Ranking MLB's 10 Best Starting Rotations Ahead of 2020 Spring Training
With pitchers and catchers due to begin reporting for spring training on February 12, now is as good a time as any to size up where teams have the upper hand for the 2020 season.
Appropriately, we'll start with starting pitching.
We've ranked what we think are the top 10 starting rotations in Major League Baseball right now. Our judgment was based on the depth, reliability and upside that teams have in their projected starting fives.
Let's count 'em down.
10. Boston Red Sox
- 1. LHP Chris Sale
- 2. LHP David Price
- 3. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez
- 4. RHP Nathan Eovaldi
- 5. LHP Martin Perez
Given that the Boston Red Sox's 2019 rotation was marred by all sorts of issues on its way to a 4.95 ERA, we are going out on a limb here.
But if nothing else, Eduardo Rodriguez made a star of himself last season with a 3.81 ERA and 213 strikeouts. Since he'll only turn 27 on April 7, that could merely be the start of his prime.
The Red Sox will indeed need more out of Chris Sale and David Price in 2020. Neither of the two left-handers could stay healthy or consistent in 2019, wherein they combined for 4.35 ERA in only 47 starts.
But now that his elbow is reportedly in good shape, Sale might revert to the form that produced a 2.91 ERA and 240 strikeouts per season between 2012 and 2018. Though the 34-year-old Price is likely done contending for Cy Young Awards, he might at least rediscover the form that led to a solid 3.58 ERA in 2018.
Nathan Eovaldi, who's often injured, and Martin Perez, who often struggles, are best described as "volatile." Yet thanks to their mid-to-high-90s fastballs, they have more upside than most back-end starters.
9. Houston Astros
- 1. RHP Justin Verlander
- 2. RHP Zack Greinke
- 3. RHP Lance McCullers Jr.
- 4. RHP Jose Urquidy
- 5. RHP Brad Peacock
The Houston Astros ended 2019 with one of the most star-studded rotations in baseball history. But now that Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley are no longer in the picture, it doesn't shine quite as bright now.
Still, at least Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are back for 2020.
The former is fresh off winning his second Cy Young Award on the strength of a 2.58 ERA and 300 strikeouts. The latter is 36 years old and a much different pitcher now than when he won his own Cy Young Award in 2009, but he's nonetheless averaged a 2.90 ERA and 197 innings per season since 2013.
Assuming he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Lance McCullers Jr. can go back to living comfortably on his hard fastball-curveball combination. Jose Urquidy has a 93.3 mph heater in his own right, yet it's more so the 24-year-old's stellar changeup that gives him All-Star potential.
If Brad Peacock can't get it done in the No. 5 slot, the Astros can always call on Forrest Whitley. Despite some recent bumps in the road, the 22-year-old still ranks as MLB.com's No. 3 right-handed pitching prospect.
8. Cleveland Indians
- 1. RHP Shane Bieber
- 2. RHP Mike Clevinger
- 3. RHP Carlos Carrasco
- 4. RHP Aaron Civale
- 5. RHP Zach Plesac
The Cleveland Indians would have arguably baseball's best rotation if they still had Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. Alas, the organization's insistence on pinching pennies required both to be traded.
All the same, Cleveland's 2020 rotation is headlined by perhaps the most overlooked ace in baseball. After merely teasing his potential in 2018, Shane Bieber realized it in 2019 with a 3.28 ERA and 219 more strikeouts than walks in 214.1 innings.
Health permitting, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco both have the talent to keep pace with Bieber in 2020. Clevinger has quietly averaged a 2.96 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings over the last three years. After being diagnosed with leukemia in 2019, Carrasco may be ready to return to the track that led him to a 3.40 ERA and three 200-strikeout seasons between 2015 and 2018.
Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac filled in nicely in 2019 with a combined 3.32 ERA in 31 starts. Civale, especially, gained a foothold toward stardom by stifling hard contact en route to a 2.34 ERA over 57.2 innings.
7. Texas Rangers
- 1. LHP Mike Minor
- 2. RHP Corey Kluber
- 3. RHP Lance Lynn
- 4. RHP Kyle Gibson
- 5. RHP Jordan Lyles
Mike Minor led with a 3.59 ERA over 208.1 innings, which tied him with Justin Verlander for the major league lead in WAR at 7.8. For his part, Lance Lynn was worth 7.6 WAR by way of a 3.67 ERA across 208.1 innings.
Now along come three new rotation mates, led by two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber.
Though he made only seven starts in 2019 because of a broken arm and a strained oblique, the Rangers are hoping that Kluber will recapture the magic he had between 2014 and 2018. In that span, he posted a 2.85 ERA and 218 innings per season.
As long as he keeps the ground balls and the innings coming, Kyle Gibson should be one of the league's better No. 4 starters. Likewise, Jordan Lyles will be a terrific No. 5 starter if he picks up where he left off after finishing 2019 with a 2.45 ERA over 11 starts for the Milwaukee Brewers.
6. Cincinnati Reds
- 1. RHP Sonny Gray
- 2. RHP Luis Castillo
- 3. RHP Trevor Bauer
- 4. LHP Wade Miley
- 5. RHP Anthony DeSclafani
Cincinnati Reds starters went from the outhouse in 2018 to the penthouse in 2019 as they cut their ERA by nearly a full run from 5.02 to 4.12.
Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo drove that improvement. Gray, who is baseball's foremost spin rate maestro, made good on the Reds' dice-roll on him with a 2.87 ERA and a career-high 205 strikeouts in 2019. Castillo, meanwhile, broke out with a 3.40 ERA and 226 strikeouts, not to mention loads of ground balls.
Compared to those two, there's a good deal of uncertainty surrounding Trevor Bauer going into 2020.
He did, after all, get lit up to the tune of a 6.39 ERA across 10 starts after the Reds acquired him from the Indians last July. As recently as 2018, though, he was an All-Star and Cy Young Award contender with a 2.21 ERA and a rate of 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He may yet be that guy again.
The Reds could otherwise do far worse than Wade Miley and Anthony DeSclafani at the back end of their rotation. The former boasts a solid 3.52 ERA over the last two seasons. The latter flew under the radar with a 3.89 ERA in 31 starts last year.
5. New York Mets
- 1. RHP Jacob deGrom
- 2. RHP Noah Syndergaard
- 3. RHP Marcus Stroman
- 4. LHP Steven Matz
- 5. RHP Rick Porcello
If nothing else, the New York Mets can rest easy knowing they get to start Jacob deGrom every fifth day.
Over the last two seasons, deGrom has made himself arguably baseball's best pitcher by winning consecutive National League Cy Young Awards on the strength of a 2.05 ERA, 524 strikeouts and only 90 walks in 421 innings. His 16.9 WAR in this span is 2.4 more than the next-best pitcher.
It's harder to know what to make of Noah Syndergaard after his ERA ballooned from 3.03 in 2018 to 4.28 in 2019. Yet even amid his struggles in 2019, Thor still boasted an MLB-best 97.7 mph fastball and suppressed loud contact while also striking out 202 batters.
As No. 3 starters go, Marcus Stroman should be one of the better ones out there in 2020. He's posted an ERA in the low 3.00s in two of the last three seasons. He can make it three out of four if he maintains his elite ground-ball rate.
There's a drop-off in New York's rotation after deGrom, Syndergaard and Stroman, yet the Mets should get roughly league-average production out of Steven Matz and either Rick Porcello or Michael Wacha.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
- 1. LHP Clayton Kershaw
- 2. RHP Walker Buehler
- 3. RHP Kenta Maeda
- 4. LHP Alex Wood
- 5. LHP Julio Urias
It'll primarily be up to Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler to shoulder the load in 2020. Even in his post-prime state, Kershaw has carried on as a well-above-average starter with a 2.89 ERA over the last two seasons. Buehler has mustered a 2.98 ERA of his own, and he still has untapped potential.
Buehler boasts an elite 96.6 mph fastball and average spin rate comparable to Justin Verlander, Mike Minor and Gerrit Cole. And after climbing from 137.1 innings in 2018 to 182.1 in 2019, he's ready for the next step into 200-inning workhorse territory.
After Kershaw and Buehler, the Dodgers figure to utilize a revolving door of starters that will feature not only Kenta Maeda, Alex Wood and Julio Urias, but also Ross Stripling, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. Each of the six is capable in his own way.
Yet it's Urias, specifically, who might emerge as a solid No. 3 in Los Angeles' rotation. The 23-year-old was once a top-tier prospect, and his 3.18 career ERA in the majors is flanked by eye-catching peripherals.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
- 1. RHP Charlie Morton
- 2. LHP Blake Snell
- 3. RHP Tyler Glasnow
- 4. RHP Yonny Chirinos
- 5. LHP Ryan Yarbrough
The Tampa Bay Rays' 2020 rotation might contain the best front three of any starting five in baseball.
Charlie Morton is the de facto ace of the staff after dominating with a 3.05 ERA and 240 strikeouts in 2019, which ultimately placed him third in the American League Cy Young Award voting. After him comes Blake Snell, who won the AL Cy Young Award in 2018 with the help of a stellar 1.89 ERA.
Yet Tyler Glasnow has the ability to be better than either of his fellow aces. Though injuries limited him to 12 starts in 2019, he showed how good he can be with a 1.78 ERA and the lowest xwOBA—a metric based on walks, strikeouts and contact quality—of any starting pitcher who faced at least 200 batters.
Though Tampa Bay's rotation is officially rounded out by Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough, both of whom have sharp control, they also figure to pitch in relief as the Rays give other pitchers a turn to start or open games.
Out of the bunch, left-handed prospect Brendan McKay and right-handed prospect Brent Honeywell should have their moments this season.
2. New York Yankees
- 1. RHP Gerrit Cole
- 2. RHP Luis Severino
- 3. LHP James Paxton
- 4. RHP Masahiro Tanaka
- 5. LHP J.A. Happ
By no measure did the New York Yankees have a good rotation in 2019. To wit, their starters had a 4.51 ERA and served up the league's third-highest home run rate.
Hence why they felt comfortable dropping a record-setting nine-year, $324 million contract on Gerrit Cole. He's coming off an otherworldly successful 2019 campaign, as he led the AL with a 2.50 ERA and set a new record with his rate of 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Yankees can also look forward to having a healthy Luis Severino in 2020. He's one of a few starters whose fastball measures up to Cole's high-90s heater, and his 2017 and 2018 seasons—across which he posted a 3.18 ERA with 450 strikeouts—are proof that he can do great things with it.
James Paxton is still another hard thrower, as well as one of the best strikeout artists among left-handed starters. Masahiro Tanaka's results tend to come and go, but he pitches like an All-Star when they come. He's also coming into 2020 hot after finding something with a 3.27 ERA down the stretch in 2019.
After a rough season in 2019, J.A. Happ is perhaps a bounce-back candidate for 2020. If that doesn't pan out, the Yankees have top prospect Deivi Garcia waiting to step into Happ's slot.
1. Washington Nationals
- 1. RHP Max Scherzer
- 2. RHP Stephen Strasburg
- 3. LHP Patrick Corbin
- 4. RHP Anibal Sanchez
- 5. RHP Joe Ross
Even despite the possibility of a World Series hangover, it's still hard not to gaze in wonder at the Washington Nationals rotation.
Their No. 1 is Max Scherzer, whose five years in Washington have produced two Cy Young Awards and seasonal averages that include a 2.74 ERA and a whopping 274 strikeouts. Even in a "down" year in 2019, he still managed a 2.92 ERA and 243 strikeouts in 172.1 innings.
Unless, of course, the Nats' No. 1 is actually Stephen Strasburg. He's coming off a banner year marked by a 3.32 ERA and a career-high 251 strikeouts in the regular season, and then a 1.98 ERA throughout a spectacular postseason. His reward: a seven-year, $245 million contract.
To his credit, Patrick Corbin would be a No. 1 in most other rotations. He's been remarkably consistent in compiling a 3.20 ERA and 484 strikeouts in 402 innings since the start of 2018.
Though he'll turn 36 on February 27, Anibal Sanchez has revived his career with a 3.39 ERA over the last two seasons. Joe Ross' 5.21 ERA in limited action since 2017 casts him as the weak link of this group, but he's throwing harder post-Tommy John surgery and showed signs of encouragement with a 3.02 ERA as a starter in 2019.