Late last week the Chicago Cubs claimed right-handed pitcher Jacob Turner from the Miami Marlins who had placed him on revocable waivers. With the No. 2 priority, the Cubs placed their claim on Turner after the Colorado Rockies took a pass on the 23-year-old former top prospect.
The Marlins had literally zero leverage in working out a trade with the Cubs, so Chicago was able to acquire Turner for two relief pitchers in the low minors, Tyler Bremer and Jose Arias. It is likely that neither of those pitchers will ever reach the Major Leagues, so this deal can only be described as a win for the Cubs. How big of a win though, is what Cubs fans are eager to discover.
Going back to the year he was drafted out of high school, Jacob Turner was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2009 draft and at the time, this is what MLB.com had to say about him:
“His power arm consistently fires fastballs in the mid- to upper-90s along with a solid curveball and a changeup he added to his arsenal in the last couple years.”
Turner did not pitch in 2009 and in their 2010 annual, Baseball Prospectus had this to say about Turner as he entered his first full professional season with the Tigers:
“Turner was perhaps the top high school arm in the 2009 draft; the Tigers took him with the ninth pick overall and signed him at the deadline with a major-league deal and a $4.7 million bonus. He is the very model of a modern major-league pick: big, mechanically sound, and in possession of excellent stuff led by a fastball that goes as high as 98 mph, a good curve, and a change. He gets favorably compared to Justin Verlander, and you may recall Verlander reached the majors in his pro debut season.”
If you were a Tigers fan reading that scouting report, you were as giddy as Cubs fans awaiting the eventual promotion of Kris Bryant. The problem though, was that Turner’s fastball has not come close to reaching the 98 mph cited above and instead has averaged 92.6 mph this season, which is actually a tick above the 91+ mph Turner had averaged in his previous three big league seasons.
After his first professional season in the Tigers organization, here is what Baseball America had to say in their 2011 Prospect Handbook in which they ranked Turner as the Tigers No. 1 prospect (scouting grades are on a scale of 20-80):
“Turner has the ideal frame for a power pitcher. He throws both two- and four-seam fastballs, sitting at 92-94 mph and peaking at 96. In addition to its easily above-average velocity, Turner’s fastball also has heavy sink.”
Turner has increasingly used the sink on his fastball to his advantage, as his ground ball percentage has improved every year since 2011, going from 41.3 percent to 51.3 percent this season. Baseball America goes on to say:
“He throws a 12-6 curve that can get a little short but also shows glimpses of being an upper-70s hammer. His changeup should become at least a solid third pitch, with a chance to be better.”
Despite a successful 2011 season at Double-A for the Tigers in which Turner pitched 113.2 innings with 90 strikeouts and a 3.48 ERA, BA downgraded their scouting grades in their 2012 handbook, though Turner still ranked as the Tigers No. 1 prospect:
Fastball: 65 (-5)
Curveball: 60 (-5)
Changeup: 55 (-5)
Command/Control: 60 (no change)
Delivery: 60 (+5)
“Turner is still just 20 and extremely polished for his age, showing remarkable feel for pitching and maturity. Big and athletic, he repeats his smooth delivery well and is a prolific strike-thrower, averaging just 2.2 walks per nine innings as a pro.”
BA described Turner’s fastball that year as ranging from 90-94, touching 95 which is the second consecutive year Turner had reports of diminishing velocity. Without an elite fastball, Turner’s secondary pitches are not as effective and this resulted in a below average strikeout rate for the Miami Marlins, who acquired him in return for Anibal Sanchez, as Turner struck out just 5.87 batters per nine in 118 innings pitched in 2013, after averaging 5.89 K/9 in 55 innings split between Detroit and Miami in 2012.
Baseball Prospectus took issue with Turner’s lack of strikeouts and had this to say in their 2014 annual this past offseason:
“Last season we identified the warning sign as his strikeout rate, which has never been particularly good throughout his pro career. That hasn’t changed and, until it does, neither will his projection as a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever.”
While Turner continued to underwhelm with the strikeouts this season, his rate of 6.20 K/9 represents a career best in MLB and he has coupled that rate with an impressive 2.64 BB/9. These rates along with an unfortunate .368 BABIP and 64 percent strand rate bring Turner’s FIP down to 4.00, despite an ERA of 5.97. Additionally, with the amount of ground balls Turner induces, his HR/9 rate of 10.3 percent should come down which lowers his xFIP to 3.92.
Despite the reasons for optimism, pessimism still abounds when it comes to Jacob Turner and his chances of becoming an impact starting pitcher in MLB. The main deterrent to sticking in a starting rotation for Turner is his effectiveness against lefties, which is directly related to his ability to develop an average changeup.
Dave Cameron, editor of Fan Graphs, illuminates this subject with his post “A Reason For Pessimism About Jacob Turner.” In the piece, Cameron points out that of the 149 pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched against left-handed hitters since 2011, Turner ranks No. 147 in strikeout percentage minus walk percentage at just one percent.
Cameron concludes his article saying:
“Yes, Turner is 23, and yes, there’s plenty of time for him to live up to the promise he showed as a minor leaguer. Maybe the change-up will get better and he’ll have a real weapon against left-handers someday. He doesn’t right now, though, and until he does, he’s going to project as a reliever, and not even the kind of reliever you can trust with full-inning, high-leverage appearances.”
So the downside of Jacob Turner is a middle reliever. However, that fact alone is one of the reasons why this was a no-lose trade from the Cubs perspective. Turner is younger than both of the minor league relievers who were dealt to Miami, and both of those pitchers can only hope to one day make it into a big league bullpen. Turner, on the other hand, still possesses the upside of a mid-rotation starting pitcher and at the very least, he can be a serviceable reliever in the middle of the Cubs pen.
Turner has a $1 million team option for the 2015 season and becomes arbitration eligible for the first time in 2016. While Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had the good fortune of possessing the No. 2 waiver priority due to the Cubs miserable record, this move goes down as just another in a long line of low-risk, high-reward acquisitions as the Cubs continue to add depth at starting pitcher. For now, Turner will enter the Cubs bullpen, but the hope is that eventually pitching coach Chris Bosio can reveal some of the untapped potential in Turner’s right arm and develop him into a reliable member of the starting rotation.