As the 2010s evolved, we saw the role of the starting pitcher whittled down to a shell of what it once was. The complete game became an endangered species, bullpens were prioritized and the opener strategy was introduced. It made you wonder if we were steamrolling toward a situation in which the traditional rotation, as we once knew it, would be eradicated altogether.
Then 2019 happened. Bullpens across the game blew up (relievers’ collective 4.43 ERA was the highest in 19 years and the 11th-highest in history), and it was a Nationals club that largely revolved around its rotation that claimed the World Series crown. It was a rotation revival, of sorts.
So as we head into 2020, the following 10 teams are deep where it might matter most -- in the rotation. As was the case with Wednesday’s list of the top 10 lineups, I welcome arguments about these entries, because, frankly, it feels good to engage in friendly bickering about baseball when there are far more serious issues going on in our world.
Note that one stat frequently cited in this piece is ERA+, which normalizes a player’s ERA across the league while accounting for ballparks pitched in and opponents faced. A league-average ERA+ is 100, so 120 is 20 percent better than league average and 80 is 20 percent worse.
1 -- Nationals
The 102 1/3 innings Washington got from its great rotation last October was the most by a World Series champion in a single postseason since the D-backs’ 120 1/3 innings in 2001. A group that can turn in that kind of workload is both a source of strength and concern, because it can catch up to you the following year. So this is one area of MLB where you wonder if this unanticipated delay might have some benefit, especially given that Scherzer was dealing with some discomfort in his side before camp was put on pause.
Anyway, Scherzer (157), Corbin (141) and Strasburg (138) all ranked in the top 15 among qualified pitchers in ERA+ last season, with 100, again, being league average. Sánchez (119) was tied for 25th. The Nats’ rotation fades into greater uncertainty from there, but that’s a fearsome foursome to get you started.
2 -- Mets
If this rotation were just two-time-reigning National League Cy Young Award winner deGrom and then four empty Shake Shack bags, it might still merit a mention on this list. But, of course, the Mets have great potential beyond deGrom.
Syndergaard really hasn’t lived up to his billing at this point in his career, but his peripheral numbers (3.60 Fielding Independent Pitching) were better than his actual numbers (4.28 ERA), and his raw stuff is still plenty enticing. Stroman saw his strikeout rate increase after the move to the Mets last summer, but he’s still ultimately a sinkerballer dependent on his defense. Bottom line is he’s capable of giving the Mets quality innings every fifth day. Porcello has a durable track record and while he might never again be as good as he was in his American League Cy Young Award season in Boston in 2016, he’s a quality No. 4. We’ll list Matz here as the No. 5 guy, but offseason acquisition Michael Wacha was also vying for that role.
3 -- Rays
The team that first unleashed the opener upon the world might no longer have much of a need for that concept. This rotation has as much potential as any in MLB.
Morton, as advertised, brought veteran credibility to this staff in 2019 -- and finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting, to boot. Snell is a 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner himself and was making progress from elbow soreness before spring was shut down. Glasnow is listed as the No. 3 for now, but has clear ace potential. Forearm tightness limited him in 2019, but he had a ridiculous 1.78 ERA, 250 ERA+ and 0.89 WHIP in 60 2/3 innings. Yarbrough has quietly posted a respectable 106 ERA+ while mostly following the opener the last two years, and now he’s likely to serve as a more traditional starter. Prospects Brendan McKay (No. 15 overall on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100) and Brent Honeywell are also in the mix for 2020.
4 -- Reds
The Reds wasted what was, surprisingly, one of the better starting staffs in MLB last season, as both Gray and Castillo’s emergence were shrouded by an anemic offense. Cincinnati spent all winter trying to boost the bats, but not before proactively adding Bauer at last summer’s Trade Deadline and bringing in Miley via free agency to add a lefty option with another veteran touch.
Castillo, whose changeup is not safe for work, might be this Cy Young-less franchise’s best shot at the award if he can limit his walks. But the real key to this staff will be Gray maintaining what he did in 2019 (2.87 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) and Bauer shaking off a shaky start to his Cincy tenure and returning to his 2018 form (2.21 ERA, 1.09 WHIP). DeSclafani, in a contract year, is not to be ignored, as he had a solid 117 ERA+ in 166 2/3 innings last year.
5 -- Indians
To trade away Bauer and Corey Kluber in the span of five months last year and still make this list is a testament to the pitching factory the Indians have put together. They had some bumps and bruises in Spring Training Version 1.0 -- Clevinger had left knee surgery and Carrasco had right elbow inflammation -- but nothing that would prevent them from fielding their projected starting five at the outset of a reset.
Clevinger’s 152 ERA+ over the last three seasons is the fifth-best among those with at least 400 innings pitched, and Bieber’s ceiling might be even higher. Plesac (124 ERA+ in 115 2/3 innings in 2019) and Civale (202 ERA+ in 57 2/3 innings) flourished in unexpected opportunities last year, and the Indians have more depth options in Triple-A.
6 -- Dodgers
The Dodgers lost a major piece of their rotation when Hyun-Jin Ryu departed in free agency after a career year, and the 34-year-old Price is a lot iffier than he once was, with declined velocity, two 2019 injured list stints (elbow tendinitis and a wrist cyst) and reduced innings per outing. But this team has depth everywhere, the rotation included. In fact, FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement projections rate L.A. as the fifth-best starting set in MLB.
Buehler is a stud (135 ERA+ in 319 2/3 innings over the last two seasons) who might be ready to figure prominently in the NL Cy Young Award conversation. Kershaw is not the ace among aces that he once was, but he still offers elite command and great results (137 ERA+ in 2019). Urías might be ready to make the leap, as he finally has a chance to put his elite, contact-limiting stuff to use in a rotation role. And though Dustin May (No. 23 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100) was limited by a side injury in Spring Training, the redheaded right-hander and his extraordinary cutter are coming soon to a big league mound near you.
7 -- Yankees
Losing Luis Severino for the entirety of 2020 is a big deal. Of course, so is adding Cole, who is probably the odds-on Cy Young Award favorite in the AL. And the delay to the season will likely allow Paxton to be ready to rejoin this group from the outset despite February back surgery.
With Paxton (116 ERA+ in 150 2/3 innings) and Tanaka (100 ERA+ in 182 innings) both in a contract year and Happ capable of league-average output, at the least, there is a solid base beyond Cole. Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt, both of whom are on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list (No. 92 and No. 88, respectively), are intriguing depth options. Cole no longer has the bonafide co-ace he did in Houston, but he obviously raises the floor for this group a great deal even with Severino on the shelf.
8 -- Rangers
Texas looked around at the way starting pitching returned to prominence in the postseason last year and said, “We want some of that.” The Rangers bought low on Kluber after an injury-riddled 2019 that limited him to seven starts, bought in on the potential of Gibson’s three-pitch mix a year removed from him posting a 3.62 ERA and 118 ERA+ in 196 2/3 innings in Minnesota in 2018 and landed Lyles on the heels of him logging a 2.45 ERA in 58 2/3 innings after a mid-2019 trade from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee.
Add all of that to the oddly near-identical output the Rangers got from Minor (3.59 ERA, 144 ERA+ in 208 1/3 innings) and Lynn (3.67 ERA, 141 ERA+ in 208 1/3 innings), and you have the seeds of what could be a top-flight starting five, with one-time top prospect Kolby Allard an important depth piece.
9 -- Astros
The Astros belong in the top 10. However, their position is possibly more precarious than some others on this list because the rotation is fronted by a 37-year-old Verlander (coming off groin surgery and a lat issue) and a 36-year-old Greinke, to go along with real questions about depth should anything go south at the big league level. McCullers’ workload could be limited in his return from Tommy John surgery (although in this climate, everybody’s workload could be limited), top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley experienced shoulder fatigue and had a 7.99 ERA in the Minors last year and it’s impossible to know if anyone from a group featuring Cionel Perez, Framber Valdez, Rogelio Armenteros, etc., will break out.
But if Verlander and Greinke perform to their norms, McCullers returns to form and Urquidy and Peacock deliver the kind of quality innings they have in the past, this is still a very stout group.
10 -- Cardinals
Though Miles Mikolas’ right flexor tendon strain yanked him out of availability for the originally scheduled Opening Day, he might have time to be ready now. So you could list him above. But even if you don’t, Kim, a veteran pitcher signed from Korea, was having a strong spring displaying a deep pitch mix and poise before the shutdown. Daniel Ponce de Leon is another intriguing rotation option.
There is certainty in the top spot because Flaherty emerged as one of the most electric starters in baseball last season, with a 2.75 ERA and NL-best 0.97 WHIP in 196 1/3 innings, and an absurd 0.91 ERA in the season’s second half. Hudson had a 3.35 ERA and 128 ERA+ in 33 appearances and might be on the cusp of putting it all together, as he had 14 starts in which he allowed two or fewer earned runs in six or more innings. It will be interesting to see if Martínez can assert himself in a starting role after serving as the closer last year, and league-average output from Wainwright again in 2020 is really all the Cards need with so much excellence elsewhere.
Depending on what you prioritize -- upside, experience, durability, etc. -- there are a number of teams who could mount an argument for this list either now or by year’s end.
The A’s, Braves and Padres, for instance, have as much upside as anybody, with excellent young arms aplenty -- from Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk in Oakland to Max Fried and 2019 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Mike Soroka in Atlanta to Chris Paddack and MacKenzie Gore in San Diego. It can be difficult to project what that youth will deliver moving forward, but the ceiling for those groups is high. Oakland actually had the eighth-best starters’ ERA in MLB in 2019, so it might have the strongest argument to be in the top 10 already.
The D-backs added a ton of experience via Madison Bumgarner to a group in which Zac Gallen and Luke Weaver shined in small samples last year. The Phillies have a potentially dynamic 1-2 punch up top with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Lastly, the Cubs’ group doesn’t have age on its side but does still possess a lot of pedigree.