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Ranking MLB's top 10 starting rotations

Defending champ Astros take No. 1 spot, followed by Indians
MLB.com @castrovince

The proliferation of pitcher injuries and the evolution of the way games are managed has drastically diminished starting pitching workloads. But it hasn't diminished the faith and fascination a great-on-paper rotation can inspire.

If anything, our appreciation for starting stability, for the constant confidence that comes with pitching persistence, has only been augmented by an environment in which just 15 pitchers accumulated 200 innings last year.

The proliferation of pitcher injuries and the evolution of the way games are managed has drastically diminished starting pitching workloads. But it hasn't diminished the faith and fascination a great-on-paper rotation can inspire.

If anything, our appreciation for starting stability, for the constant confidence that comes with pitching persistence, has only been augmented by an environment in which just 15 pitchers accumulated 200 innings last year.

• Projected rotations for all 30 teams

What follows, as we continue our Top 10 series that began with the Top 10 lineups and continued with the Top 10 bullpens, is a list of the best rotations in the game entering 2018. As always, injuries, ineffectiveness or an uprising from elsewhere can alter this list drastically. But the dirty truth for now is that a majority of Major League teams have so many ifs and buts in their projected starting fives (or fours or sixes) that it's not especially difficult to find the true contenders for this particular post.

Here are the 10 clubs seemingly off to a great -- ahem -- start.

*Note that the order pitchers are listed here isn't necessarily the order in which they'll first appear in 2018.

Video: WSH@HOU: Hinch on his potential starting rotation

1. Astros
SP1: Justin Verlander

SP2: Dallas Keuchel

SP3: Lance McCullers Jr.

SP4: Gerrit Cole

SP5. Charlie Morton

Brad Peacock was, in terms of FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement calculation, the Astros' most valuable pitcher last season, and he doesn't even crack this starting five for the start of the season. That's how deep this group is, and the depth is the reason the 'Stros are No. 1. They've got a few No. 1's, really, as there are various staffs where Verlander (whose arrival to an analytically driven organization is helping him pad his Hall of Fame case), a walk-year Keuchel, McCullers and Cole are all capable of fitting that billing on various other clubs. The big key will be Cole limiting the long ball and making use of the Astros' more breaking-ball-heavy approach to untap his true potential.

Video: Castrovince breaks down the Indians' rotation

2. Indians
SP1: Corey Kluber

SP2: Carlos Carrasco

SP3: Trevor Bauer

SP4: Josh Tomlin

SP5: Mike Clevinger

The Indians definitely deserve the benefit of the doubt after leading all other starting staffs in FanGraphs WAR by at least 4.3 wins in 2017, but questions about the depth beyond this initial five keep them out of the top spot here. The oft-injured Danny Salazar is already battling a shoulder issue, and we'll see if there's any regression from a group that provided the highest percentage of starters' innings (and needed the fewest starters) in baseball last season. But Kluber and Carrasco are both potential Cy Young contenders, Bauer began to approach his ceiling in the second half last season and Clevinger could be a breakout candidate.

Video: Darvish solidifies Cubs rotation in 2018

3. Cubs
SP1: Jon Lester

SP2: Yu Darvish

SP3: Jose Quintana

SP4: Kyle Hendricks

SP5: Tyler Chatwood

The Cubs didn't go into the winter expecting to sign Darvish, but his ability to impact a unit that went backward in a big way in 2017 became irresistible. Now, the Cubs again have one of the sturdiest starting sets in the game, as Darvish's arrival comes in addition to what the Cubs could get out of a full year of Quintana (whose stats improved across the board working with Willson Contreras last year) and a nice upside play in the No. 5 spot, where Chatwood should benefit from fleeing Coors Field. Mike Montgomery remains a valuable swingman here when the Cubs inevitably need a sixth starting arm.

Video: Collier compares Nationals' rotation to rest of MLB

4. Nationals
SP1: Max Scherzer

SP2: Stephen Strasburg

SP3: Gio Gonzalez

SP4: Tanner Roark

SP5: A.J. Cole

For the record, I'd be comfortable with the Nats anywhere from 2-4 on this list. The margins are pretty thin.

But the potential for growth beyond what we already saw in 2017 might be limited here. The Nats should be careful with Scherzer in the regular season (nobody's thrown more innings the last five years) to have him at his sharpest come October, and Strasburg's injury history is well-documented. Other keys here will be Gonzalez approximating his career year from 2017 and one (or both) of Cole or Erick Fedde asserting himself as the season progresses (I've got Cole listed here, but veteran Jeremy Hellickson is still an option for the fifth spot).

Video: Outlook: Greinke to anchor D-backs' rotation

5. D-backs
SP1: Zack Greinke

SP2: Robbie Ray

SP3: Taijuan Walker

SP4: Patrick Corbin

SP5: Zack Godley

Just as the 2-4 spots can go in any order for me, so, too, can the 5-9 spots. But let's send some love to a largely unheralded D-backs group.

Greinke's diminished velocity and health have already been talking points this spring, and it's hard to know how much to make of all that (his velo was a concern last spring, too, yet he went on to have a big bounceback season). For that matter, it's hard to know whether Arizona can build off a surprisingly great season from its starters in 2017, when they had the third-best starters' ERA in the game. Ray's breakout was the biggest boost, though he might have trouble repeating his 84.5 percent strand rate. Shelby Miller's return from Tommy John is key for the D-backs' depth here.

Video: Sale earns first Opening Day start for Red Sox

6. Red Sox
SP1: Chris Sale

SP2: David Price

SP3: Rick Porcello

SP4: Drew Pomeranz

SP5: Eduardo Rodriguez

The above is merely a guess as to who will get the bulk of starts this season, Pomeranz, Rodriguez and Steven Wright have all dealt with injuries this spring. Injuries are nothing new here, and they've compromised the Boston unit's ability to reach its real ceiling. Your guess is as good as mine as to what they get out of Price with his iffy elbow, and Porcello is a wild card, too. But Sale obviously stabilizes things up top, and this ranking is reflective of the potential of a top-heavy but potent starting five.

Video: Outlook: Gray should be major rotation asset in 2018

7. Yankees
SP1: Luis Severino

SP2: Masahiro Tanaka

SP3: Sonny Gray

SP4: Jordan Montgomery

SP5: CC Sabathia

As they did with Gray last summer, there's a pretty good chance the Yankees supplement this rotation between now and Aug. 1, especially if Tanaka's elbow again becomes an issue or Montgomery regresses from his surprise rookie year or Father Time finally slays Sabathia. But 2017 showed how faulty our predictions tend to be, because Tanaka looked like the one sure thing in this set and instead became the weak link in an otherwise solid group (then he was a stud in the playoffs just when it had become easy to write him off). So good luck guessing what happens here in 2018.

Video: Roberts on starting rotation heading into season

8. Dodgers
SP1: Clayton Kershaw

SP2: Alex Wood

SP3: Rich Hill

SP4: Kenta Maeda

SP5: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Yes, the Dodgers could very easily rank much higher here, if only because they have the greatest pitcher of his generation in Kershaw. He's flanked by quality arms, and it will be especially interesting to see what the Dodgers get out of Ryu and, eventually, prospect Walker Buehler this year. But because Kershaw has been limited to 324 regular season innings the last two years with back issues and because the Dodgers' emphasis on quick hooks (they only had a starter reach 100 pitches 24 times last year, and 12 of those were Kershaw), the overall impact of this group could be limited, hence the lower ranking.

Video: Sandy Alderson on the Mets' rotation for 2018

9. Mets
SP1: Jacob deGrom

SP2: Noah Syndergaard

SP3: Matt Harvey

SP4: Steven Matz

SP5: Seth Lugo

With Zack Wheeler optioned to Triple-A on Saturday, Mets fans will once again be deprived of their "dream rotation." That said, Jason Vargas is really the fifth man here, and he might not miss more than one turn after breaking a bone in his non-pitching hand. Last year I made the mistake of betting purely on projection and not letting the realities of risk affect my ranking of this unit as No. 1 going into the regular season. You know what happened next. But so long as this group is together, they deserve a spot in the top 10, and the Mickey Callaway magic could rub off here. Still, let's put them in a slightly lower-profile spot this time around.

Video: PHI@TOR: Stroman allows one earned run in debut

10. Blue Jays
SP1: Marcus Stroman

SP2: Aaron Sanchez

SP3: J.A. Happ

SP4: Marco Estrada

SP5: Jaime Garcia

There were a handful of clubs I considered for this wild card spot, including a Cardinals club with some intriguing upside (Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes), the Rays' foursome fronted by Chris Archer and the Rockies' up-and-coming kids led by Jon Gray.

But the Blue Jays get this spot having (mostly) survived the spring. Stroman's bout with shoulder inflammation prevents him from the Opening Day nod but not from being ready in the season's first week. If Toronto gets 30 starts apiece from Stroman and Sanchez (who looked fantastic this spring after basically losing 2017 to blister issues), that's as good a one-two punch as you could hope to have. And Estrada and Happ are both pitching for their next contracts and have both been better than league average over the course of the last three seasons. This is an under-discussed staff in many corners, but not this one.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.