2021 Positional Power Rankings: Starting Rotation (No. 1-15)

Earlier today, Paul Sporer assessed the game’s weaker rotations. Now, Ben Clemens turns his attention to the aces.

The top of the NL West is also the top of our starting pitching rankings. The Padres lost deadline acquisition Mike Clevinger before the postseason even ended, but they recovered by adding three marquee pitchers via trade. The Dodgers countered by adding Trevor Bauer in free agency, and it’s no surprise that those two teams sit atop this list. The New York teams have their aces, the Nationals have their big three, and plenty of other squads mix depth with upside, but none of them could quite match the two California teams’ projections.

That’s not to say that no one else can run out a string of aces. The Yankees have injury issues, but they’ll be able to line up Cy Young winners on consecutive nights. The Mets have Noah Syndergaard waiting in the wings, and the Nationals won a World Series in exactly that manner only two years ago. Pitchers are nastier than ever, and this list is a testament to that fact: there are interesting arms and potential aces on every team in the top 15. That makes it harder than ever to reach the top of our list, but it’s no shade to the teams further down; they’re good, but the Padres and Dodgers are better.

2021 Positional Power Rankings – SP 1-15
1. Padres
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Yu Darvish 184 11.1 2.7 1.2 .302 75.4% 3.43 3.47 4.2
Joe Musgrove 164 9.2 2.3 1.2 .306 73.1% 3.86 3.89 3.3
Blake Snell 146 11.1 3.5 1.1 .301 76.4% 3.38 3.51 3.2
Dinelson Lamet 123 11.8 3.5 1.1 .306 75.1% 3.50 3.49 2.7
Chris Paddack 122 9.5 2.2 1.4 .302 73.6% 3.86 3.94 2.1
MacKenzie Gore 75 9.5 3.8 1.3 .304 73.7% 4.13 4.32 1.0
Adrian Morejon 39 10.6 3.7 1.1 .315 75.2% 3.66 3.74 0.7
Ryan Weathers 13 6.7 3.6 1.2 .307 71.3% 4.62 4.82 0.1
Reggie Lawson 9 8.2 4.9 1.4 .307 70.9% 5.09 5.22 0.0
Total 874 10.4 3.0 1.2 .304 74.5% 3.68 3.75 17.4

The Padres don’t have more plus starters than Darvish has pitches, but it’s shockingly close. He’s the headliner here, coming off the best season in a superlative career. He paired newfound pinpoint control (a career-low 4.7% walk rate) with his customary strikeout stuff. It was good for the lowest ERA, FIP, and xFIP of his career, and he compiled a frankly astonishing 3 WAR in his 12 starts. The Cubs decided to move on for unknown (read: pecuniary) reasons, traded him for a sampler platter of second-tier prospects, and bam: baseball’s most exciting starter (in my opinion) is now on baseball’s most exciting team.

Behind him, the rotation is stacked. Snell was last seen absolutely shoving in the World Series, and he has a Cy Young under his belt. He pairs lefty velocity with hellacious breaking stuff, and while he had a nasty bout of homeritis (29.4% HR/FB) last year, he still pitched to a 3.24 ERA. I suppose there are times-through-order concerns, but that’s more a universal thing than anything unique to Snell.

Lamet will start the season on the IL after receiving a PRP injection for elbow soreness last year (always a scary sentence), but successfully returned to the mound last week. Accordingly, he’ll miss a chunk of this season, but he’s been downright electric when available. His slider, which he throws more than half the time, is lethal, and he can manipulate it to add either run or drop, giving batters multiple looks despite a two-pitch mix.

Musgrove is absurdly overqualified as a fourth starter (without even mentioning Mike Clevinger, who will return next year), but that’s what happens when you go on an offseason spree like San Diego’s. He put new emphasis on his curveball last year, and batters couldn’t do anything with it; they whiffed on 52% of their swings at it. That led to a career high in strikeouts, though his walk rate ticked up as well. The Padres are hoping that another year of refinement with the pitch will bring further improvements.

The rest of the rotation is hardly the pile of backups you’d expect to see at the end of a depth chart. Paddack could be a No. 2 starter for plenty of teams; he scuffled in 2020, but his fastball/changeup base is a wonderful pillar to build on. Gore is the top pitching prospect in baseball, and he’ll likely make his major league debut this year. Morejon has struggled with injuries and command, but his stuff is electric, and he’ll get a chance to prove it when he stands in for Lamet to start the year. Overall, this squad is ludicrous; they’re seven deep with dynamic arms, with a Cy Young candidate coming back next year.

2. Dodgers
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Trevor Bauer 192 10.5 2.9 1.1 .305 75.5% 3.51 3.64 4.4
Walker Buehler 167 11.0 2.5 1.2 .303 76.0% 3.33 3.39 4.2
Clayton Kershaw 174 9.7 2.0 1.2 .300 76.8% 3.34 3.53 3.8
Julio Urías 91 9.6 3.2 1.3 .298 75.0% 3.93 4.19 1.6
David Price 93 9.3 2.8 1.4 .303 75.2% 3.97 4.26 1.3
Dustin May 58 8.8 2.6 1.1 .306 73.4% 3.76 3.91 1.0
Tony Gonsolin 45 9.6 3.4 1.5 .300 73.2% 4.35 4.53 0.5
Josiah Gray 17 8.0 2.9 1.6 .298 70.7% 4.76 4.89 0.1
Jimmy Nelson 6 9.5 3.5 1.2 .311 74.1% 4.01 4.17 0.1
Total 844 10.0 2.7 1.2 .302 75.3% 3.63 3.79 17.0

The Dodgers have finished outside of the top 5 in starter WAR once in the last decade — they finished 10th in 2020, largely because of strict innings limits (they were fifth in total pitching WAR). They responded by signing the best pitcher on the free agent market. So, uh, they’re pretty good.

Bauer is Bauer; I’ve said my piece there, but it’s worth noting that his 192 projected innings are useful for a team that wants to pace and protect some of its starters, either due to age or recovery from injury. Kershaw and Buehler join him as homegrown holdovers; they form an imposing top-of-rotation trio that feels frankly unfair when backed by Los Angeles’s potent lineup. Kershaw was resurgent last year, posting his highest strikeout rate since 2017, his lowest walk rate since 2016, and a 1 mph uptick in fastball velocity. Buehler had an off year, though a .198 BABIP flattered his results; it hardly feels fair to call our projections a bounce back, given that we think his ERA will barely decline.

Behind that enviable top group, the Dodgers have four arms for two rotation spots. Urías has been electric in a hybrid role, but his long-term home is in the rotation. He increased his curveball usage mightily in 2020, and it paid dividends; mixing breaking balls kept hitters from identifying either as easily. Price isn’t the Cy Young candidate he once was, but when healthy he’s been a perfectly effective starter, and spotting him some innings in the bullpen to ease him back into pitching after missing 2020 seems like a prudent approach.

May and Gonsolin project similarly, on a per-inning basis, to the two lefties. They’ll split time between the rotation and ‘pen as well. Gray is waiting in the wings, though the sheer bulk of qualified starters in front of him limits his potential impact. Load management aside, the Dodgers have seven starters for five spots, an enviable place to be.

3. Yankees
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Gerrit Cole 200 12.0 2.4 1.3 .306 77.1% 3.38 3.34 5.5
Corey Kluber 155 9.1 2.3 1.5 .303 73.7% 4.06 4.18 2.7
Jordan Montgomery 125 8.8 3.0 1.4 .306 72.9% 4.29 4.35 2.1
Jameson Taillon 134 8.0 2.4 1.5 .308 71.2% 4.52 4.53 2.0
Domingo Germán 78 9.6 3.0 1.6 .304 72.6% 4.51 4.54 1.1
Deivi García 79 9.7 3.9 1.6 .306 72.4% 4.70 4.80 1.1
Luis Severino 85 9.8 2.5 1.3 .306 75.1% 3.76 3.85 1.9
Michael King 13 7.8 2.6 1.5 .306 70.8% 4.60 4.65 0.2
Jhoulys Chacín 8 7.4 3.7 1.7 .301 70.0% 5.31 5.48 0.1
Clarke Schmidt 6 8.3 3.9 1.4 .309 70.8% 4.80 4.89 0.1
Total 883 9.6 2.7 1.4 .306 73.6% 4.10 4.15 16.7

If this one looks optimistic to you, I find it hard to disagree. It’s not a matter of the ace — Cole is great, and I’m not worried about his trouble with the long ball in 2020; no one is immune to having that happen to them once in a while. His velocity was stable, his slider was as deadly as ever, and he generally looked like the ace the Yankees expected when they signed him. He has the second-best projection in the majors, and that sounds about right to me.

But past that, it’s a ton of arms with injury histories and question marks. Kluber has thrown 36.2 innings in the last two years, and it’s hard to guess how effective he’ll be upon his return. His velocity was down slightly this spring, but he missed the last two seasons! There’s an absolute ton of risk there, which explains why he got only a one-year deal.

He’s not even the riskiest of the group. Taillon missed all of 2020 and most of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and his velocity has been down in spring training. We have him penciled in as comfortably above average, but we also have him down for an innings total he’s only reached once in his major league career. Sure feels risky to me.

Montgomery hardly pitched in 2018 and ’19, but he was back and good last year, so he’s a relative bastion of stability. García is a live arm, but he hasn’t done it in the major leagues yet. Germán was suspended for all of last season, and his relationship with his teammates is strained, to put it charitably. Severino could return late this summer, but that’s heavily dependent on how his rehab goes. Some of these arms will surely pan out, but this is a lot of volatility for a top rotation.

4. Mets
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Jacob deGrom 204 11.7 2.2 1.0 .300 78.2% 2.81 2.85 6.3
Marcus Stroman 163 7.7 3.0 1.0 .305 73.5% 3.86 4.08 2.6
Taijuan Walker 138 8.3 3.3 1.4 .304 73.1% 4.37 4.62 1.4
Carlos Carrasco 102 10.7 2.5 1.2 .305 75.8% 3.48 3.56 2.2
David Peterson 103 8.0 3.6 1.1 .303 73.0% 4.11 4.37 1.2
Noah Syndergaard 96 9.1 2.4 1.1 .308 73.1% 3.73 3.71 2.0
Joey Lucchesi 59 9.0 3.2 1.3 .306 73.3% 4.15 4.28 0.8
Jordan Yamamoto 25 8.4 4.1 1.7 .298 70.1% 5.19 5.30 0.1
Seth Lugo 8 10.0 2.2 1.4 .303 74.2% 3.84 3.91 0.1
Total 898 9.4 2.8 1.2 .304 74.3% 3.73 3.86 16.6

The Mets have a great rotation, but in fairness, deGrom and four bags of peanuts would be a pretty solid rotation as well. He’s already without equal, and he just keeps throwing harder every year; he’s putting together a Hall of Fame career despite a late start, and there’s no reason to think that his moonshot trajectory won’t continue.

The rest of the rotation has some interesting names, too. Stroman opted out of 2020 (he was going to miss a decent amount of the year with injury anyway), but his velocity looks good and a new splitter looks like a solid complement to his sinker-heavy approach. Carrasco’s hamstring injury only adds to uncertainty about his availability, but he’s been consistently excellent when healthy, and the team thinks he could return by May. Syndergaard could return for the second half of the year if his rehab goes well. When he and Carrasco are back, the top of the rotation will be imposing.

The Mets must be overjoyed that they signed Walker, because he’ll need to provide bulk innings, a role he seems perfectly suited for. His strikeout, walk, and batted ball metrics are all roughly average, a step up from the back-end starters the team has used in recent years. Peterson and Lucchesi fit that mold too, and Yamamoto isn’t far off. This would be a talented but risky rotation without deGrom, a middle-of-the-road group. His presence places them solidly in the top tier.

5. Nationals
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Patrick Corbin 187 9.4 2.8 1.3 .322 74.3% 4.02 3.97 3.6
Max Scherzer 178 11.8 2.3 1.3 .312 77.3% 3.38 3.37 4.8
Stephen Strasburg 164 9.8 2.7 1.2 .313 74.0% 3.77 3.74 4.0
Jon Lester 131 7.6 3.1 1.7 .320 70.9% 5.11 5.05 0.9
Joe Ross 109 7.6 3.3 1.6 .316 69.6% 5.12 5.01 0.9
Erick Fedde 45 6.9 3.5 1.4 .316 70.1% 5.05 5.03 0.3
Rogelio Armenteros 31 8.6 3.7 1.7 .313 70.9% 5.16 5.14 0.2
Austin Voth 22 8.5 3.0 1.7 .314 70.6% 4.94 4.88 0.2
Ben Braymer 13 7.4 4.2 1.7 .313 70.2% 5.45 5.52 0.0
Kyle McGowin 6 9.3 3.1 1.4 .317 70.9% 4.57 4.41 0.1
Total 888 9.3 2.9 1.4 .317 73.0% 4.28 4.24 15.0

Mind the gap — between the top three starters and the rest, that is. Scherzer and Strasburg still look great, though there are of course concerns; Strasburg missed nearly all of 2020 with carpal tunnel neuritis. It’s not a common baseball injury, so the prognosis isn’t obvious, but it’s clearly not a good thing that he’ll have to regain his feel for pitching on the fly. Scherzer is now 36. He’s been seemingly immune to aging so far, and struck out 31.2% of batters in an uneven 2020. People have been predicting Scherzer’s decline for years, and he’s continually proven them wrong, but eventually, he has to fade… right?

Corbin, who we project for more innings than the two aces of the staff, scares me. He looked rough last year; he lost nearly 2 mph of velocity, and his swinging strike rate plummeted to 10.6%. When he was at his peak from 2018-19, that hovered near 15%, and it won’t surprise you to learn that losing almost a third of your swinging strikes results in fewer strikeouts — 8.2 percentage points fewer strikeouts, in his case. His dominance always felt tenuous — he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher, and he needs his fastball to cow batters so that his slider can bamboozle them. No cow, no bamboozle — and that appears to be where we’re headed.

Lester is a lottery ticket. He looked cooked last year, but the Nats are hoping it was just a combination of bad luck and a weird year, which is definitely in the realm of possibility. Ross opted out of last season, so we’re light on data, but I’m higher on him than our projections; if nothing else, he’s a solid source of innings. Past that, it’s anyone’s guess. Armenteros got waived by both the D-backs and Astros, Fedde walks almost as many as he strikes out, and the less said about Voth’s 2020, the better. It’s a testament to their big three that even this back of the rotation can’t bring them down.

6. Reds
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Luis Castillo 183 10.6 3.2 1.1 .309 74.7% 3.59 3.59 4.2
Sonny Gray 154 10.1 3.6 1.1 .307 74.0% 3.85 3.89 3.1
Tyler Mahle 138 9.7 3.2 1.5 .315 72.2% 4.50 4.44 2.2
Wade Miley 131 7.8 3.9 1.3 .315 71.5% 4.76 4.83 1.2
Michael Lorenzen 71 8.9 3.9 1.3 .309 72.1% 4.43 4.49 1.0
Tejay Antone 65 8.8 3.8 1.3 .311 71.7% 4.49 4.50 0.9
Nick Lodolo 26 8.9 2.9 1.3 .298 71.9% 4.13 4.22 0.4
Jeff Hoffman 26 9.6 3.8 1.5 .313 71.1% 4.82 4.72 0.3
Tony Santillan 17 7.6 4.6 1.7 .308 69.6% 5.64 5.71 0.0
José De León 6 11.0 5.3 1.5 .314 72.8% 4.88 4.95 0.1
Total 817 9.5 3.6 1.3 .311 72.8% 4.23 4.25 13.6

“Counting on Wade Miley” is usually not where you want to be in life, but here the Reds are. Castillo is awesome; he was already great before 2020, then added a tick of velocity and started bullying hitters in the strike zone, raising his strikeout rate while limiting walks. You can’t hit what you can’t see, and batters looked blind against him. Gray is right there with him; judicious use of two breaking pitches has unlocked a new level for him, though a nagging back injury limits how many starts we think he’ll make.

Mahle was effectively wild last year; he missed the zone more often than ever, but unleashed a new cutter that opponents swung through 42.5% of the time, which led to a sharp increase in strikeout rate. It’s a volatile profile, but also a valuable one; the Reds are banking on their ability to harness his newfound stuff while sanding down the edges. Lorenzen is blazing a path Antone hopes to follow, going from relief weapon to swing starter with upper-90s heat and a nasty slider.

But again, they’re counting on Miley for 130 innings of competent pitching. You can always hope for 2019 Miley (4.51 FIP, 1.9 WAR in 167 innings), but his career has been all over the place; healthy and good, healthy but bad, injured but good, injured and bad. Our projection, which works out to “sometimes healthy and sometimes good,” is the weak link here, though honestly, he might stand out less on a team with more question marks. The Reds just have so much going on elsewhere that Miley’s relatively ordinary projection is a strong contrast.

7. White Sox
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Lance Lynn 190 9.8 3.0 1.5 .304 74.7% 4.09 4.30 3.1
Dallas Keuchel 183 6.9 2.9 1.2 .304 72.0% 4.28 4.49 2.5
Lucas Giolito 174 11.5 3.1 1.2 .299 76.0% 3.52 3.56 4.2
Dylan Cease 125 9.1 4.4 1.3 .307 72.7% 4.58 4.74 1.3
Carlos Rodón 75 9.0 4.0 1.5 .308 72.2% 4.72 4.85 0.9
Michael Kopech 58 9.4 4.6 1.3 .307 72.0% 4.61 4.74 0.7
Reynaldo López 45 8.1 3.3 1.6 .299 71.4% 4.80 4.96 0.5
Jonathan Stiever 29 7.6 2.7 2.1 .303 67.6% 5.66 5.65 0.1
Bernardo Flores Jr. 11 6.2 2.6 1.4 .308 71.3% 4.58 4.77 0.1
Total 889 9.1 3.4 1.4 .304 73.2% 4.26 4.41 13.5

The White Sox have a little bit of everything at the top of their rotation. Lynn has been a borderline ace the past few years; he probably won’t match his stellar 2019, but since diversifying from sinkers to cutters, he’s added strikeout stuff to a contact-management profile. Even without that strikeout oomph, though, contact management and control play well, something Keuchel has demonstrated in recent years. His pinpoint command and grounder-inducing arsenal give him a solid floor, even as he’s lost velocity and whiffs from his salad days in Houston. At some point, he’ll presumably lose enough velocity that the whole package falls apart, but I see no reason to expect that this year; his mastery of the corners more than makes up for a few ticks on the heater.

While those two have the most projected innings, Giolito is the main attraction here. He’s increasingly leaning on a changeup he throws two ways — he threw changeups on a third of his pitches in 2020, completely mothballing the hammer curve he showed as a prospect. He’s already one of the best pitchers in baseball, and if he can tighten up his control somewhat (he walked 9.7% of opposing batters last year), there’s still plenty of room to improve. He’s no longer a dark horse Cy Young candidate, but a bona fide contender for best arm in the AL.

After those three horses, the South Siders are going for a defense in depth. Cease had an xFIP near six last year, but if he can iron out the wrinkles in his fastball and stop walking 13.3% of his opponents, he has the stuff to excel. Kopech hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since 2018, but he has top-of-rotation stuff. Rodón’s star has faded, and he’s also hardly pitched the past two years, but he’s shown occasional glimpses — a bullying fastball here, a diving slider there — of the stuff that made him a top prospect. López was abysmal last year, but decent before that; he’s starting the season in the minors, where he can hopefully work on his fastball, which was both wild and hittable last year. Keep an eye on Stiever; he was dominant in the minors in 2019, but his fastball slowed down in 2020. If he gets that velo back, he could solidify the back end of the rotation along with whichever other pitcher pans out.

8. Braves
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Max Fried 144 9.0 3.3 1.0 .320 73.2% 3.87 3.87 2.6
Charlie Morton 161 9.8 2.9 1.0 .314 73.6% 3.70 3.72 3.3
Drew Smyly 116 10.3 3.4 1.5 .313 73.2% 4.38 4.33 1.4
Mike Soroka 139 7.5 2.6 1.1 .309 72.0% 4.01 4.08 2.2
Ian Anderson 130 10.2 4.5 1.2 .311 73.5% 4.18 4.25 1.8
Kyle Wright 52 8.6 3.9 1.2 .316 70.6% 4.66 4.54 0.5
Bryse Wilson 39 8.6 2.9 1.4 .311 71.7% 4.44 4.41 0.5
Huascar Ynoa 13 8.9 4.6 1.3 .314 71.2% 4.76 4.77 0.1
Tucker Davidson 16 8.1 5.0 1.1 .313 70.9% 4.79 4.83 0.1
Touki Toussaint 6 10.4 4.7 1.2 .316 72.9% 4.32 4.36 0.1
Total 816 9.2 3.4 1.2 .313 72.8% 4.09 4.11 12.7

Atlanta had a down pitching year in 2020, with Fried and Anderson carrying an otherwise leaky ship. One reason for those leaks: Soroka, who was phenomenal in 2019, suffered a freak Achilles injury in his third start. He won’t be ready to start the season, but the team expects him back in April, which explains his relatively optimistic innings projection. Combine him with Fried, whose slider/curve mix teases strikeout upside, and you have a great young pitching core. Anderson is making a bid to join that group; his rookie debut was downright electric, though he’ll have to show that he can keep the walks under control.

Of course, that’s just the returning young starters, and Atlanta spent in free agency to make sure they have help. Morton has the best projection among all Atlanta starters; he’s now 37, and I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve wondered if his late-career renaissance is at an end, but he just keeps pumping out curve after curve, and the marginal wins he brings will be of utmost importance in a tight NL East race. Smyly is a discount version of Morton; he also signed a one-year deal, and provides floor more so than ceiling, but every team could use that.

If Smyly loses a spot in the rotation, that’s probably a good sign for Atlanta, because it means one of Wilson or Wright, two electric prospects who haven’t yet put it together at the major league level, has forced him out. Wright looks more like a reliever than a starter to me, but the Braves are hoping to prove me wrong, and his minor league numbers provide hope. Wilson didn’t miss many bats last year, and his walk rates were dire, so something needs to change. If it does, he has mid-order upside, though, and the signing of Smyly makes that a pleasant possibility instead of a necessity for a functional rotation.

9. Brewers
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Brandon Woodruff 154 10.5 2.8 1.1 .309 74.3% 3.62 3.61 3.6
Corbin Burnes 128 10.9 3.5 1.1 .310 74.2% 3.76 3.74 2.7
Adrian Houser 116 8.2 3.3 1.2 .311 71.7% 4.31 4.36 1.5
Brett Anderson 129 5.9 2.5 1.2 .309 70.4% 4.47 4.55 1.4
Josh Lindblom 102 9.1 2.5 1.5 .309 71.4% 4.45 4.35 1.5
Freddy Peralta 71 11.3 4.0 1.4 .301 73.7% 4.16 4.21 1.1
Eric Lauer 44 8.7 3.5 1.6 .311 71.4% 4.82 4.86 0.3
Drew Rasmussen 19 11.1 4.4 1.2 .309 74.7% 4.05 4.16 0.3
Jordan Zimmermann 7 7.5 2.1 1.8 .314 69.2% 5.17 5.03 0.0
Alec Bettinger 9 8.4 3.1 1.7 .305 71.2% 4.87 4.96 0.1
Total 779 9.2 3.1 1.3 .309 72.5% 4.15 4.16 12.5

Free Freddy! Peralta has never gotten consistent starts, but he deserves them; his stuff is downright electric, as evidenced by his career 12.6% swinging strike rate, and a new slider gives him more options as he works his way through lineups. He’s sitting 94-95 in spring training, an increase from 2020, and while it would be easier to see him as a starter if he developed a better changeup, a lack of offerings against lefties seems to be the only thing holding him back from a true breakthrough.

The guys in front of him aren’t exactly slouches. Woodruff is close to a proven commodity at this point — he’s a borderline top 10 starter in baseball — but Burnes could be even better than that. He scrapped his cut-heavy four-seamer in favor of a cutter and a sinker last year, and the differentiated grips unlocked his massive potential. I think the projections are underselling him despite their general buy-in; he’s projected for the 22nd-best run prevention numbers among starters, but he’s knocking on the door of the top 10 in my personal estimation.

The rest of the rotation is a collection of players whose best cases are interesting, though all in different ways. Lindblom’s kitchen-sink approach — he threw six pitches at least 9% of the time — and offseason of pitch tweaks make me excited to see what he can do in a full season. Houser’s bowling-ball sinker supports absurd groundball rates (hello, Kolten Wong!), and he showed bat-missing stuff in 2019; if he puts the two together, look out. Anderson — well, if you think Anderson has been oozing potential for a decade, you’re actually two years short. Injuries are always a concern, as is declining velocity, but he’s been effective when available, and has thrown two full-ish seasons in a row.

Of the second tier of rotation projections, I think the Brewers have the best chance to over-deliver. Burnes and Peralta, in particular, could blow past our projections. I’m wildly optimistic here, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that they get to face the NL Central, perhaps the weakest-hitting division in the game.

10. Phillies
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Aaron Nola 188 10.5 3.0 1.1 .307 74.6% 3.62 3.64 4.2
Zack Wheeler 180 8.6 2.5 1.3 .307 72.1% 4.07 4.07 3.2
Zach Eflin 166 8.6 2.6 1.5 .311 71.7% 4.54 4.50 2.1
Matt Moore 117 8.4 3.3 1.9 .311 70.6% 5.31 5.34 0.6
Chase Anderson 65 8.3 3.2 1.9 .295 71.6% 5.07 5.35 0.4
Vince Velasquez 58 10.4 3.4 1.6 .311 73.7% 4.40 4.44 0.9
Spencer Howard 53 9.5 3.5 1.5 .308 71.9% 4.61 4.62 0.7
Adonis Medina 17 7.4 4.2 1.7 .306 69.0% 5.48 5.55 0.0
Ranger Suárez 6 7.5 3.1 1.2 .310 71.4% 4.43 4.48 0.1
Total 850 9.1 3.0 1.5 .308 72.3% 4.40 4.43 12.2

Wait, that Matt Moore? Indeed, the erstwhile Ray is a key member of the Phillies rotation this year, which goes a long way toward explaining why I’m not sold on our projections. He pitched an effective season in the NPB last year, but he hasn’t been an effective big league starter in a while, and he’s not even the fifth starter; that honor falls on Anderson, who landed in Philly after a brutal 2020 led Toronto to cut him loose. He showed some interesting tools despite his rough year, but it’s hard to get too excited until he cuts down on the homers — he gave up a comical 2.94 per nine innings last year.

If those guys aren’t good, the team needs Howard to put it all together. His debut last year wasn’t encouraging, but the stuff is certainly there — when he’s healthy. He’s struggled with injuries, and he and Eflin both look likely to miss the start of the season. That means starts for Velasquez, who is better suited as a high-leverage reliever, though he’s certainly capable of soaking up some innings. Eflin junked his four-seamer for a sinker last year and took off; his injury aside, he looks like a worthy sidekick to Nola. And Nola, who I’ve studiously avoided so far in this writeup, is a stud; there’s nothing about his game to critique, and he hit another strikeout gear last year. Nola and Eflin will have to carry an otherwise risky unit, which explains why they don’t place higher, but I’m excited to see them pitch, and hopeful that Howard will join them atop the rotation.

11. Blue Jays
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Hyun Jin Ryu 173 8.3 2.1 1.2 .308 74.3% 3.78 3.92 3.4
Robbie Ray 158 11.8 4.7 1.4 .307 75.3% 4.24 4.36 2.6
Tanner Roark 132 7.7 3.1 1.6 .310 70.2% 5.04 5.06 1.2
Steven Matz 115 8.6 3.2 1.5 .310 71.2% 4.71 4.72 1.3
Nate Pearson 110 9.2 3.4 1.4 .306 72.8% 4.35 4.44 1.9
Ross Stripling 52 8.6 2.5 1.5 .313 72.9% 4.33 4.32 0.8
Trent Thornton 45 8.4 3.0 1.4 .311 70.9% 4.65 4.56 0.6
Tyler Chatwood 13 9.1 5.2 1.1 .308 71.8% 4.58 4.66 0.2
T.J. Zeuch 18 5.5 3.5 1.4 .308 68.1% 5.35 5.35 0.1
Anthony Kay 6 8.6 4.5 1.4 .306 71.2% 4.81 4.91 0.1
Tommy Milone 8 7.3 2.2 2.0 .309 69.5% 5.33 5.31 0.0
Total 830 9.0 3.2 1.4 .309 72.6% 4.42 4.49 12.1

This one feels optimistic. Ryu’s projection feels light; his 3.26 xFIP over the last three years doesn’t exactly scream regression to me, and his guile-based game eases any worries about a fastball that no longer tops 90 mph. Everyone else flat-out terrifies me, though. Ray is projected as a solid second starter, which will require him shaking off his experimental new delivery that led to wild control problems; he’ll also have to regain feel for his curveball. It could happen, and if Ray finishes the season with a 3.50 ERA, I’d hardly be surprised — but I think our projections for his median outcome are too flattering.

Behind that, the Jays are hoping for competent innings out of a mixture of reclamation projects and top prospects. Roark fell apart last year, to the tune of a 6.80 ERA and 5.84 xFIP, but his prior history as a league-average starter still buoys his projections somewhat. I’m not buying it; a velo dip and bump in walk rate are worrisome signs, and he’s lost even more off of his fastball so far this spring. That’s absolutely not what you want to see, and he’s third in their depth chart.

Matz had an even worse 2020, albeit in only 30 innings. It feels like he needs a pitch mix overhaul, because his sinker has gotten consistently knocked around, but it’s hard to find a pillar he can build the rest of his arsenal off of when batters have been crushing everything of late. Stripling — well, you’ve heard this story; he was awful in 2020 after being good beforehand. I’m higher on him than I am the rest of this group, but it’s no coincidence that the Blue Jays are using him the same way the Dodgers did; a multi-inning reliever with a bonus mode as a spot starter.

That leaves Pearson, the team’s top pitching prospect. He touches 100 and throws a mean slider, but he’s had trouble staying healthy, and missed time last year with elbow tightness. Shocker: he’ll miss the start of the season as he rehabs from a groin injury. He might be a per-inning monster, but I can’t see the Jays getting enough starts out of him to make up for the mediocrity in the bottom half of the rotation.

12. Twins
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
José Berríos 174 9.3 2.9 1.3 .306 73.1% 4.07 4.13 3.0
Kenta Maeda 144 9.7 3.0 1.4 .305 72.5% 4.22 4.16 2.6
Michael Pineda 154 8.1 2.2 1.6 .313 71.0% 4.62 4.51 2.3
J.A. Happ 133 8.1 3.1 1.4 .304 71.2% 4.58 4.61 1.6
Matt Shoemaker 104 8.4 3.2 1.6 .301 70.9% 4.84 4.90 1.0
Randy Dobnak 58 6.0 2.6 1.2 .313 69.7% 4.61 4.62 0.7
Devin Smeltzer 26 7.2 2.7 1.7 .306 70.0% 5.02 5.08 0.2
Lewis Thorpe 19 8.6 3.1 1.6 .313 72.5% 4.70 4.76 0.2
Jhoan Duran 17 8.1 4.2 1.3 .311 70.6% 4.83 4.85 0.2
Jordan Balazovic 9 7.5 4.4 1.7 .303 69.7% 5.46 5.55 0.0
Shaun Anderson 6 7.6 3.5 1.5 .310 70.4% 5.01 5.00 0.1
Total 846 8.5 2.9 1.4 .307 71.6% 4.49 4.49 11.9

How much you like the Twins’ pitching depends heavily on how much you believe in Berríos. Personally, I’m in. Even in an uneven 2020 season, he showed flashes of greatness, and his four-seamer was sitting 94-96 by season’s end, which added some whiffs to an already-enticing profile. He probably doesn’t have the unquestioned-ace upside that he flashed as a prospect, but the risk doesn’t feel particularly high either; if you’re looking for 30 starts of excellent pitching, Berríos will deliver.

Maeda was the team’s ace last year, and his projection feels light; he frequently looked better than his results in Los Angeles, and put it all together last year in a full-time starter’s role. His splitter, which he’s leaned on more in recent seasons, was downright disgusting; batters whiffed on 44.5% of their swings against it, and they chased frequently; on 50% of his out-of-zone splitters, to be precise. That turbo-charged his strikeouts, while a slider he can spot for a strike let him get back into counts without gifting batters an endless diet of fastballs.

Like most teams in this mid-league range, the rest of the rotation is in the eye of the beholder. Pineda gets a solid projection, and he’s been a consistently solid piece when available; it feels weird that 154 innings of 4.51 FIP pitching is worth 2.3 WAR, but these are the times we live in, and Pineda has been better than that over the course of his career. Happ might be nearing the end of the road, but even in decline, he’s a valuable source of bulk competence. Shoemaker guarantees neither bulk nor competence, but when he’s on, his splitter carries his otherwise unspectacular pitch mix, and you could do a lot worse as a fifth starter. This leaves out the newly-extended Dobnak; if I were the Twins, I’d find some way to get him into the rotation, but injuries will likely do it for them before long. If he can miss just a few more bats, he could be a top-end starter; his sinker already gives him an enviable base to work off of.

13. Mariners
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Marco Gonzales 176 7.2 2.2 1.4 .305 72.1% 4.32 4.48 2.8
Yusei Kikuchi 151 8.3 3.1 1.3 .305 72.2% 4.33 4.46 1.9
Justus Sheffield 143 8.1 4.2 1.2 .309 72.6% 4.49 4.71 1.7
James Paxton 130 10.2 2.9 1.3 .303 74.7% 3.84 3.87 2.6
Justin Dunn 106 8.4 4.3 1.7 .301 71.2% 5.12 5.32 0.7
Chris Flexen 58 9.4 3.3 1.4 .307 73.1% 4.32 4.39 0.8
Logan Gilbert 59 8.7 3.1 1.6 .303 72.3% 4.62 4.76 0.6
Nick Margevicius 19 7.4 2.6 1.6 .307 71.0% 4.73 4.83 0.2
Ljay Newsome 14 7.4 1.9 1.9 .303 71.3% 4.94 5.13 0.1
Total 857 8.4 3.2 1.4 .305 72.5% 4.42 4.56 11.4

As a card-carrying member of Team Marco dating back to his days as a Cardinals prospect, I’m overjoyed by his transformation into a rotation mainstay. The elite command he’s always displayed makes his pitch mix play up; he might never strike out 30% of his opponents, but getting ahead, limiting hard contact, and drawing called strikes with painted fastballs is a perfectly viable way to pitch. That might bore team officials, but it also wins baseball games, a pretty solid tradeoff if you ask me.

Gonzales might have the best WAR projection on the club, but he doesn’t have the best rate stats; that honor goes to Paxton, one of the classic great-or-hurt pitchers of our time. He’s popping 97 mph in Cactus League games, showing no ill effects after an injury-marred 2020 season, and might be the bargain of the offseason if he can stay healthy.

Kikuchi boasts neither the soaring highs nor rock-solid consistency of his rotation-mates, but a new cutter led to a far better season in 2020. He didn’t quite get there on the ERA front thanks to an abysmal 59.9% LOB%, but he induced more grounders, missed more bats, and added two ticks to his fastball — his FIP declined by 2.41, and it wasn’t just home run luck; his xFIP fell by 1.40. If he can harness his newly-hot fastball — and he does need to harness it, as his 10.3% walk rate is a problem — he’ll be far above average as a third starter.

Sheffield probably isn’t as good as he looked in 2020. Dunn probably isn’t as bad as he looked in 2020. Flexen shoved in the KBO after a gruesome career with the Mets, so he’s a mystery box. The three of them will pitch plenty this year, at least until Gilbert, the team’s top pitching prospect, arrives. Though the team is still a long-shot to make the playoffs, the pitching should be solid this year.

14. Cardinals
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Jack Flaherty 176 10.9 2.9 1.2 .297 75.8% 3.48 3.63 3.6
Kwang Hyun Kim 163 7.7 2.6 1.2 .305 73.3% 4.04 4.26 2.1
Adam Wainwright 151 7.8 3.1 1.4 .310 71.7% 4.53 4.63 1.5
Carlos Martínez 133 8.0 3.7 1.2 .305 71.3% 4.46 4.57 1.6
Miles Mikolas 103 7.2 1.8 1.3 .305 72.0% 4.08 4.24 1.5
Daniel Ponce de Leon 58 9.8 4.6 1.4 .297 72.7% 4.48 4.68 0.5
John Gant 32 8.3 4.1 1.1 .300 72.4% 4.27 4.45 0.4
Johan Oviedo 29 7.9 5.5 1.3 .307 70.6% 5.19 5.39 0.0
Jake Woodford 19 7.5 4.3 1.6 .300 70.4% 5.22 5.42 0.0
Angel Rondón 9 7.5 4.1 1.5 .301 70.8% 5.01 5.22 0.0
Total 874 8.5 3.2 1.3 .304 72.7% 4.19 4.35 11.3

Flaherty’s results in 2020 were poor. He never got in rhythm, and his strikeout rate declined while his walk rate increased, the exact opposite of what you’d hope for after his breakout 2019. Even then, though, his fielding-independent numbers were solid; he actually put up the lowest xFIP of his career, and Statcast metrics show he wasn’t hit any harder than he was before; batters simply ran into far more homers than normal. That explains his projections, which see him as a front-of-rotation stud.

The rest of the starters are a grab bag of uncertain projection and injury risk. Kim started 2020 as a closer, closed the year as a starter, and heads into this year as a key rotation cog, though probably closer to a fourth starter than his position on this list. He hardly struck anyone out, but made up for it with grounders. His 1.62 ERA is nowhere near a fair assessment of his ability, but it’s not hard to see an average pitcher here, particularly with a year of MLB pitching under his belt. Wainwright keeps on chugging, and continues to throw his curveball for strikes often enough to offset his hittable fastball. Could this be the year it stops working? Absolutely. But I’ve said that before, and he just keeps going, churning out valuable league-average innings for a stretched staff.

If Mikolas were healthy, or if Martínez could turn back the clock, it would go a long way towards stabilizing the rotation. As it is, neither of those things are true, which means Ponce de Leon and his befuddling fastball will pick up plenty of starts, though the team would rather use him out of the bullpen. Gant, too, looks more like a multi-inning reliever, but he’ll need to help compensate for Mikolas’s absence. Just about the only swingman we haven’t projected for starts is Alex Reyes, and while the team almost certainly plans on using him as a starter eventually, they’re trying to keep him in the bullpen to limit his innings for now, which puts a lot of pressure on everyone else.

15. Cleveland
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Shane Bieber 192 11.0 1.9 1.2 .315 75.1% 3.39 3.20 5.2
Zach Plesac 160 8.0 2.7 1.5 .303 71.2% 4.62 4.67 2.0
Aaron Civale 150 7.5 2.3 1.6 .309 70.4% 4.72 4.71 1.5
Triston McKenzie 117 9.5 3.3 1.7 .303 71.2% 4.78 4.81 1.2
Logan Allen 84 8.1 4.0 1.6 .309 70.4% 5.11 5.19 0.5
Cal Quantrill 65 7.8 2.9 1.5 .315 69.7% 4.89 4.76 0.7
Sam Hentges 29 7.4 4.9 1.7 .305 69.9% 5.62 5.78 0.0
Eli Morgan 26 7.6 3.1 1.9 .305 69.8% 5.39 5.44 0.1
Scott Moss 21 8.8 4.8 1.6 .306 71.1% 5.13 5.25 0.1
Jean Carlos Mejía 6 7.3 4.2 1.2 .307 70.7% 4.79 4.89 0.1
Total 850 8.8 2.8 1.5 .309 71.5% 4.52 4.50 11.3

Admit it — you kept wondering when Cleveland would pop up in this list. With Bieber, one of the best three or so pitchers in baseball, at the forefront, this ranking feels low. The projections, though, think that the club’s unending ability to spin straw into above-average big league starters will hit a bump in the road this year. That’s no fault of Bieber’s — that 5.2 WAR you see up there is downright excellent, and though we expect him to falter somewhat in terms of contact management, that matters a lot less when you’re striking out 31% of the batters you face.

Sadly, you can’t make the whole rotation out of Bieber, and things fall off quickly. Plesac shoved in 2020, and I think our projections are too low; a curveball adjustment helped the pitch play off of his fastball, and he started spotting his slider on the fringes of the zone more effectively; his 42.6% shadow rate on sliders was 14th among heavy slider users last year. That led to a huge uptick in chases, which in turn led to a strikeout spike. Projection systems can throw all the shade they want; i’m inclined to believe the improvement.

Past that, we’re getting into wishcasting territory. Civale could continue to impress, but he doesn’t have the bat-missing stuff that would make me confident in that prediction. McKenzie showed ludicrous stuff in his big league debut, but also got hit hard when he wasn’t missing bats. The team will likely limit his workload, to boot; even if he’s great, an innings limit is probably in order given his checkered injury history and a worrisome velocity dip in the middle of last season.

If those two are maybes, the next tier down is more of a shrug emoji. Allen has gotten shelled in his brief career, and he badly needs a chase pitch; his changeup is the best candidate, but I think one of his breaking pitches will have to take a step forward for him to make the whole package work. Quantrill is in a similar boat; he throws his slider 35% of the time, but had trouble inducing chases with it. Batters mostly held off, then swung away when he was forced to take the slider into the zone, much to Quantrill’s detriment. That leaves Hentges, Morgan, and Moss; none of the three move the needle. It’s foolish to assume Cleveland won’t manufacture more good young pitching, but until they prove it this year, I’ll remain skeptical.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Between the Yankees and Blue Jays here and the Red Sox on the other list, the AL East is full of teams where you look at the rotation and keep thinking “you’re relying on WHO to do WHAT?” At least the Rays don’t even pretend they have more than 3 starters and the Orioles know they’re going to be bad.