Which rotations stand above the rest? We ranked them

March 22nd, 2024

By some important measures -- namely, ERA and adjusted ERA+ -- the Tampa Bay Rays had a top-10 rotation in MLB last year. By other important measures -- namely, innings pitched and “ability to actually field a rotation of healthy humans” -- the Rays’ rotation had kind of a nightmare year.

Yes, Tampa Bay ranked fifth in MLB in starters’ ERA and eighth in ERA+. But the Rays never got so much as a single turn through the rotation touted at the start of the year, and they needed to use 17 different starters who averaged fewer than five innings per outing to get through the 162-game season.

I bring up this extreme example as a means of pointing out a conundrum that exists when applying an age-old conversation-starter (“What are the best rotations in baseball?”) to the current game, where injuries and modern management have dramatically reshaped the position. Not only is it difficult to project what the future season holds for starting sets; it’s sometimes hard to even rate rotations from completed seasons, as the 2023 Rays -- equal parts success and catastrophe -- demonstrate.

Nevertheless, we like conversation-starters … and starters are a good one. So here is a futile-but-fun attempt to rank the best “rotations” (we’ll list the six guys most likely to pitch the most innings … obviously, very much subject to change) in MLB entering 2024.

1. Mariners

The caveat here is the same as it is anywhere: Health must cooperate. But if it does, then the Mariners arguably have the best blend of proven pedigree and immediate upside of any rotation in MLB. Seattle was the only team in baseball last year to have three starters reach 190 innings (Castillo, Kirby and Gilbert), and all three had ERAs ranging from 3.34 to 3.73, ERA+ marks ranging from 108 to 121 and WHIP marks below 1.10. Each is projected by FanGraphs to be worth at least 3.0 wins above replacement (WAR) this season, and that triumphant trio is flanked by a lot of potential from Miller and Woo, both of whom debuted in 2023 and have strong stuff. To improve their offense, the M’s dealt from their rotation by moving Robbie Ray during his recovery from Tommy John surgery, but they retain a strong group.

2. Braves

Strider is in the conversation for best starting pitcher in baseball right now, and Fried, who is entering his walk year, is not terribly far behind, albeit with some concern about the forearm issue that hampered him last year. If there weren’t some legit questions about whether the Braves will get what they envision from Sale, who has pitched only 151 innings over the past three years, and about Morton continuing to deliver in his age-40 season, the Braves might be No. 1 on this list. For now, this seems a fair rank for a group with a top-tier top end, lots of pedigree and strong organizational depth.

3. Phillies

The Phils like Wheeler and Nola so much, they gave each one a new nine-figure deal over the offseason. Even though Nola had a down year in the 2023 regular season, these are true dual aces, workhorses who can be trusted in the big moments. The key to where the Phillies ultimately rank among rotations might be Suárez, who for the last couple years has looked close to a major breakout that has not quite transpired, to date. With decent depth options in Walker, the recently signed Turnbull and Sánchez, the Phillies round out a very strong rotation. But this high ranking is ultimately reliant on the Wheeler/Nola duo setting the tone yet again.

4. Dodgers

With the trade for Glasnow, the signing of Yamamoto and the return of Buehler some time in April, the Dodgers have a deeper and more talented group of starters than they did a year ago. (Emmet Sheehan and Gavin Stone are among the enticing young options not referenced above.) FanGraphs projects them to yield the most wins above replacement of any rotation in MLB. Look closer, though, and that projection assumes 188 innings from Yamamoto (who threw 171 in Japan last year), 147 from Glasnow (who threw a career-high 120 last year), 135 from Buehler (who is coming back from his second Tommy John surgery) and 110 from Paxton (whose 96 innings for Boston last year are his only innings since 2021). That is to say, it assumes a lot. The Dodgers are smart and stacked but do have to prove this great group can hold together and perform as planned.

5. Giants

Webb finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting last season, and now he’s joined by the guy who beat him out in Snell. They go about it in very different ways – Webb a classic workhorse who limits walks at an elite level, Snell more of a five (or six)-and-fly type who allows lots of traffic but overpowers people. But they’re both among the best in the game. And the Giants have a lot of future upside both in the youth of their top prospect, Harrison, and in the eventual availability of veterans Cobb, who is progressing rapidly from hip surgery, and Robbie Ray, who is recovering from Tommy John. It will be interesting to see if the electric Hicks can put it together as a starter and take this exciting group to yet another level.

6. Padres

The free-agent departures of Snell, Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha and Nick Martinez ravaged the Padres’ pitching department. But yet another frantic period of trade activity for the Friars resulted in a group of starting options with the potential to stand among MLB’s best. That starts with Cease making the most of a significant upgrade in defensive supporting cast and returning to the Cy Young caliber he displayed in 2022. Better health for Musgrove and better performance for Darvish would also put the Padres on the path to prominence, but the biggest X-factor of all might be King, who was the key acquisition in the Padres’ pitching-heavy return for Juan Soto.

7. Blue Jays

It can never be easy, can it? The Blue Jays were a lock for a higher spot on this list mere weeks ago. But that was before Gausman’s shoulder fatigue and Manoah’s shoulder soreness. The latter is more serious than the former, especially with Manoah attempting a comeback bid after a rough 2023. But both issues are a hurdle for a Blue Jays club that largely enjoyed good health (and a Berríos bounceback) in the starting set last year. The good news is that Toronto possesses strong depth, with Tiedemann (the Jays’ No. 1 prospect) and Bowden Francis both good bets to make a positive impact.

8. D-backs

You need a heck of a lot more than four, but there’s a lot to like about the D-backs’ top four. Gallen has become a true Dude, with a large repertoire, great command and the poise to go deep into big games. Though Gallen finished third in the Cy Young voting last season, Kelly actually had the superior ERA+ (132 to 125), albeit in 32 1/3 fewer innings. And Pfaadt’s strong finish to the season and star turn in the postseason have his arrow pointed upward. Arizona brought in needed depth and, it hopes, stability in the form of E-Rod, who had a 3.30 ERA and 134 ERA+ in 152 2/3 innings with the Tigers last year (but who is dealing with a bout of lat tightness at present). There are question marks from that point, so the D-backs need health to cooperate, but they merit inclusion here.

9. Guardians

This inclusion of the Guardians on this list will look really smart or really, um, not smart, depending on the performances of Bieber and McKenzie as they return from injuries. Thing is, the Guards had the ninth-best starters’ ERA and 11th-most innings from starters in MLB last year despite Bieber (the 2020 AL Cy Young winner) and McKenzie (who had broken out with a 2.96 ERA and 127 ERA+ in 2022) missing significant time. That was due to the emergence of impressive rookies Bibee (2.98 ERA, 140 ERA+ in 25 starts), Williams (3.29 ERA, 127 ERA+ in 16 starts) and Allen (3.81 ERA, 109 ERA+ in 24 starts). So if Bieber and McKenzie are as sharp as they’ve looked this spring, Cleveland will again figure prominently in the starting ranks. A wild card in all this, of course, is the possibility Bieber winds up being dealt ahead of his free agency.

T-10. Astros

T-10. Marlins

T-10. Orioles

Three clubs in similar situations. They would make a ton of sense for the top 10 if Spring Training had not been so brutal on the injury front. Medical red flags are flying for Verlander (shoulder), Urquidy (forearm), Pérez (elbow), Garrett (shoulder), Cabrera (shoulder), Bradish (elbow) and Means (elbow). But as of this writing, there is potential for those issues to be resolved early enough in the season for those arms to still yield substantial innings this season. So we’ll just lump all these teams together until things get clearer.

The spring issues further test a Houston group that already has Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. rehabbing after 2023 procedures. But those two arms could be back by the second half, and Brown could take more steps toward what could be a very high ceiling.

The Marlins’ rotation is loaded with high ceilings. The list above does not even include converted reliever A.J. Puk and 2023 trade acquisition Ryan Weathers, both of whom had strong springs.

The Orioles bolstered their group in a big way with the Burnes trade, only to be met by the spring bummers with Bradish and Means. But Rodriguez’s huge strides in the second half last season are a source of optimism that Baltimore can have an elite top end.

Honorable mentions: If Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo reach their potential, the Reds belong. If the Twins can overcome the free-agent losses of Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda with Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober and perhaps Chris Paddack asserting themselves behind ace Pablo López, they belong. If Shota Imanaga is the real deal to support Justin Steele, the Cubs belong. If and only if Gerrit Cole comes back quickly and Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodón both bounce back, the Yankees belong. And then there are the Rays, who will once again probably somehow piece together top-10 numbers in key categories with low-volume workloads from an army of arms.