MLB's top 10 rotations has a new No. 1
When two blockbuster starting-pitching acquisitions happen within a day of each other, it’s a good time to assess the state of the rotations around MLB. And when both of those acquisitions are by the same team, it’s a good time to assess whether that team now has the best rotation in the game.
So in the wake of the Padres landing both Blake Snell and Yu Darvish in the trade market, let’s do just that, with this look at baseball’s top 10 rotations ... right now.
Granted, the free-agent market -- fronted by reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer -- has still barely budged. So this ranking isn’t exactly written in cement. But it’s never too early to get the arguments started.
Where is the “Add to Cart” button? Because I am buying the hype!
Remember when the Padres traded for Mike Clevinger, the best pitcher available at the 2020 Trade Deadline? He’s not going to throw a pitch for them in 2021, and yet they still project to have the best rotation in baseball after the Snell and Darvish acquisitions.
Don’t just take my word for it. The FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement projections have the Padres firmly out in front, more than a full win higher than the next closest team. They were already pretty bullish on the long-term potential of a rotation in which Dinelson Lamet broke out in 2020 and Chris Paddack, Adrian Morejon, MacKenzie Gore and Ryan Weathers have high ceilings. But with Lamet having dealt with a right elbow issue at season’s end and the young arms yet to establish themselves, Padres GM A.J. Preller increased the stability of that staff with two experienced, accomplished arms.
Snell is 28 years old, an American League Cy Young Award winner and, as evidenced by his too-short elimination effort in the World Series, capable of rising to the occasion on the highest stage. Of course, his health history, which includes recent elbow issues, is not to be totally overlooked, as was the case with Clevinger. Darvish had elbow and triceps issues of his own in 2018. But since the 2019 All-Star break, he has a 2.40 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 157 2/3 innings.
Los Angeles had the NL’s best rotation ERA (3.29) last season. Things got a little wonky in October, when Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler were the only true starters on the squad and Julio Urías and rookies Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin were used in swing roles. But, whatever, it all worked out in the end.
Moving forward, it would appear May and Urias, in particular, have only scratched the surface of their potential as their innings tallies evolve. Buehler is cementing his status among the best postseason pitchers in the game ... and he’s only 26. Blister issues held him back in the 2020 regular season, but, with elite velocity and spin and a deep arsenal, it says here that he has a Cy Young Award in his future. And Kershaw’s improved velocity and command in '20 create confidence that he can continue to fight off the effects of his high innings log.
To all of this we possibly add David Price as an additional weapon after he opted out of the 2020 season. And because these are the Dodgers we’re talking about, there are always prospects in the pool, including the organization’s No. 1 prospect (per MLB Pipeline), Josiah Gray, and No. 9 prospect Mitch White, both of whom could make their mark next season. What is unknown at this point is what, if anything, the Dodgers will add to this staff?
Cleveland’s impressive pitching pipeline has allowed the club to remain competitive despite trades involving a two-time AL Cy Young Award winner in Corey Kluber, an eventual NL Cy Young Award winner in Bauer and the aforementioned Clevinger. Shane Bieber, a former fourth-round Draft pick who improved his velocity, refined his repertoire to become an absolute monster (1.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP in the shortened 2020 season), is the quintessential example of what that pipeline can turn out. Zach Plesac (3.32 ERA in 29 Major League starts) and Aaron Civale (3.69 ERA in 22 starts) are still emerging, and slim strike-thrower Triston McKenzie might be next to pop if his 3.24 ERA in 33 1/3 innings in '20 is any indication. The one true veteran presence here is Carlos Carrasco, whose 3.40 ERA going back to '14 is the fifth-best in the AL in that span. The Tribe has also acquired depth in Cal Quantrill and Logan Allen as secondary pieces in blockbuster trades.
But with Cleveland in the midst of a transition at the big league level, one can’t rule out the possibility of yet another rotation-robbing swap. Carrasco’s name has come up in trade rumors. And as for that pipeline, aside from McKenzie, the Indians Top 30 Prospects list is light on starting arms nearing big league readiness.
The top end of this rotation remains as imposing as any in the game, meriting a prominent spot here. But depth questions beyond the big three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin limit the Nats’ ceiling for now.
And to be sure, there are questions even within that big three. Strasburg, after all, was limited to just five innings in the first year of his seven-year, $245 million contract. Scherzer dealt with neck and back issues in 2019, and his adjusted ERA+ in '20 was his worst since '14 (his expected metrics painted a more concerning picture, as Scherzer was barreled up at his highest rate in the Statcast era). His upcoming age-36 season will be fascinating given his impending free agency. And Corbin had a stark decrease in effectiveness in '20, with his highest ERA (4.66) since '15 and the highest WHIP (1.57) of his career.
Washington is currently slated to lean on Erick Fedde and Joe Ross in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots, though it’s always possible that general manager Mike Rizzo makes an acquisition between now and Opening Day.
Atlanta’s rotation almost completely crumbled in 2020, but that was more a product of bad luck than bad design. Atlanta lost 2019 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Mike Soroka to a freak Achilles injury, and that cast a shadow over the rest of a unit in which Cole Hamels couldn’t post up, Mike Foltynewicz was quickly jettisoned and Felix Hernandez opted out. The silver lining is that all of the above gave Max Fried a chance to prove his mettle, and he delivered an ace-type season (2.25 ERA, 212 ERA+). And Ian Anderson arrived in September and was near flawless in both the regular season and postseason. Reintegrating Soroka to the staff gives the Braves three of the more intriguing young arms in the sport.
As far as veteran presence is concerned, Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos loves the early strike in free agency, and he did it again with the signings of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. Morton, an AL Cy Young Award finalist in 2019, dealt with shoulder fatigue in '20, but he recovered to show improved velocity and to post a 2.70 ERA in 20 postseason innings. Smyly is an interesting addition after finishing in the 89th percentile for whiff percentage and 97th percentile for strikeout percentage in '20.
The Braves’ 2020 weakness could very quickly emerge as a 2021 strength.
That the Mets are projected by FanGraphs to have the second-highest starters’ WAR in 2021 is primarily attributable to the great Jacob deGrom (6.2 WAR projection, or 40 percent of the Mets’ total 15.4 rotation WAR projection). But after deGrom, what about deRest of the rotation?
Noah Syndergaard is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Marcus Stroman missed 2020 with a torn calf muscle. David Peterson’s encouraging 3.44 ERA in his first 49 2/3 big league innings was accompanied by a less encouraging expected ERA of 4.39 and Fielding Independent Pitching mark of 4.52. Seth Lugo probably belongs in the bullpen. So while deGrom earns the Mets a spot here, their need to add another impact arm is pretty obvious.
7. White Sox
Chicago’s trade for Lance Lynn didn’t get quite the attention that the Padres’ deals for Snell and Darvish did, but over the last two seasons, Lynn is first in the Majors in innings (292 1/3) and fifth in FanGraphs WAR (8.3). The Sox have added him to a staff that produced the sixth-best ERA+, per FanGraphs, in MLB last season. Lucas Giolito has finished in the top seven of the AL Cy Young Award voting each of the last two years, and Dallas Keuchel was a fifth-place finisher in 2020 after posting a 1.99 ERA in 11 starts in his first season on the South Side.
Granted, the Sox traded off some upside in the form of Dane Dunning to get Lynn, but they still possess plenty in the form of 24-year-old Michael Kopech, who is slated to return to the rotation after missing all of 2019 due to Tommy John and '20 due to his decision to opt out, and 25-year-old Dylan Cease, who had a 111 ERA+ in 12 starts in '20.
The Yankees are in the same boat as their New York counterparts, with an obvious ace (Gerrit Cole) up front and a bunch of question marks behind him. There was already an argument for adding a true No. 2 even before Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ reached free agency. So while Deivi García has shown flashes of brilliance at this early stage of his career and getting, say, half a season out of Luis Severino in his return from Tommy John would augment the effort, the Yankees have work to do.
But when you have one of the top two or three pitchers in the game in your rotation, you get a spot in the top 10. That’s how it works.
Per FanGraphs’ adjusted ERA measurement, Oakland had the seventh-best rotation in baseball last season. It remains to be seen whether or how the A’s address the free-agent departures of Mike Minor and the potential departure of Mike Fiers.
But even with those roster spots open at the moment, the A’s have a lot of potential in a front four featuring Jesús Luzardo, Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas, with top prospect A.J. Puk on the mend from left shoulder surgery.
10. Take your pick
A bunch of teams pose an argument for inclusion because of the top end of their rotation.
Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes are the underrated leaders of an underrated Milwaukee staff. In Philly, it gets iffy in a hurry after Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, but the Phillies are in great shape in those top two spots. Despite losing Bauer, the Reds still possess Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray (though Gray’s name has come up in the trade rumor mill). The Twins could lose Jake Odorizzi and Rich Hill in free agency but have a strong 1-2 punch in Kenta Maeda and José Berrios. The emergence of Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier demonstrated the Astros’ depth beyond Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. The Blue Jays have great track record in Hyun Jin Ryu and great upside in Nate Pearson, which is a good start. The fun is just beginning for Sixto Sánchez, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López and the young Marlins.
The problem with elevating any of those teams to top-10 status is a lack of definition for the overall unit. So let’s see how the rest of the offseason unfolds before reaching any conclusions. What a concept, huh?