MLB's most high-risk, high-reward rotation

January 28th, 2021

Take a guess which team has the top projected starting rotation entering the 2021 season.

The Padres? Now that they have Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove on top of Dinelson Lamet and Chris Paddack? Close, but no. Then how about the Mets? They have Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard. Not them either.

Or maybe the Dodgers, led by Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and David Price; or the White Sox, who have Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and Dallas Keuchel; or the Nationals, with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin? None of the above.

It's the Yankees. FanGraphs' Depth Chart projections have the Yankees' starting pitchers at 18.3 Wins Above Replacement for next season, making them the top rotation among the 30 teams.

Top projected starting rotations for 2021
According to FanGraphs' Depth Charts projections
1) Yankees -- 18.3 WAR
2) Mets -- 16.7 WAR
3) Padres -- 16.6 WAR
4) Dodgers -- 14.5 WAR
5) White Sox -- 13.4 WAR
6) Nationals -- 13.3 WAR

That No. 1 projection for the Yankees is interesting -- because they also have a particularly high-risk/high-reward rotation.

We're not talking about Gerrit Cole here (projected for 5.6 WAR). He's an ace among aces. But behind him, the projections also like Corey Kluber (2.9), Luis Severino (2.3), Jordan Montgomery (2.2), Jameson Taillon (2.1) and Deivi García (1.4).

All of those pitchers have high upside -- they could easily put together strong seasons for New York and make the projections come true. But they also all have big question marks. Let's take a closer look.

2021 projection: 2.9 WAR -- 155 IP, 4.02 ERA, 9.0 K/9

The reward: Kluber finds his old Cy Young-caliber form, or at least bounces back closer to it.

It still bears repeating that Kluber is only two seasons removed from a five-year run of dominance -- from 2014-18, he had a 2.85 ERA while averaging 32 starts, 218 innings and 246 strikeouts a season. If a couple of fluke injuries in 2019 and '20 are the only thing keeping him down, he's going to be a great value signing for the Yankees.

The risk: He's an aging, injury-prone pitcher on a permanent decline.

Kluber is entering his age-35 season, and while you can't blame him for his injuries, it's possible a pitcher in his mid-30s who's only made eight starts in two years and is coming off major shoulder surgery just won't ever be like what he once was. There were some warning signs for Kluber even before he got hurt, like declining fastball velocity (five straight seasons, from 93.8 mph in 2014 to 91.3 mph in 2019) and fewer swings-and-misses on his signature curveball.

2021 projection: 2.1 WAR -- 134 IP, 4.45 ERA, 7.8 K/9

The reward: He's ready to pick up where he left off with a new, modernized pitching style.

As he prepares for his return to the mound, Taillon has revamped his delivery with a shorter arm action, the same change that Giolito rode to becoming the White Sox ace. Taillon also plans to throw more four-seamers and de-emphasize his sinker -- a favorite adaptation of today's strikeout artists. Taillon was on track toward becoming a frontline starter in 2018, when he had a 3.20 ERA and 179 strikeouts in 191 innings for the Pirates, and the changes he's making could make him even better in 2021, especially since he's still in his prime at age 29.

The risk: Two Tommy John surgeries take too big a toll on his arm.

It's hard enough to come back from one Tommy John operation, let alone two. Who knows how Taillon will respond? He hasn't pitched since May 1, 2019. Maybe his velocity doesn't come back. Maybe his breaking balls aren't as sharp. Maybe his shorter arm action and new approach don't produce the improvements he wants. There are a lot of maybes involving Taillon, who's only completed one good full season in his big league career.

2021 projection: 2.3 WAR -- 104 IP, 3.76 ERA, 9.9 K/9

The reward: A one-time Yankees ace is a Yankees ace again.

Remember, Severino wasn't just the Yankees' staff ace a few years ago, he looked like a future Cy Young Award winner. Sevy finished third in the AL voting in 2017 and ninth in '18 after back-to-back 200-strikeout seasons. He's 26 years old. He has an explosive high-90s fastball and wipeout slider. If his stuff is still electric whenever he returns from Tommy John surgery (probably midseason), he's a frontline starter. And a pitcher can absolutely recover his stuff post-TJ -- just look across town at Jacob deGrom for the prime example, who's ramped up to now having the fastest fastball of any starting pitcher.

The risk: A post-Tommy John dip and pre-Tommy John concerns.

For every deGrom, there's another pitcher who's struggled coming back from Tommy John, and Severino's first year back will bring extra uncertainty -- even if he does get his stuff back eventually, it might take time. Also, at times there were worries about Severino even when he was healthy, from a rocky second half of 2018 to pitch-tipping to shaky playoff performances. The Yankees are World Series-or-bust, and they've had their share of starting pitching questions in October. Severino has plenty of ace-level performances to his name and maybe hasn't even reached his ceiling … but what if he falls toward his floor instead?

2021 projection: 1.4 WAR -- 93 IP, 4.65 ERA, 9.8 K/9

The reward: The prospect rankings are right.

García shot up the Yankees' prospect ranks, is currently rated their No. 3 prospect, has a great fastball/curveball combo and flashed his talent with great starts against the Mets and Blue Jays in his first big league stint in 2020. If he takes a step forward in Year 2 -- or even better, makes a big leap -- the Yankees could have a 21-year-old star-in-the-making.

The risk: He busts (or just doesn't meet the hype).

Though García showed he has strikeout stuff, with 33 K's in 34 1/3 innings, he also had a 4.98 ERA, plus an ill-fated experiment as an opener in the Yankees' loss to the Rays in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. García is still a largely unproven rookie and prospects are always risky. At just 21 years old, anything could happen with García, good or bad. Who knows how he'll look next season.

2021 projection: 2.2 WAR -- 132 IP, 4.29 ERA, 8.8 K/9

The reward: He is what he was as a rookie.

Montgomery was a pleasant surprise for the Yankees when he first came up in 2017, making 29 starts with a 3.88 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 155 1/3 innings. He looked like he'd be a valuable mid-rotation workhorse -- and the 28-year-old left-hander could still be that. Look at his 47 strikeouts in 44 innings in 2020, for example, or his solid start against Tampa Bay in ALDS Game 4 -- four innings, three hits, one run, four strikeouts to lead the Yankees to a win when they were facing elimination. New York also needs a productive lefty starter in particular, as the rest of their rotation is right-handed entering 2021 without James Paxton and J.A. Happ.

The risk: He isn't what he was as a rookie.

Like several of the Yankees' other starters, Montgomery had recent Tommy John surgery (2018). Though he made 10 starts in 2020, he completed five innings in only half of those outings and six innings once, and it was an up-and-down year performance-wise as he finished with a 5.11 ERA. Montgomery needs to prove he can be an effective starter over a full season again.