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3 candidates to be next season's Eovaldi

Returning from injury, these hurlers could have big walk years
December 3, 2018

A year ago, Nathan Eovaldi was a long ways from being the sought-after free agent he is today, as one of the most intriguing starters on a market that also includes left-handers Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel.That's because Eovaldi didn't pitch at all in 2017, after undergoing his second Tommy

A year ago, Nathan Eovaldi was a long ways from being the sought-after free agent he is today, as one of the most intriguing starters on a market that also includes left-handers Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel.
That's because Eovaldi didn't pitch at all in 2017, after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery the previous August. Released by the Yankees in December '16, he signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Rays that included a $2 million club option for '18. The right-hander would get a chance to rehab his injury and rebuild some value, with Tampa Bay taking on little financial risk in the process.
Despite a setback with his elbow that delayed his MLB return until May 30, Eovaldi proved himself fully recovered. Displaying his typically fiery velocity, the 28-year-old pitched well before and after a late-July trade to the Red Sox. He added the cherry on top with a memorable postseason run out of both the rotation and bullpen, which included a heroic six-inning relief appearance in the 18-inning marathon that was Game 3 of the World Series.

While it's unlikely that anyone else will be able to recreate Eovaldi's amazing journey exactly, here is a look at three pitchers who over the next year will try to take a similar road from the disabled list to the free-agent hot list.
Michael Pineda, Twins
The towering 6-foot-7 right-hander was a top prospect before making a highly promising debut with Seattle in 2011, when he was selected for the American League All-Star team. Yet Pineda has pitched a total of 89 games in the seven seasons since then, missing all of 2012-13 with shoulder problems following a trade to the Yankees. His performance in New York was mixed, coming to an end with an elbow injury in July '17 that required Tommy John surgery.
The Twins saw enough promise to give Pineda a sweeter version of the Eovaldi contract, signing him to a two-year deal that paid him $2 million in 2018 before increasing to $8 million this coming season. Pineda made four Minor League rehab appearances this summer before sustaining a slight meniscus tear in his right knee. The good news is that Pineda -- who will turn 30 in January -- did not suffer an arm-related setback and should be ready for Spring Training.

If Pineda is finally healthy in 2019, and gets results more in line with some of his peripheral stats, he could draw a lot of interest next winter. Of the 78 pitchers who threw at least 400 innings from 2015-17, Pineda had the 10th-largest difference between his strikeout and walk rates (19.6 percentage points), ranking just behind Jacob deGrom. But he also suffered the largest gaps between his ERA (4.56) and FIP (3.82). During that time, the righty's .300 expected wOBA -- a measure that includes strikeouts, walks, and Statcast™ quality of contact -- put him among the top 25 percent of starters.
Drew Smyly, Rangers
Smyly showed tons of potential over his first four seasons, though at various points he was kept in the bullpen by a stacked Tigers rotation, sent to Tampa Bay in the 2014 David Price trade and sidelined by a shoulder injury. Through it all, the left-hander's 124 ERA+ during that stretch from '12-'15 tied him for 13th out of 150 pitchers (minimum 350 innings).
Smyly both enjoyed a full season and also took a step back in 2016, with a 4.88 ERA (82 ERA+) over 30 starts for Tampa Bay. Traded to the Mariners that offseason, he pitched well in the World Baseball Classic but never took the mound in Seattle. He eventually underwent Tommy John surgery, was non-tendered by the Mariners, and signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Cubs that includes incentives for 2019. Chicago dealt him to Texas in November, after a season in which Smyly struck out all three batters he faced in his lone Minor League rehab appearance.

After that trade, general manager Jon Daniels said the Rangers "feel very good about his health" and expect Smyly to have a normal offseason and Spring Training. Considering Texas' thin rotation, the 29-year-old should get every opportunity to re-establish himself after two lost seasons.
Tyler Thornburg, Red Sox
Two Decembers ago, the Red Sox gave up Travis Shaw as part of a trade to acquire Thornburg from the Brewers. It wasn't difficult to see why, as the right-hander had just put together a season in which he delivered a 2.15 ERA over 67 innings and finished 11th among MLB relievers in strikeout rate (34.2 percent), and tied for sixth in opponents' batting average (.161).
Things haven't worked out well for Thornburg in Boston. He dealt with right shoulder discomfort in 2017 and never pitched that season, eventually undergoing surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome. Facing a challenging comeback from that serious operation, Thornburg returned in July but did not look like the same pitcher he was in Milwaukee. Despite his subpar numbers, including a 5.63 ERA over 24 innings, Boston elected not to non-tender Thornburg last week, instead signing him to a (non-guaranteed) one-year, $1.75 contact.

While not a high-risk maneuver, it says something that the defending World Series champions weren't ready to give up on Thornburg just yet. It remains to be seen if the 30-year-old can recover the 2 mph of lost velocity he showed in 2018, but if his nasty fastball-curve combo returns with another offseason of recovery, suitors will be plentiful.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.