Predicting MLB's 15 Best Starting Rotations of the Future
Five years from now, Shelby Miller could be the ace of a St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff that leads the league in every major category.
Alternatively, he could be out of the league altogether while the 2018 Cardinals wind up allowing more earned runs than any other team in the history of baseball.
The moral, of course, is that we have no idea what the future holds. Players who are currently projecting as future All-Stars for Team A could get injured or traded to Team B—or in many cases, both. The further out you try to project, the more it resembles science fiction.
But based on the knowledge that we have and the promise that we see in these young pitchers today, here's a prognosis of the best starting rotations in the years to come.
If these aren't 100 percent accurate five years from now, be sure to look me up and ask for a refund.
*All statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs.com, ESPN.com and MLB.com and are accurate through the start of play on Wednesday, July 3.
First and foremost, no one over the age of 27 will be considered part of the potential starting rotations of the future. The reason we marvel at Bartolo Colon's ability to maintain effectiveness into his early-40's is because most pitchers begin to lose their effectiveness in their mid-30's. 27 is an arbitrary place to draw the line, but it had to be drawn somewhere.
On the subject of scouting prospects, I neither claim nor pretend to be an expert. I exclusively used MLB.com's prospect watch to determine which minor league pitchers belong in the discussion and then looked at their stats on FanGraphs.com to figure out which ones have actually shown some promise this year.
If a player was ranked as a Top 100 prospect—or especially if a player was ranked as a Top 10 RHP or Top 10 LHP—I operated under the assumption that they will eventually make it into a big league starting rotation.
From there, the actual rankings are just educated guesses based on what these pitchers have already shown, with preference for the teams with young talent already producing at the major league level and/or teams with more than five legitimate candidates for a starting job in the future.
No. 15: Boston Red Sox
Projected Rotation: Felix Doubront, Allen Webster, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa
Even without the 28-year-old Clay Buchholz, the Red Sox should still have a strong rotation that is extremely prone to walks.
Webster hasn't posted a BB/9 below 3.50 since leaving rookie ball in 2009. Doubront only briefly dipped below that mark to 3.33 in Triple-A in 2011, but has averaged more than four walks per nine innings pitched in his 281.2 innings in the majors. The other three arms own small sample sizes, but they haven't exactly demonstrated better control in the minors.
All five guys have also posted very strong K/9 numbers to this point in their careers, so you're at least getting some good with the bad.
If you thought Red Sox games were already long, just wait until you see the pitch counts that these guys will run up in a span of five or six innings per start over the next five or six seasons.
No. 14: Minnesota Twins
Projected Rotation: Kyle Gibson, Scott Diamond, Alex Meyer, Vance Worley, Jose Berrios
Also in the Mix: Trevor May
Of those six names, only Diamond spent the month of June in the majors, and he hasn't exactly been the patron saint of quality starts this season.
With all of those prospects and projects, a lot of things would have to go perfectly according to plan. But as things stand today, the Twins should have the best starting rotation in the AL Central about half a dozen years from now.
The biggest variable in the equation is the guy who was the Opening Day starter for the Twins this past April. Worley quickly soured from ace material in 2011 to minor league castoff in 2013. Perhaps the pressure of being the top dog was more than he could handle, but they'll need him to at least perform like a middle-of-the-rotation guy in the future.
Gibson is already a stud, and Meyer should eventually get there if he can reduce his walks. Berrios has put up some incredible numbers in his first 90 innings in the minors, and he just turned 19 about six weeks ago.
Whether it's Worley or May, if the Twins can get one of the guys that they acquired from Philadelphia to be a reliable source of innings, they just might be able to get back to the playoffs before Joe Mauer retires.
No. 13: Pittsburgh Pirates
Projected Rotation: Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Jeff Locke, Luis Heredia, Phil Irwin
PNC Park has been buzzing about the first two names on that list since June 6, 2011.
The Pirates took Taillon second overall in the 2010 draft (in between some players named Bryce Harper and Manny Machado) and took Cole first overall the following year.
Cole has already made a solid impact with the big league club this season, and one has to assume that Taillon won't be much further behind him. By 2015, I would guess they'll be one of the five best one-two punches that any team has to offer.
Beyond that, though, things get a little sketchy.
Heredia is still only 18 years old, and the Pirates have yet to allow him to pitch more than five innings in a start. It will be a while before we see him in the majors, let alone determine if he's good enough to stay there.
No. 12: Baltimore Orioles
Projected Rotation: Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Zach Britton, Wei-Yin Chen, Eduardo Rodriguez
Also in the Mix: Jason Hammel
I have some serious doubts about this one, because there appears to be something fundamentally flawed with the Orioles' farm system.
Over the last 12 seasons, there have been 422 instances of a pitcher recording a WAR of at least 3.4 in a season. The White Sox have 27 of those instances. The Montreal Expos—who were only in existence for four of those 12 seasons—have six of them.
The Baltimore Orioles have a grand total of two, and they both belonged to Eric Bedard more than five years ago.
No matter how much optimism they have for guys like Bundy and Gausman, it's hard to believe they'll have one of the best rotations in baseball at any point in the near future—especially considering they just recently lost Bundy for the rest of this season.
Neither Britton nor Gausman has even remotely fulfilled promises at the big league level thus far, and Rodriguez is at least another two years away from the show. If this is one of the best rotations of the future, it's likely in the distant future.
No. 11: Miami Marlins
Projected Rotation: Jose Fernandez, Jacob Turner, Justin Nicolino, Nate Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney
Also in the Mix: Henderson Alvarez, Alex Sanabia, the prospect(s) they get for Ricky Nolasco at the trade deadline
Say what you will about the trade they made with the Blue Jays last November to finish getting every expensive piece of their payroll out of town, but the Marlins are building toward one heck of a run in the not-so-distant future.
Eovaldi is the oldest member of that projected rotation, and he just turned 23 this past February.
Fernandez (20 years old) and Turner (22) have already been displaying top-of-the-rotation stuff this season. Both Nicolino and Heaney are listed in the top seven among left-handed pitching prospects.
Frankly, the Marlins would be a good bit higher on this list if not for the eternal fear that they'll clean house and start over again without a moment's notice. If they keep that group together and the southpaw prospects work out as expected, they could have the best pitching staff in baseball three years from now.
No. 10: New York Mets
Projected Rotation: Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee
Also in the Mix: Jeremy Hefner, Rafael Montero
Lather, rinse and repeat the sentiments expressed about the Pirates a few slides ago, with the caveat that we have much more faith in the future of Harvey than we do Gerrit Cole.
Both Harvey and Wheeler are clearly going to be special and should be one of the best pitching duos for the next decade. And if Syndergaard's success in the low minors can even remotely translate to the majors in a few years, the Mets would likely have the best trio of starting pitchers in the National League.
Unfortunately, we're looking for the best five-man rotations.
If you're a Mets fan, you're hoping that Montero will be good enough to knock either Niese or Gee out of the rotation—which really just means you're hoping he doesn't completely self-destruct, because that should be more than enough to fit into the back-end of this rotation.
They've already got their aces, though. It shouldn't be too difficult to fix the question marks in the fourth and fifth spots in rotation via trade or free agency and eventually jump into the top five on this list. But based on what they've got today, they're just barely in the top 10.
No. 9: Oakland Athletics
Projected Rotation: Jarrod Parker, Brett Anderson, A.J. Griffin, Tommy Milone, Dan Straily
Also in the Mix: Sonny Gray, Michael Ynoa
If Anderson could just figure out how to stay healthy, the A's would be in impeccable shape for the next eight years or so.
All five of their projected starters are currently under the age of 27 and have already pitched at least 100 innings in the big leagues, which is more than any other team on the list can claim.
However, experience plus youth doesn't necessarily equal success. A.J. Griffin's 3.95 ERA is the best of the bunch at this point in the season. And Anderson—who has made all of five starts on the season—is the only one with an xFIP under 4.25.
We assume they'll improve as they gain more experience, but that's hardly a guarantee.
No. 8: Atlanta Braves
Projected Rotation: Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Alex Wood
Also in the Mix: J.R. Graham
It isn't quite Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery, but I suspect that fans in Atlanta will be more than content with their pitching staff of the future.
Over the past calendar year, Medlen has a 2.15 ERA as a starter, and Minor isn't far behind him at 2.61. With a 3.12 ERA, Teheran hasn't been quite as dominant, but he also isn't quite as polished just yet. The 22-year-old is having a breakout season and is looking like he has the talent to be at the top of the rotation very soon.
Wood had a 1.26 ERA in 10 starts at Double-A this season before getting the call to the big leagues. He has since struck out 21 batters in 15.2 innings of work. They'll likely convert him back to a starter once Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm are out of the picture, but that major league experience out of the 'pen during a pennant race should prove valuable.
Beachy's health is the giant elephant in the room. It's been over a year since his Tommy John surgery, and he still hasn't made it back to the mound despite five rehab starts a month ago. One would hope that these setbacks will be a distant memory just a few years from now, but they might be required to rely on Graham sooner than expected.
No. 7: Texas Rangers
Projected Rotation: Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, Nick Tepesch, Neil Ramirez
Also in the Mix: Matt Harrison, Justin Grimm, Martin Perez
Everyone has heard about Darvish's ridiculous strikeout numbers, but I sincerely doubt that as many people realize Holland is among the American League leaders in WAR this season. Both Darvish and Holland are just 26 years old, so the Rangers should be firmly anchored for quite some time.
The question marks begin in earnest beyond those two guys, though.
Fortunately, the Rangers have six viable options for the remaining three spots in the rotation.
Both Grimm and Tepesch have taken a fair amount of abuse from opposing batters this season, but they're both 24 years old and just now taking their first lumps at the major league level. At least one of them should pan out as a back-of-the-rotation type of guy.
Ramirez is the primary focal point of optimism. He has a K/9 rate of 11.09 in 86 innings at Double-A this season. If he can chop down his walk rate to a more acceptable number, he could be the missing piece to this puzzle.
No. 6: Arizona Diamondbacks
Projected Rotation: Patrick Corbin, Tyler Skaggs, Archie Bradley, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill
Also in the Mix: Daniel Hudson
With Corbin destroying the National League and both Skaggs and Bradley ranked among the Top 25 prospects, I briefly had the Diamondbacks in the top three on this list.
However, I realized that's a lot of pressure to put on a guy who has already twice flopped in the majors (Skaggs) and another guy who isn't exactly blowing away Double-A opponents this season (Bradley).
I'll give them a shout out as a pitching staff that could be incredibly dominant in 2016, but I'm not confident enough in that claim to put them in the top five.
No. 5: Washington Nationals
Projected Rotation: Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Lucas Giolito, A.J. Cole
Also in the Mix: Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan
The 2013 season hasn't exactly gone according to plan in the nation's capital, but the pitching staff should keep the Nationals among the preseason favorites to win the National League for several years to come.
Believe it or not, Strasburg doesn't even turn 25 until later this month. Between the hype of his arrival and the never-ending discussion about his early shutdown last season, it feels like he's been in the league for longer than anyone else on the staff. However, he should have at least another decade of high-quality pitching ahead of him.
Hard to argue with either Zimmermann or Gonzalez following up Strasburg in the rotation. Both guys would be in the discussion as the 2014 Opening Day starter for at least 20 of the other 29 teams in the league.
It's tough to say who will actually lock down the final two spots in the rotation a few years from now, but the hope in D.C. is that youngsters Cole and Giolito will claim them.
Cole was involved in the trade to get Gio Gonzalez two winters ago, but the Nationals re-acquired the 6'4" right-hander who has a career K/BB ratio of 4.54 in the minor leagues. Giolito, on the other hand, lasted a whole two innings before needing Tommy John surgery. He turns 19 later this month and will hopefully be in the majors by 2016.
No. 4: Cincinnati Reds
Projected Rotation: Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Tony Cingrani, Robert Stephenson, Homer Bailey
Also in the Mix: Mike Leake, Daniel Corcino
You know you're pretty well-positioned for the future when the guy who has thrown MLB's last two no-hitters is just barely cracking the starting rotation.
Latos is seventh in the NL in WAR since the start of the 2010 season. Cueto is 12th on the list. As long as Cueto can stay healthy, they're both ace material.
Cingrani has had a double-digit K/9 rate at every step of his journey to the big leagues. Even if he doesn't improve his walk rate, no one has ever complained about routinely getting six innings of two-run ball with seven strikeouts and a pair of walks from the third man in the rotation.
Stephenson is still pitching at Single-A and is probably at least two more years away from making it to Cincinnati, but regardless of the level he's pitching at, a K/9 rate of 11.48 through 66.2 innings of work is pretty darn impressive. If he can maintain those high strikeout numbers, he'll be on the fast track to the big leagues.
Should any of those five guys falter, both Corcino and Leake would function just fine as a fifth starter.
No. 3: Seattle Mariners
Projected Rotation: Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer
Also in the Mix: Victor Sanchez, Larry Bernandez
Hultzen and Paxton are both rated among the top five left-handed prospects in all of baseball. Walker is rated as the second-best right-handed prospect. All three guys are currently pitching like all-stars for the Tacoma Rainiers—I certainly hope those Triple-A season ticket holders can appreciate the show they're being treated to these days.
The question is no longer "Will these prospects pan out?" but rather "Why the heck aren't any of these guys in the majors yet?"
Why are the Mariners continually trotting 35-year-old Aaron Harang and 32-year-old Joe Saunders out there to get shelled on a weekly basis when they could be conditioning their staff of the future instead?
If either Maurer decides to turn things around or the 18-year-old Sanchez makes it to the big leagues while Hernandez is still in his prime, the Mariners could have the best pitching staff in baseball by 2016.
No. 2: Tampa Bay Rays
Projected Rotation: David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Archer
Also in the Mix: Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome, Taylor Guerrieri
We've gotten to the point with both Tampa Bay and St. Louis where we simply expect every pitcher in the farm system to immediately deliver in the majors.
I didn't know much about Chris Archer when he got called up at the end of May, but that didn't stop me from stashing him away in fantasy leagues under the sole assumption that he must be pretty good if he graduated from Tampa Bay's minor league system.
I took the same approach with Colome and I'll eventually do it again when Guerrieri makes his debut.
For whatever reason, Tampa Bay has become a factory of starting pitching. It's such a well-oiled machine that they were able to trade away James Shields and Wade Davis this past winter and still have more starting pitchers than they know what to do with.
Provided Cobb can eventually return from his concussion and Hellickson can revert to what were once becoming sustainably insane numbers in BABIP and LOB percentage, the Rays could conceivably trade away another two starting pitchers this winter and still have arms to spare.
No. 1: St. Louis Cardinals
Projected Rotation: Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia
Also in the Mix: John Gast, Tyler Lyons, Trevor Rosenthal
There were two primary things that made me settle on St. Louis in the top spot ahead of Tampa Bay.
The first is that Martinez is a Top 10 right-handed prospect, quite a few spots ahead of the Rays' best prospects—Taylor Guerrieri and Jake Odorizzi.
The other factor is the potential wild card of Rosenthal returning to a starting role. That's how he came up through the Cardinals' farm system. If he can harness the 101 MPH that he's been throwing in the eighth inning this season and instead turn it into six-plus innings of 98 MPH, the Cardinals suddenly have another top-of-the-line starter.
Even if they leave Rosenthal in the bullpen, they've already got plenty of options to choose from for the foreseeable future. And lord knows they'll have another half dozen pitching prospects rise up within the next five years.
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