MLB Spring Training 2017: The Top 10 Starting Pitchers to Watch

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2017

MLB Spring Training 2017: The Top 10 Starting Pitchers to Watch

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    New York Mets right-hander Matt Harvey
    New York Mets right-hander Matt HarveyRich Schultz/Getty Images

    Not that you asked, but here's a list of the 10 MLB starting pitchers I most enjoy watching in a particular order: Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber, Masahiro Tanaka, Chris Sale, Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman.

    Undoubtedly, you have your own list. Go ahead, and write it down—it's fun.

    That's not what we're going to talk about here, though.

    Instead, we're going to discuss pitchers worth watching in a different sense. Many of these guys are aces or former aces, but this is a group that enters 2017 spring training with questions to answer.

    Some had down years in 2016. Some are recovering from serious injuries. Some will battle for a rotation spot. 

    All of them have something to prove, which makes them compelling by definition. Not in the manner of a Syndergaard fastball, a Kershaw curveball or a Bumgarner snot rocket, but riveting nonetheless. 

Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    After posting an MLB-leading 1.66 ERA in 2015, Zack Greinke signed a six-year, $206.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Expectations were somewhere in the vicinity of the mesosphere.

    Instead, Greinke wobbled like a Ferrari with two flat tires, putting up a 4.37 ERA in 158.2 innings. Not bad for a back-of-the-rotation starter. Awful for a guy who was paid more than $1 million per start.

    His splits weren't encouraging either. Greinke's ERA ballooned to 6.02 in the second half compared to a 3.62 mark in the first, and he allowed 14 earned runs in 22.2 September frames.

    Greinke is 33 years old, which means this decline could be permanent. His average fastball velocity held steady at 95 mph compared to 2015, but his walks per nine innings rose from 1.6 to 2.3. 

    He missed the month of July with an oblique injury but wobbled before and after, so it's tough to pin his struggles on that.

    Greinke's spring showing will be under a microscope. Bad outings will be seen as a harbinger of doom; success will be viewed as a sign he's back.

    It may be a mirage either way, but snakebitten D-backs fans can be forgiven for hanging on every pitch.

Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros

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    Speaking of free-falling aces, Dallas Keuchel went from an American League Cy Young Award in 2015 to a host of troubling questions in 2016.

    The Houston Astros southpaw saw his ERA spike from 2.48 to 4.55 and his innings plummet from 232 to 168, and he missed the final five weeks of the season with inflammation in his throwing shoulder.

    Translation: Ruh roh. 

    Keuchel has begun playing catch and could throw his first bullpen session Feb. 1, per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle

    "I've been telling some of the guys it kind of feels weird to actually feel good," Keuchel said, per Kaplan. "First time in a long time that I feel 100 percent, and that's just exciting."

    The 'Stros have bolstered their offense this winter, adding catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Josh Reddick and outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran. 

    They've been linked to some of the offseason's top starting pitcher trade targets, including lefty Jose Quintana, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today. For now, however, Houston is counting on the 29-year-old Keuchel to once again be the star of Space City.

Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    When the Washington Nationals sent a package highlighted by right-hander Lucas Giolito to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton, many called it an overpay. I was among the many.

    Giolito isn't all the Nats gave up. They also surrendered highly regarded MiLB chips Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. Giolito was the centerpiece, though, and the No. 1 pitching prospect in the game, according to MLB.com

    The 16th overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, Giolito made his big league debut last season with Washington but posted a 6.75 ERA in 21.1 innings with 11 strikeouts and 12 walks.

    "Mechanics have been kind of lackluster all over the place all year," Giolito said, per Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post. "A lot of bad habits, and I think what makes pitchers really good, good pitchers, is their ability toas far as their mechanics goif something is out of whack, something starts being a problem, and then they fix it. Like within a few pitches, not within a few weeks."

    Perhaps that's why the Nats were willing to let him go. Now, as he starts anew with the rebuilding White Sox, Giolito can put the doubts behind him and douse his old club with regret.

Michael Pineda, New York Yankees

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    The New York Yankees are set at the top of their rotation with Masahiro Tanaka, who logged 199.2 innings in 2016his highest total since coming over from Japan three seasons agoand posted a 3.07 ERA.

    Creaky left-hander CC Sabathia is the ostensible No. 2, and the back of the rotation is a mishmash of youngsters and question marks.

    That makes Michael Pineda a linchpin for the Yanks, who are in the midst of a youth movement but always under pressure to win.

    Pineda has flashed ace-level stuff since his 2011 debut with the Seattle Mariners, but injuries, inconsistency and controversy have prevented him from breaking through.

    The hard-throwing right-hander went 6-12 with a 4.82 ERA in 2016, yet he led the AL with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

    This is a make-or-break season for Pineda, who turned 28 last Wednesday and will become a free agent next winter.

    If he continues to cough up runs, a trip to the bullpen is likely in his future. If he can harness his potential, he would transform New York's starting five and vastly improve his chances of landing a lucrative long-term contract.

Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

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    Matt Cain surpassed 200 innings every season between 2007 and 2012 for the San Francisco Giants. Along the way, he made three All-Star teams, had two top-10 Cy Young Award finishes and threw a perfect game.

    Since then, Cain has been on a disturbing downward trajectory.

    He hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2012 while battling an array of injuries. After putting up a 5.81 ERA through 17 starts in 2016, he was sent to the bullpen in September and didn't pitch in the postseason.

    Cain turned 32 in October. He's owed $21 million in 2017 and has a team option for the same amount in 2018 with a $7.5 million buyout.

    He has the inside track on the fifth-starter gig, but 26-year-old Ty Blach, who impressed down the stretch and in the playoffs, will push him this spring.

    "I expect him to come in camp probably in the best shape he's ever been in, as determined as ever to win that spot in the rotation," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of Cain, per John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle. "This is his last year on this deal, and I've got to think he’s hungry to get back to who he was and be part of the rotation."

Sonny Gray, Oakland A's

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    Sonny Gray's name has surfaced in recent trade rumors, with the Astros sniffing around, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal

    Whether he leaves the East Bay or stays put, Gray will have a lot of questions to answer in 2017.

    After finishing third in AL Cy Young Award balloting in 2015, the 27-year-old posted a 5.69 ERA in 117 innings last season while battling elbow issues that landed him on the disabled list.

    It would be unlike A's executive Billy Beane to sell low. The safe money is on Gray's beginning the season with the A's with the hope he can regain his All-Star form and either propel the team to contention or fetch a heftier haul at the trade deadline.

Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals

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    The St. Louis Cardinals have five starting pitchers in Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake and Michael Wacha.

    Then there's Alex Reyes, the Cardinals' top prospect, according to MLB.com, and a stud in the making.

    In 46 MLB innings last season spread across 12 appearances and five starts, Reyes posted a 1.57 ERA with 52 strikeouts. His fastball reaches triple digits, and his curveball is poetry in motion. 

    After averaging 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 69 minor league starts, the 22-year-old walks, looks and quacks like a starter. It sounds like the Cards are going to give him a chance to crack the rotation.

    "He should be a starting pitcher," manager Mike Matheny said, via MLB.com. "We'll see how it plays out through spring training. There are certain guys who have slotted innings set for them. Alex is going to have those. He's earned that."

Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers have Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball despite a back injury that betrayed his mortal side.

    After that, it's Japanese import Kenta Maeda and injury-prone lefty Rich Hill. That's a passable No. 2 and No. 3, but L.A. could use another stud.

    Paging Julio Urias.

    The touted 20-year-old left-hander went 5-2 with a 3.39 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 77 innings for Los Angeles last season. In 40.2 innings after the All-Star break, he posted a 1.99 ERA with 40 strikeouts. 

    On Monday, the Dodgers shipped top pitching prospect Jose De Leon to the Tampa Bay Rays for second baseman Logan Forsythe, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

    The Dodgers have depth. It's a hodgepodge of reclamation projects and unproven youngsters, however, meaning they need Urias to become a rotation stalwart.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    The Nationals won the NL East in 2016 but were bounced in the division series by the Dodgers. Stephen Strasburg watched from the dugout.

    The 28-year-old right-hander went 15-4 with a 3.60 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for the Nats, but he landed on the DL with back and elbow problems and was an October spectator. 

    That came after he inked a seven-year, $175 million extension. Strasburg is committed to D.C., though he has an opt-out clause following the 2019 season.

    Can the 2009 first overall pick stay healthy? That's the multimillion dollar query.

    Gifted as he is, Strasburg has eclipsed 200 innings only once, in 2014. He's shown stretches of brilliance but has been an enigma on balance.

    "I'm probably not going to be getting any stronger, so I just need to kind of change it around," Strasburg said in August after succumbing to a sore elbow, per Jorge Castillo and Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.

Matt Harvey, New York Mets

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    The New York Mets' star-studded starting five propelled the club to an NL pennant in 2015. A year later, injuries struck like an angry meteor shower.

    No one was hit harder than Matt Harvey, who went 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA before landing on the DL with shoulder trouble and ultimately undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. 

    Now, the Dark Knight will seek to regain his position as one of the game's premier right-handers and lead the Mets back to postseason glory. 

    In December, Harvey sounded optimistic.

    "Obviously, being healthy through spring training and getting to the season and continuing to be healthy through the season is a big plus for me and something I'm looking forward to doing," he said, per Dan Martin of the New York Post. "But as far as the offseason goes, I'm right where I want to be, and everything feels great."

    The Mets don't need Harvey to be perfect. They've got Syndergaard and are hoping for injury-free years from Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz, among others.

    A return to the form that saw Harvey finish fourth in NL Cy Young Award balloting in 2013, however, would go a long way toward bringing playoff magic back to Queens. 

    Stay tuned.

       

    All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.