MLB Position Power Rankings: B/R's Top 30 Starting Pitchers
With Opening Day now right around the corner, we've reached the starting pitching portion of our positional power rankings series.
One of the weakest crops of free-agent starting pitching in recent memory only further highlighted the value and importance of a good starting rotation.
Controllable arms are as valuable a commodity as any in baseball; just ask the Chicago White Sox, who flipped Chris Sale for a huge prospect return.
At any rate, our mission here was to rank the game's best starting pitchers.
It's important to note that the goal was to identify the 30 best starting pitchers for the 2017 season—and the 2017 season alone.
Someone like Jon Gray has more upside than Rich Hill going forward, but is he going to be better this year?
Think of this as a big board for the position if the entire league was doing a redraft for one all-or-nothing season in 2017.
30. RHP Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox
2016 Standard: 33 GS, 22-4, 3.15 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 189 K, 223.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 145 ERA+, 3.40 FIP, 3.78 SIERA, 16.9 Soft%
To call Rick Porcello a surprise Cy Young Award winner would be putting it mildly.
The right-hander signed a four-year, $82.5 million extension shortly after joining the Red Sox prior to the 2015 season, then went a disappointing 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in his Boston debut.
Last season was a different story.
The 28-year-old emerged as the ace of the staff and narrowly edged out Justin Verlander for AL Cy Young honors, but there are some notable red flags in his peripheral numbers.
His .269 opponent's BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was undeniably fluky considering his groundball rate (45.7 to 43.1 percent) and soft contact rate (17.8 to 16.9 percent) both declined, so regression will be unavoidable. He's still capable of being a top-25 starter, though.
Honorable Mentions: Carlos Carrasco (CLE), Marco Estrada (TOR), Kevin Gausman (BAL), Zack Greinke (ARI), J.A. Happ (TOR), Matt Harvey (NYM), Dallas Keuchel (HOU), John Lackey (CHC), Kenta Maeda (LAD), Lance McCullers Jr. (HOU), Jake Odorizzi (TB), Garrett Richards (LAA), Tanner Roark (WAS), Danny Salazar (CLE), Matt Shoemaker (LAA), Chris Tillman (BAL), Adam Wainwright (STL)
29. RHP Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers
2016 Standard: 26 GS, 11-7, 3.06 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 132 K, 159.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 135 ERA+, 3.76 FIP, 4.03 SIERA, 19.2 Soft%
While Michael Fulmer was brilliant as a rookie for the Detroit Tigers en route to AL Rookie of the Year honors, he lost steam down the stretch while working nearly 50 more innings than he had in any previous season.
After going 10-3 with a 2.25 ERA and 1.02 WHIP over his first 19 starts, he scuffled to a 5.54 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in his final seven outings.
Now he'll look to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and prove he deserves a spot alongside Justin Verlander as the co-ace of the Tigers staff.
Fulmer could offset some of the potential regression he's facing by missing a few more bats going forward after he fanned batters at just 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
The 24-year-old posted an 8.7 K/9 rate over parts of six seasons in the minors, and an improving changeup to back his mid-90s fastball and plus slider could allow him to take that next step.
28. LHP Rich Hill, Los Angeles Dodgers
2016 Standard: 20 GS, 12-5, 2.12 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 129 K, 110.1 IP
2016 Advanced: 187 ERA+, 2.39 FIP, 3.29 SIERA, 22.3 Soft%
The Los Angeles Dodgers are probably not going to get a 200-inning season out of Rich Hill.
However, the 37-year-old proved last season that he's capable of making a big enough impact over just 20 starts to be mentioned among the game's top starters.
Hill went 3-2 with a 1.83 ERA and 0.79 WHIP in six starts with the Dodgers last season after being acquired from Oakland at the deadline, then made a pair of postseason starts, including six shutout innings against the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series.
Since reworking his mechanics and improving his spin rate, Hill has legitimately emerged as one of baseball's most dominant starters on the strength of his four-seam fastball and big, looping curveball.
Even if he's limited to 20 starts once again, he deserves a spot here.
27. RHP Jon Gray, Colorado Rockies
2016 Standard: 29 GS, 10-10, 4.61 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 185 K, 168.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 106 ERA+, 3.60 FIP, 3.72 SIERA, 17.8 Soft%
That 4.61 ERA makes Jon Gray easy to overlook.
But make no mistake, Gray turned in a terrific 2016 season and—for the first time since Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010—the Colorado Rockies may be looking at a bona fide staff ace.
The former No. 3 overall pick has always had the power stuff and the sturdy 6'4", 235-pound frame to develop into a legitimate front-line starting pitcher.
There were plenty of ups and downs last season, but when he was at his best, he was dominant.
The 25-year-old had six games with double-digit strikeouts, including what was statistically the best single-game performance in the history of Coors Field against the San Diego Padres on Sept. 17:
- 9.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 16 K, 95 Game Score
All it will take is finding a bit more consistency with his fastball command and secondary stuff for Gray to prove he deserves to be mentioned among the game's top starters.
26. LHP Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals
2016 Standard: 42 G, 26 GS, 12-3, 3.51 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 188 K, 179.2
2016 Advanced: 124 ERA+, 3.83 FIP, 3.53 SIERA, 17.8 Soft%
Danny Duffy didn't even break camp with a rotation spot last year.
Nine months later, he was signing a five-year, $65 million extension to cement his place as the Kansas City Royals ace of the present and future.
Duffy didn't make his first start of the season on May 15 after tallying 16 relief appearances, but he quickly emerged as the best starter on a shaky Kansas City staff.
By season's end, he'd gone 12-3 with a 3.56 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 161.2 innings over 26 starts.
That included the first complete game of his career and a brilliant start against the Tampa Bay Rays on Aug. 1, when he allowed just one hit and struck out 16 over eight scoreless innings.
With other core pieces like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain all facing free agency next winter, it speaks to how highly the Royals think of Duffy that he was their No. 1 priority for an extension.
25. RHP Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves
2016 Standard: 30 GS, 7-10, 3.21 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 167 K, 188.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 129 ERA+, 3.69 FIP, 3.93 SIERA, 17.7 Soft%
The Atlanta Braves made the right decision not selling low on Julio Teheran.
Teheran finished fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2013, then followed that up by going 14-13 with a 2.89 ERA and 1.08 WHIP to earn a spot on the NL All-Star team in 2014.
However, his ERA spiked to 4.04 in 2015, and it looked like the Braves might flip him for prospects as they entered the early stages of rebuilding.
Instead, he returned for another year and bounced back nicely to set new career highs in WHIP (1.05) and walks per nine innings (2.0) while making his second All-Star appearance.
Teheran is owed a team-friendly $37.3 million over the next four years and he now looks like a key piece of the team's long-term plans.
24. RHP Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
2016 Standard: 33 GS, 9-19, 4.02 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 233 K, 201.1 IP
2016 Advanced: 101 ERA+, 3.81 FIP, 3.50 SIERA, 17.9 Soft%
Chris Archer looked ready to take the next step toward superstardom heading into last season.
He had emerged as the ace of a good Tampa Bay Rays rotation during a breakout 2015 season, going 12-13 with a 3.23 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and a franchise-record 252 strikeouts in 212 innings of work to finish fifth in AL Cy Young voting.
That next step didn't come, though.
Instead, he was bit time and again by the long ball, surrendering 30 home runs after giving up just 19 the year before.
The effectiveness of his slider—a pitch he throws about 40 percent of the time—was perhaps the biggest difference, per Brooks Baseball:
- 2015: .189 BAA, .083 ISO, 7 HR, 175 K
- 2016: .200 BAA, .111 ISO, 11 HR, 151 K
The swing-and-miss stuff is there; it's just a matter of Archer consistently locating.
23. RHP Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates
2016 Standard: 21 GS, 7-10, 3.88 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 98 K, 116.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 108 ERA+, 3.33 FIP, 4.24 SIERA, 21.3 Soft%
Can Gerrit Cole return to his 2015 form?
That's perhaps the biggest question facing the Pittsburgh Pirates this coming season, as they'll need their ace to pitch like one to have a chance of contending.
Cole went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings during the 2015 season, finishing fourth in NL Cy Young voting.
He was at his best against the division rival Cardinals (4 GS, 3-1, 2.39 ERA) and Cubs (4 GS, 2-1, 2.13 ERA) that season, helping led the Pirates to a 98-win season and a third straight postseason berth.
However, last season he was limited to just 21 starts while dealing with a strained triceps and right elbow inflammation that eventually led to him shutting it down for the season in the middle of September.
The 26-year-old has everything necessary to be one of the game's best starters, but a spotty injury history—specifically last year's struggles to stay on the field—are enough to knock him down several spots in these rankings.
22. LHP David Price, Boston Red Sox
2016 Standard: 35 GS, 17-9, 3.99 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 228 K, 230.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 114 ERA+, 3.60 FIP, 3.60 SIERA, 18.6 Soft%
While David Price managed to avoid Tommy John surgery—something that looked like a real possibility when he was first sidelined with a sore elbow earlier this spring—he's still set to begin the season on the disabled list with an elbow strain.
According to Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald, Price will be sidelined until at least the beginning of May, and it could be longer as he'll have work to do building his arm back up once he's cleared to throw.
That's enough cause for concern to bump one of the game's best starters outside the top 20 in these rankings.
His somewhat disappointing first season in Boston is less concerning.
After running up a 6.75 ERA over his first seven starts, he settled in nicely and went 13-8 with a 3.39 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 175 strikeouts in 188.2 innings over his final 28 starts.
He's still an ace-caliber arm; it's just a question of whether his elbow will be a lingering issue in 2017.
21. RHP Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
2016 Standard: 25 GS, 11-8, 3.82 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 122 K, 153.1 IP
2016 Advanced: 106 ERA+, 4.63 FIP, 4.63 SIERA, 16.6 Soft%
Felix Hernandez has a bit more wear on the tires than your average 30-year-old pitcher.
In fact, his 2,415.2 career innings are the most by a pitcher through his age-30 season since Bert Blyleven piled up 3,000.2 innings over his first 12 seasons.
So was his mediocre performance in 2016 an outlier or the beginning of the end?
A calf strain cost Hernandez nearly two months last season, snapping a streak of 10 consecutive seasons with at least 30 starts and 190 innings in the process.
Now King Felix is looking to prove he still deserves that throne.
"I worked out more this offseason than ever before," Hernandez told Jim Caple of ESPN.com. "I did it to get back where I used to be three years ago."
It's tough to bet against one of the best pitchers of this generation, but it's also tough to rank him any higher until he proves he's back to front-line form.
20. LHP Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers
2016 Standard: 32 GS, 15-5, 3.32 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 200 K, 200.2 IP
2016 Advanced: 136 ERA+, 3.98 FIP, 3.99 SIERA, 20.4 Soft%
If not for a shaky final month of the season, Cole Hamels might have taken home AL Cy Young honors last season.
After throwing eight shutout innings against the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 25, Hamels improved to 14-4 with a 2.67 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 168.2 innings.
He was hit hard his next time out, though, and ended the year by going 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA and 1.72 WHIP in his final six starts.
Still, it was another solid all-around year for the left-hander, as he reached 190 innings for the ninth year in a row and actually lowered his ERA in his first full season pitching in hitter-friendly Texas.
However, a career-high 3.5 BB/9 was a bit concerning, as he entered the year with a 2.3 BB/9 rate for his career.
Hamels is a quality starter capable of being a stellar No. 2 option on a title contender, but he's not quite a top-tier arm, especially if that walk rate doesn't recover.
19. RHP Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
2016 Standard: 30 GS, 16-8, 2.13 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 170 K, 190.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 188 ERA+, 3.20 FIP, 3.70 SIERA, 25.0 Soft%
Kyle Hendricks is a safe bet for at least some level of regression in 2017.
A 2.13 ERA that was accompanied by a 3.20 FIP makes that abundantly clear, but even if his ERA climbs a full run, he'd still be one of the more effective starters in the league.
The 27-year-old is never going to light up radar guns or pile up strikeouts, but he has pinpoint control over his three-pitch repertoire and he goes right after hitters.
He generates a ton of groundballs and his changeup is one of the best in the game, making him a great fit in front of the Chicago Cubs' stellar defensive infield.
Hendricks might only be the third-best starting pitcher on his own team this coming season, but he's still good enough to earn a spot among the league's 20 best starters.
18. LHP Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox
2016 Standard: 32 GS, 13-12, 3.20 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 181 K, 208.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 125 ERA+, 3.56 FIP, 4.01 SIERA, 18.6 Soft%
Jose Quintana knows his days with the Chicago White Sox are numbered.
He's the most valuable trade chip on an obviously rebuilding team, and his name has already come up plenty on the trade market this offseason.
The 28-year-old finished 10th in AL Cy Young voting last season, recording career bests in ERA (3.20) and WHIP (1.16), but it was by no means a breakout season.
Quintana has been one of the most underrated players in the game for years now, going 40-40 with a 3.35 ERA and 1.22 WHIP over the past four seasons while topping the 200-inning mark each year.
His team-friendly deal—he's owed $37.85 million over the next four years if both of his team options are exercised—only further adds to his trade value, and that should net the White Sox a healthy return once he is finally moved.
He's a tick below being a bona fide ace, but a team could do a lot worse than having him anchor the staff.
17. RHP Aaron Sanchez, Toronto Blue Jays
2016 Standard: 30 GS, 15-2, 3.00 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 161 K, 192.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 143 ERA+, 3.55 FIP, 4.01 SIERA, 20.7 Soft%
The Toronto Blue Jays planned to limit Aaron Sanchez's innings at the start of last season as he made the full-time transition from reliever to starter.
He forced their hand, though.
The 24-year-old paced the AL with a 3.00 ERA and 0.7 home runs per nine innings, and by the time the Blue Jays were eliminated from the postseason, he had tallied 203.2 innings on the year.
Sanchez leans heavily on his mid-90s fastball, which touched triple digits at times out of the bullpen, throwing it roughly 75 percent of the time.
He keeps the ball on the ground well with a 54.4 percent groundball rate, and his curveball is a legitimate strikeout pitch, though there's still plenty of room for improvement over his 7.5 K/9.
As good as he was last year, he may only be scratching the surface.
16. RHP Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
2016 Standard: 24 GS, 15-4, 3.60 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 183 K, 147.2 IP
2016 Advanced: 116 ERA+, 2.92 FIP, 3.18 SIERA, 21.4 Soft%
It was shaping up to be a career year for Stephen Strasburg when the injury bug bit again.
The 28-year-old was 10-0 with a 2.90 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 118 strikeouts in 93 innings when he landed on the disabled list with a back strain on June 15.
He was shelved again in August with a sore right elbow, before being shut down entirely in September with a flexor mass strain, as he made just 10 more starts total after that initial DL trip.
Strasburg is still capable of being as dominant as any starter in the game when he's at 100 percent.
His 11.2 K/9 last season was his highest single-season total since his rookie year in 2010, and his 7.25 H/9 would have ranked 12th among qualified starters.
For all that was made of his electric fastball when he first entered the league, it's his changeup that has emerged as his nastiest offering (.108 BAA, 53 K) and helped him take his game to the next level.
Now he just needs to find a way to make 30-plus starts.
15. RHP Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees
2016 Standard: 31 GS, 14-4, 3.07 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 165 K, 199.2 IP
2016 Advanced: 142 ERA+, 3.51 FIP, 3.79 SIERA, 18.5 Soft%
As Masahiro Tanaka continues to pitch with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, his right arm will continue to be viewed as a ticking time bomb of sorts.
However, that didn't stop him from reaching a career-high 199.2 innings last season as he finished third in the AL with a 3.07 ERA and finished seventh in AL Cy Young voting.
He'll be leaned on heavily once again this coming season in a rotation that features the inconsistent Michael Pineda, aging CC Sabathia and a host of young, unproven arms.
Tanaka has seen his strikeout rate drop from 9.3 to 8.1 to 7.4 over his three MLB seasons, but it's a result of him pitching to contact more and becoming more reliant on his secondary stuff.
The 28-year-old can opt out of his current contract at the end of the 2017 season, which would mean leaving three years and $67 million on the table.
14. RHP Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
2016 Standard: 32 GS, 9-10, 4.37 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 166 K, 204.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 98 ERA+, 3.71 FIP, 3.62 SIERA, 18.3 Soft%
Marcus Stroman took the ball for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic title game and pitched the game of his life.
The 25-year-old took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and walked away with MVP honors, leading the U.S. to its first title since the tournament's inception.
"I love pitching in these moments; I love the atmosphere," Stroman told Doug Padilla of MLB.com. "I feel like the bigger the game, the more I'm able to get up, the more effective I am. I truly try to pride myself on being a big-game pitcher. This was probably one of the biggest if not the biggest game I've ever pitched in."
Now he'll look to use that as a springboard for a breakout 2017 campaign.
Stroman has electric stuff, with a terrific sinker that led to a 60.1 percent groundball rate and fantastic movement across the board on his entire repertoire.
If he learns to keep his emotions in check and better avoids the big inning, he could be a perennial contender AL Cy Young honors.
13. RHP Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals
2016 Standard: 31 GS, 16-9, 3.04 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 174 K, 195.1 IP
2016 Advanced: 135 ERA+, 3.61 FIP, 3.97 SIERA, 19.1 Soft%
The St. Louis Cardinals took a patient approach with Carlos Martinez when he first reached the majors, and it's paid off in a big way.
After using his big fastball primarily out of the bullpen in his first two seasons in the majors, Martinez joined the rotation full-time for the 2015 season.
He went 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 179.2 innings to earn a spot on the NL All-Star team, then upped his workload to 195.1 innings last year with equally impressive peripherals.
Still just 25, Martinez did a better job pitching to contact and keeping his pitch count down last season, which explains his strikeout rate dropping from 9.2 to 8.0 K/9.
Martinez has also reined in his emotions since joining the rotation and further refined his secondary stuff, leaving him poised to join the ranks of the game's elite starters.
12. RHP Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
2016 Standard: 34 GS, 16-9, 3.04 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 254 K, 227.2 IP
2016 Advanced: 136 ERA+, 3.48 FIP, 3.42 SIERA, 19.7 Soft%
It appears the reports of Justin Verlander's demise were greatly exaggerated.
After winning AL Cy Young and MVP honors in 2011 and following that up with an equally impressive 2012 campaign, the Detroit Tigers ace fell off dramatically.
From 2013 to 2015, he went 33-32 with a 3.84 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, looking more like a capable No. 3 starter than a front-line ace.
He also dealt with a significant injury for the first time in his career, beginning the 2015 season on the disabled list with a triceps strain that wound up delaying his season debut until June 13.
Healthy and pitching with something to prove last season, Verlander bounced back in a big way to lead the AL in WHIP (1.00) and strikeouts (254) while finishing a close second to Rick Porcello in AL Cy Young voting—despite receiving more first-place votes.
The 34-year-old still has a big fastball, quality changeup and terrific breaking stuff. It's simply a matter of staying healthy and keeping his mechanics sound.
11. RHP Jacob DeGrom, New York Mets
2016 Standard: 24 GS, 7-8, 3.04 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 143 K, 148.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 135 ERA+, 3.32 FIP, 3.66 SIERA, 19.0 Soft%
In a stacked New York Mets rotation, it was Jacob deGrom who was the team's best starter during their run to the World Series in 2015.
The right-hander was 14-8 with a 2.54 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 205 strikeouts in 191 innings during the regular season, then went 3-1 with a 2.88 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 25 innings in four postseason starts.
His 2016 season was a trying one, though, as he battled injuries all season before finally shutting it down in September, undergoing ulnar nerve surgery to relieve soreness in his elbow and numbness in his fingers.
Now he's back to 100 percent and poised to bounce back in a big way.
"He looks like he did early in 2015; he's throwing free and easy. He's hitting 97 without much effort," one scout told Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News. "He showed he knows how to go out and pitch even when he doesn't have his best stuff all of last year. Now that he has it, it's going make him that much more dominant this season."
10. RHP Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
2016 Standard: 31 GS, 18-8, 3.10 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 190 K, 197.1 IP
2016 Advanced: 129 ERA+, 3.52 FIP, 3.94 SIERA, 22.9 Soft%
Jake Arrieta had nowhere to go but down after putting together a historically good second half to the 2015 season.
Video-game numbers doesn't quite do it justice: 15 GS, 12-1, 0.75 ERA, 0.73 WHIP
All told, he finished the season at 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings, taking home NL Cy Young honors over Los Angeles Dodgers teammates Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
He was still as tough as anyone to hit this past season, leading the NL with 6.3 hits per nine innings, but had some trouble consistently throwing strikes at times.
His walk rate jumped from 1.9 to 3.5 BB/9, and he was tops in the NL with 16 wild pitches. Often times it was a case of him simply getting too much movement on his pitches, a problem you don't hear of too often.
Still, he pitched well enough to finish ninth in NL Cy Young voting and capped off the 2016 season by winning both of his World Series starts.
Another sub-3.00 ERA season isn't out of the question if his command bounces back a bit.
9. RHP Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers
2016 Standard: 17 GS, 7-5, 3.41 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 132 K, 100.1 IP
2016 Advanced: 133 ERA+, 3.09 FIP, 3.08 SIERA, 22.8 Soft%
Yu Darvish was delayed a bit in his return from Tommy John surgery last season, but once he finally got back on the field, it was business as usual.
The 30-year-old has struck out an impressive 812 hitters in 645.2 career innings since making his way stateside, good for an 11.3 K/9 mark that ranks first among active starters with at least 500 innings to their credit.
With 132 punchouts in 100.1 innings last season, his 11.8 K/9 were actually a tick above that career mark, a good indication that he didn't lose anything after going under the knife.
Darvish checks in with no fewer than seven pitches in his arsenal, according to Brooks Baseball, making him as tough as anyone to dig into the box against.
Another year removed from surgery and with free agency looming next offseason, Darvish looks primed to turn in a career year in 2017.
8. RHP Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants
2016 Standard: 32 GS, 18-5, 2.79 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 198 K, 219.2 IP
2016 Advanced: 147 ERA+, 2.96 FIP, 3.59 SIERA, 19.4 Soft%
Missing out on Zack Greinke and "settling" for signing Johnny Cueto proved to be a blessing in disguise for the San Francisco Giants, at least in the first year of their respective deals.
- Cueto: 18-5, 2.79 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 198 K, 219.2 IP, $15.83 million
- Greinke: 13-7, 4.37 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 134 K, 158.2 IP, $34 million
Cueto has put any concerns about his long-term health in the rearview with three straight 200-inning seasons, and his command continues to improve as he posted a career-best 1.8 BB/9 rate last season.
The 31-year-old is as deceptive as any pitcher in baseball, thanks to his ability to vary his delivery times and a repertoire that features five pitches he threw at least 14 percent of the time last year, per Brooks Baseball.
He may not be the ace of the Giants staff, but he is one of the league's 10 best starters and the best No. 2 starter in the game.
7. LHP Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs
2016 Standard: 32 GS, 19-5, 2.44 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 197 K, 202.2 IP
2016 Advanced: 164 ERA+, 3.41 FIP, 3.61 SIERA, 18.9 Soft%
There was no shortage of pressure on Jon Lester when he became the Chicago Cubs' first blockbuster free-agent signing under Theo Epstein.
That made his first season on the North Side something of a disappointment relative to expectations, as he went 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA and 1.12 WHIP over 205 innings.
There was nothing disappointing about his performance in 2016.
The 33-year-old finished among the NL leaders in wins (19, second), ERA (2.44, second), WHIP (1.02, third) and strikeouts (197, seventh) to finish second to Max Scherzer in NL Cy Young voting, one spot ahead of teammate Kyle Hendricks.
He also continued to be one of the game's best postseason pitchers, going 3-1 with a 2.02 ERA in five October starts to improve to 9-7 with a 2.63 ERA in 133.2 career playoff innings.
Lester was the best pitcher on the best staff in baseball last year, and there's no reason to think he won't be equally impressive in 2017.
6. LHP Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
2016 Standard: 32 GS, 17-10, 3.34 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 233 K, 226.2 IP
2016 Advanced: 120 ERA+, 3.46 FIP, 3.43 SIERA, 17.0 Soft%
The Boston Red Sox gave up a king's ransom to acquire Chris Sale from the White Sox this offseason, sending a four-prospect package built around Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to Chicago during the winter meetings.
Then again, it's not every day that a pitcher with his track record of success and remaining team control is made available.
Sale has finished in the top six in AL Cy Young voting in each of the past five seasons, going 70-47 with a 3.04 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 1,133 strikeouts in 1,015.2 innings during that span.
Despite his funky mechanics, he's yet to deal with any significant arm issues, and he actually set a new career high last season with 226.2 innings—including an MLB-high six complete games.
The 27-year-old will now be asked to carry the Red Sox rotation with David Price watching from the sidelines to start the year, and that's a tall order for a team with legitimate World Series aspirations.
5. RHP Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
2016 Standard: 32 GS, 18-9, 3.14 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 227 K, 215.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 149 ERA+, 3.26 FIP, 3.50 SIERA, 19.9 Soft%
To say that Corey Kluber put the Cleveland Indians pitching staff on his shoulders last postseason doesn't quite do it justice.
With Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar—the team's No. 2 and No. 3 starters—both dealing with injuries, Kluber pitched on short rest more than once and made six total playoff starts, going 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA over 34.1 innings.
That came on the heels of another terrific regular season, as he led the AL in fielding-independent pitching ERA (3.26) for the second time in three years and finished third in AL Cy Young voting while getting his first All-Star Game nod.
The 30-year-old is now set to make his third straight Opening Day start.
"When you are dedicated as he is, a lot of good things will happen," manager Terry Francona told Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He is one of the best pitchers in the game."
4. RHP Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
2016 Standard: 30 GS, 14-9, 2.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 218 K, 183.2 IP
2016 Advanced: 158 ERA+, 2.29 FIP, 2.95 SIERA, 21.0 Soft%
No one throws harder than Noah Syndergaard, at least among starting pitchers.
The towering 6'6" right-hander led all starters with a 98.0 mph average fastball last season and he backs it with a filthy slider and a steadily improving changeup.
After going 9-7 with a 3.24 ERA and 1.05 WHIP with 166 strikeouts in 150 innings as a rookie, Syndergaard took another step forward last season en route to leading the majors with a 2.29 FIP.
The fact that Syndergaard is still just 24 and may have not yet reached his peak should be a terrifying thought for the rest of the league.
3. LHP Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
2016 Standard: 34 GS, 15-9, 2.74 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 251 K, 226.2 IP
2016 Advanced: 149 ERA+, 3.24 FIP, 3.36 SIERA, 19.4 Soft%
There's not a better big-game pitcher in the league today than Madison Bumgarner.
The 27-year-old threw a four-hit shutout against the New York Mets in the Wild Card Round and he's now 8-3 with a 2.11 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in 102.1 career postseason innings.
Bumgarner doesn't throw particularly hard with an average fastball velocity of 91.7 mph, but he pounds strikes with his fastball-cutter-curveball combination and is as safe a bet as anyone for a quality start.
His strikeout rate has also improved in each of the past five seasons to a career-high 10.0 K/9 last year, good for fifth in the NL.
It's also impossible to ignore his offensive game.
Bumgarner has a .703 OPS with 10 doubles, 12 home runs and 33 RBI in 256 plate appearances over the past three seasons.
2. RHP Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
2016 Standard: 34 GS, 20-7, 2.96 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 284 K, 228.1 IP
2016 Advanced: 141 ERA+, 3.24 FIP, 3.05 SIERA, 22.2 Soft%
Only six pitchers in MLB history have won Cy Young honors in both leagues.
It's an impressive list: Gaylord Perry, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Roy Halladay. And Max Scherzer.
The 32-year-old led the NL in wins (20), strikeouts (284), WHIP (0.97) and innings pitched (228.1) last season, while topping 6.0 WAR for the fourth consecutive season.
He also tallied double-digit strikeouts 13 different times last season, including a 20-strikeout game against the Detroit Tigers on May 11.
His 26.0 WAR over the past four years trails only Clayton Kershaw (28.4) among all pitchers, and it's impossible to say he hasn't lived up to his massive seven-year, $210 million contract over the first two years of the deal.
There is the matter of the stress fracture in his right ring finger that sidelined him at the beginning of the spring and caused him to bow out of the World Baseball Classic, but as of now, he's on pace to start the third game of the season for the Nationals, per Eddie Matz of ESPN.com.
1. LHP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
2016 Standard: 21 GS, 12-4, 1.69 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 172 K, 149.0 IP
2016 Advanced: 230 ERA+, 1.80 FIP, 2.41 SIERA, 20.3 Soft%
This was another tough list to whittle down to 30 with an incredibly easy choice for the No. 1 spot.
Even while missing over two months with a herniated disc in his back, Kershaw still ranked fourth among all starters with a 5.6 WAR.
His 172-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio was nothing short of ridiculous, and he was on pace for the best season of his storied career before landing on the disabled list.
Any lingering concerns about the health of his back were put to rest when he returned strong during the postseason, and now he's ready to make a run at his fourth career Cy Young Award.
The league is flush with quality starting pitching right now and there are plenty of true ace-caliber arms around the majors, but Kershaw remains the league's best arm.