TAMPA – There's no question what kind of physical shape Rays pitcher Nathan Eovaldi is in as he works his way back to the majors after a second Tommy John surgery.
"He comes from the Nolan Ryan school of baseball – you run hard, you lift hard, you throw hard," Rays top starter Chris Archer said admiringly. "He has endurance, he has strength, he has speed. He can outlift me and he can outrun me for the most part. I've been playing a long time counting the minors, and I've never met somebody who can do both better than me."
But there is a question of how well Eovaldi will pitch.
He looked sharp Sunday, working two solid innings against his former Yankees mates in his second spring outing, hitting 100 mph from the start and allowing two hits but no runs while throwing 28 pitches.
"I feel good," Eovaldi said. "I feel strong. I just want to go out there and compete, and that's what I was able to do today."
But the test will be how Eovaldi, 28, holds up over the next seven months, given that only a half-dozen pitchers have come back from two TJs to start more than a handful of games.
"We're going to be really smart with his workload out of the gate," manager Kevin Cash said. "Him sitting back and watching last year, I think it helped him as a pitcher, and what he wanted to do when he got back.
"You'll see a little more mix to his repertoire and he'll alter his delivery a little bit more. He's so athletic and physical on the mound, that's not an easy thing to do. And it seems like he's doing it well."
Subtexted to the big question are some others:
Are they sure he's healthy?
Eovaldi had essentially completed his rehab last September from his Aug. 29, 2016, surgery, working his way back to pitch in the Double-A and Triple-A playoffs, and he would have rejoined the Rays had they stayed in the wild-card race to pitch in relief. Even so, it was a good process to go through. "I had already proved to myself that I was healthy and in my mind I was ready to go," he said. "So I was able to have a regular offseason. I didn't have any doubts or anything like that."
What is he pitching for this year?
Beyond the obligatory mantra to "help the team win," it's primarily to re-establish himself as a quality major-league starter, and to be rewarded accordingly financially. He posted a career-low 3.39 ERA in 2013 for the Marlins and a career-best 14-3 record for the Yankees in 2015, though he has a 38-46, 4.21 overall record.
But also, after signing with the Rays because of the sterling reputation of previous head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield and his staff in rehabbing pitchers, it's to justify their investment.
The Rays paid Eovaldi $2 million to not pitch last year for the right to pay him $2 million to pitch this season, plus earn up to another $3.5 million in incentives.
"They took extremely good care of me," he said, "and I'm ready to give back to the organization now."
How will he be different?
Most stark may be more use of his curveball. Eovaldi leads with the hard stuff, throwing his fastball nearly 60 percent of the time, averaging 96.9 mph, then a slider and splitter. "I hear of big-name guys who throw hard, but I've never seen anything like him with his consistent velocity," said reliever Dan Jennings, a former Marlins/current Rays teammate. Making more use of the slower curve will both present a different look to hitters and disrupt their timing and allow Eovaldi, in theory, to work deeper.
Is starting the best plan?
The stats crowd is adamant that Eovaldi should be used in relief, citing the significant dropoff in his effectiveness when he faces hitters a third time in a game (.336 average, .890 OPS) and the small sample of starters succeeding after a second such surgery.
But Eovaldi, who had his first Tommy John as a high school junior in 2007, is just as determined to return to a regular rotation routine, and the Rays say they are "definitely" committed to going along. (His contract, interestingly, also contains $2.375 million in relief incentives.)
"I definitely want to be a starter and hold it out throughout the entire year," Eovaldi said. "As of now, we haven't had any limitations, and we haven't even talked about it."
How good can he be?
Not only is Eovaldi healthier after the surgery and rehab, he believes he is wiser, too, having closely watched teammates Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and others work hitters much of last year. "Each pitcher comes in with little different things, and your ears are always open down there," he said. "I definitely feel like I've learned a lot more about the game." Can he regain his past form? "Hopefully better," Eovaldi said. "We'll see what happens."
Rays RHP Nathan Eovaldi is working to become the 32nd pitcher to make it back to the majors after a second Tommy John surgery, and the 12th as a starter. Here are the first 11:
Chris Capuano 109
Tyler Chatwood 52
Kris Medlen 15
Hong-Chih Kuo 14
Randy Wolf 11
Darren Dreifort 10
Victor Zambrano 4
Shawn Hill 4
Brandon Beachy 2
Daniel Hudson 1
Cory Luebke 1
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays