Ranking the 10 best rotations for 2021

March 29th, 2021

Remember the good old days when we used to talk about teams’ “starting fives”?

Ah, those were simpler times.

It has already been established for a while now that you need much more than five starters to get through a season. But here in 2021, coming off a 60-game schedule in which nobody reached 100 innings (even counting postseason innings), teams will need pitching on top of pitching on top of pitching.

So don’t get too comfortable with anything presented here in our latest update of the top 10 rotations in MLB. Personnel is very much subject to change this season, and therefore so is this list.

But these are the 10 clubs seemingly best-equipped to handle what awaits us this season. Rather than starting fives, we’ll list the pitchers most likely to pitch a meaningful number of innings out of the rotation.

Could this emerge as one of the great rotations of all time? It’s not inconceivable. After all, the team that already had the National League’s best rotation ERA (3.29) last season has now added the pitcher who had the NL’s best individual ERA (1.73). Oh, and let’s not forget the Dodgers are tossing in a bounce-back candidate in veteran David Price, after he opted out of the 2020 season. He could pitch out of the bullpen or the rotation … or both.

Bauer has a Cy. Price has a Cy. And Clayton Kershaw, who improved his velocity and command to continue to fight off the effects of his high career innings log, has three Cys. That alone is enough to make the opposition sigh. But the Dodgers pitcher most likely to land the award moving forward might actually be Walker Buehler, who, at only 26, has already been one of the great postseason pitchers of all time (2.35 ERA in 11 starts) and who possesses elite velocity and spin and a deep arsenal.

Did we mention the Dodgers also have the 24-year-old Julio Urías (3.27 ERA, 130 ERA+ in 2020), 23-year-old Dustin May (2.57, 165) and 26-year-old Tony Gonsolin (2.31, 183) at their disposal? They were all terrific in '20 and are just getting started. And because these are the Dodgers we’re talking about, there are always prospects in the pool, including the organization’s No. 2 prospect (per MLB Pipeline), Josiah Gray, who could make his mark this season.

Per Steamer, Bauer (4.2 wins above replacement), Buehler (4.0) and Kershaw (3.7) are projected to have three of the top 11 pitching WAR marks in the game.

No. 2 in the division ... but No. 2 in all of baseball is still not a bad place to be on this list. And the Padres might have assembled a stout-enough staff to legitimately challenge the Dodgers for the National League West crown (which of course matters more than ranking No. 1 on this subjective list).

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 the Friars still project to have one of the best rotations in the game after the Yu Darvish (4.8 projected WAR, per Steamer), Blake Snell (3.5) and Joe Musgrove (3.2) acquisitions.

Those three are added to a stash that already included 2020 breakout star Dinelson Lamet (2.09 ERA, 205 ERA+). And young pitchers Chris Paddack, Adrian Morejon, MacKenzie Gore and Ryan Weathers all have high ceilings.

The biggest questions here are health-related. Lamet dealt with an elbow issue at season’s end. Snell has also had recent elbow issues, and Darvish had elbow and triceps problems in 2018.

But general manager A.J. Preller increased the stability of his young staff with experienced, accomplished arms. The Padres have assembled something special here.

Prior to the Dodgers’ addition of Bauer, the Yankees ranked No. 1 in FanGraphs’ starting pitching WAR projections. Of course, that begins with a 5.5 WAR projection for Gerrit Cole alone, and it’s not hard to understand why anybody would be bullish on him.

The bigger question is how bullish we should be on two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, two-time All-Star Luis Severino and one-time top Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. Kluber has made just eight starts over the past two seasons and was shut down last year with a shoulder issue. Taillon is coming off his second Tommy John and didn’t pitch last year. And Severino is in the earliest steps of his mound throwing after Tommy John recovery. Deivi García and Jordan Montgomery have demonstrated their potential but have yet to put it all together with consistency. Domingo Germán has pitched well this spring but could be on a short leash given his awful incident away from the field.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of potential here. And with one of the absolute best starters in the sport occupying approximately 20% of the rotation, there’s a pretty high floor.

The top end of this rotation remains as imposing as any in the game, meriting a prominent spot here. But 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 (he also dealt with a ruptured calf tendon this spring, but apparently the injury is nowhere near as serious as it sounds). Scherzer dealt with neck and back issues in 2019, and his adjusted ERA+ in '20 was his lowest since '14 (his expected metrics painted a more concerning picture, as Scherzer was barreled up at his highest rate in the Statcast era). His 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 added more pedigree with the signing of Jon Lester, one of the most respected rotation arms in the sport. What that means in real terms remains to be seen, for Lester is 37 years old and had a combined 4.64 ERA in his last two seasons with the Cubs. Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross will vie for innings in the back end.

This group takes a hit with the hamstring injury that will take offseason acquisition Carlos Carrasco out of the equation for at least the first six weeks of the season. Carrasco had profiled as the viable No. 2 the Mets needed behind the best pitcher in the game, Jacob deGrom.

Of course, because deGrom has only gotten more devastating with an uptick in velocity, the Mets have a huge base to work off. But questions definitely arise from there.

Noah Syndergaard is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Marcus Stroman elected not to play in 2020 and dealt with a torn calf muscle before that. Taijuan Walker had an excellent 161 ERA+ last season but iffy peripherals and a scattered track record in previous years. 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 FIP mark of 4.52. Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto are nice depth additions, though it’s hard to say how much impact they’ll have. But Carrasco won’t be out forever, deGrom gives the Mets a high floor, and it’s really not that hard to imagine Stroman, Syndergaard and Walker delivering quality innings.

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 Félix Hernández 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. Re-integrating 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 finalist in 2019, dealt with shoulder fatigue in '20 but 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.

Chicago’s trade for Lance Lynn didn’t get quite the attention that the Padres’ deals for Snell and Darvish did, but, over the past 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 already produced the sixth-best adjusted ERA, per FanGraphs, in MLB last season. Lucas Giolito has finished in the top seven of the AL Cy Young 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 2020.

Cleveland’s impressive pitching pipeline has allowed the club to remain competitive despite trades involving Kluber, Bauer and Clevinger. It will be tested yet again with the Carrasco trade.

But Shane Bieber, a former fourth-rounder who improved his velocity and refined his repertoire to become an absolute monster (1.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP in the shortened 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 2020 is any indication. The Tribe has also acquired depth in Cal Quantrill and Logan Allen as secondary pieces in blockbuster trades. Allen looked fantastic this spring after working on changes in his delivery with the Cleveland staff.

Per FanGraphs’ adjusted ERA measurement, Oakland had the seventh-best rotation in baseball last season. Midseason acquisition Mike Minor is the only departure from that staff.

This ranking admittedly assumes a lot about a predominantly young staff, but a front four featuring Jesús Luzardo, Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas, with top pitching prospect A.J. Puk returning from shoulder surgery, offers a lot of potential.

Yes, you can lose your league’s reigning Cy Young winner to free agency and still project well in your rotation. To their credit, the Reds have drastically improved the state of their rotation in recent years.

Sonny Gray (153 ERA+ over the last two seasons) revived his career with the Reds, and that’s no easy task in their bandbox of a home ballpark. Luis Castillo’s changeup is one of the best pitches in the sport, and he’s a candidate to one day win a Cy Young of his own. Tyler Mahle (2.2 projected WAR, per FanGraphs) has serious breakout potential, and veteran Wade Miley should be able to provide above-average numbers. Gray dealt with back spasms and Michael Lorenzen a shoulder issue in recent days, but neither injury appears serious at the moment. We’ll give the Reds a small edge over a slew of clubs that have an argument for this last spot.

Honorable mention: This could go any number of ways, of course. The Blue Jays have assembled an interesting collection of talented but sometimes maddening arms behind Hyun Jin Ryu. Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes are the underrated leaders of an underrated Milwaukee staff. It gets iffy in a hurry after Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, but the Phillies are in great shape in those top two spots. The Twins have a strong 1-2 punch in Kenta Maeda and José Berríos and have brought in J.A. Happ. Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. front the Astros. The fun is just beginning for Sixto Sánchez, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López and the young Marlins. It will all come down to who has the best depth.