upon his growth even further, by truly adding that third pitch, then we’re looking at one of the better starting pitchers in baseball, period.