Biggest X-Factor on Every MLB Pitching Staff for 2020

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2020

Biggest X-Factor on Every MLB Pitching Staff for 2020

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    In a 60-game MLB season with limited time to prepare, things are bound to get a little weird on the pitching side of things this year.

    We might not see starters pitching beyond the fifth inning for the first few weeks. The opener could be more prevalent than ever. Teams could even piggyback two starters to fill one spot in the starting rotation, an approach that is utilized often in the minors, but rarely seen in the majors.

    Among others things, that could mean some unheralded players filling critical roles on the pitching staff.

    With that in mind, we've highlighted the biggest X-factor on all 30 pitching staffs.

    It's a healthy mix of prospects on the rise, breakout candidates, bounce-back candidates and players returning from injury, and they could all make a huge impact in 2020.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Luke Weaver

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    Luke Weaver was one of the key pieces acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Paul Goldschmidt blockbusteralong with catcher Carson Kellyand his D-backs debut began with an excellent first two months.

    The 26-year-old posted a 2.94 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 64.1 innings over 12 starts, backing those impressive numbers with a convincing 3.07 FIP.

    Unfortunately, what looked like a breakout year in the making was brought to an abrupt halt in May when he was sidelined for the remainder of the season with a sprained UCL and strained flexor mass in his throwing arm.

    With veterans Madison Bumgarner and Robbie Ray set to lead the rotation, alongside up-and-coming young arm Zac Gallen, Weaver could be the rotation piece that pushes them over the top if he can return to his pre-injury form.

Atlanta Braves: Kyle Wright

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    With Felix Hernandez opting out of the 2020 season and Cole Hamels expected to start the year on the injured list, the door is open for one of Atlanta's young arms to claim the No. 5 starter spot.

    Top prospect Kyle Wright has "emerged as the favorite" for that job, according to Mark Bowman of MLB.com.

    The 24-year-old had a strong spring with a 2.03 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 13.1 innings, and he posted a 4.17 ERA and 1.26 WHIP with 116 strikeouts in 112.1 innings in a hitter friendly Triple-A environment last year.

    With a sturdy 6'4", 215-pound frame and a four-pitch arsenal that grades out above average across the board, he profiles as an impact starter for years to come.

    If anyone in the organization is going to take a Mike Soroka-esque step forward in 2020, it's Wright.

Baltimore Orioles: Hunter Harvey

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Will this be the year we finally get to see a fully healthy Hunter Harvey?

    A first-round pick in 2013, he climbed onto the Baseball America Top 100 list in the No. 68 spot at the start of the 2015 season after logging a 3.18 ERA with 106 strikeouts in 87.2 innings at Single-A.

    He wound up missing the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he pitched a combined 63.2 innings in the minors from 2016 to 2018 while struggling to stay on the field.

    The 25-year-old finally made his MLB debut on Aug. 17 last season and turned heads down the stretch with a 1.42 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 6.1 innings out of the bullpen.

    It's not out of the question to think he could pitch his way into the closer's role in 2020, especially if Mychal Givens winds up hitting the trade block a year removed from free agency.

Boston Red Sox: Ryan Weber

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    Louis DeLuca/Associated Press

    Nathan Eovaldi would have been the easy pick here. He's an important piece of the puzzle in Boston with Chris Sale recovering from Tommy John surgery, David Price traded to the Dodgers and Eduardo Rodriguez currently sidelined.

    However, right-hander Ryan Weber could also be a difference-maker.

    The 29-year-old was staked to a rotation spot early this spring, and he's been touted as a potential breakout candidate who is ready to take a step forward. What has changed for a player who was drafted all the way back in 2009?

    Weber offered up his thoughts while talking with Christopher Smith of MassLive:

    "Really trusting my stuff. I started throwing that cutter. Trusting that. It’s a complementary pitch off my sinker. It just adds another piece to make me effective. And I think that’s upped my performance. And having the ability to throw five pitches for strikes, I think that correlates to getting deep into games and obviously that’s what a starter does or hopefully does. I think my stuff plays better as a starter than as a reliever. But really ... I’ve started focusing on the importance of every single pitch and that every single pitch matters. I told myself that when spring training started. And I’m telling that to myself now."

    If he provides stability by holding down a rotation spot, the entire Boston staff will look that much better.

Chicago Cubs: Duane Underwood Jr.

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    The Cubs will need consistency from their starting rotation to contend in 2020, but the biggest questions lie in the bullpen.

    Gone from last year's relief corps are Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Brandon Kintzler, Brad Brach and David Phelps, leaving a new cast of characters tasked with bridging the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel.

    Jordan Bastian of MLB.com wrote: "The Cubs have used Summer Camp to stretch a handful of relievers out to multiple innings. [Manger David] Ross said it will be important to have these "bridge" relievers at the start of the season, if any of the starters are unable to last deep into games."

    Bastian went on to name Duane Underwood Jr. specifically as a reliever being groomed for a potential multi-inning role. The former top prospect made the full-time move from starter to reliever at Triple-A last season.

    The 26-year-old had a 4.24 FIP with 13 strikeouts in 11.2 innings out of the MLB bullpen last season, showing the requisite power stuff to succeed in a relief role.

Chicago White Sox: Dylan Cease

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    In 2018, Lucas Giolito had the worst ERA (6.13) among qualified starters. The White Sox stuck by him through those growing pains, and he broke out as one of the best pitchers in the American League last season.

    Can Dylan Cease follow a similar developmental path?

    The 24-year-old posted a 5.79 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 14 starts while also showing overpowering stuff at times with 81 strikeouts in 73 innings.

    In his last full season in the minors in 2018, Cease went 12-2 with a 2.40 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 160 strikeouts in 124 innings.

    If he can take that next step forward and join Giolito at the top of the rotation, it would go a long way in aiding the South Siders' push back toward contention.

Cincinnati Reds: Robert Stephenson

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Once viewed as the potential ace of the future in Cincinnati, Robert Stephenson dealt with command issues throughout his time in the minors, and he spent much of the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons shuttling between Triple-A and the MLB roster.

    The Reds finally pulled the plug on developing him as a starter last season and planted him in the big league bullpen, where he posted a 3.76 ERA and 1.04 WHIP with 11.3 K/9 while tallying 11 holds in 56 appearances.

    Those numbers are solid at surface level and even more impressive when you consider how his season progressed.

    The 27-year-old entered August with a 4.84 ERA before dominating hitters over the final two months to the tune of a 1.35 ERA, 0.70 WHIP and 9.9 K/9 in 21 appearances while holding opposing batters to a .130 average and .430 OPS.

    He's capable of joining the ranks of the game's elite relievers, and with a strong starting rotation in place and a solid one-two punch already in place at the back of the bullpen in Amir Garrett and Raisel Iglesias, that could help elevate the Reds staff to another level.

Cleveland Indians: Aaron Civale

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    With Corey Kluber gone, the Cleveland Indians will be relying on two relatively unproven starters this year behind the trio of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco.

    While Zach Plesac (4.94 FIP) and Adam Plutko (5.23 FIP) made 21 and 20 starts, respectively, last season, their peripheral numbers are concerning to say the least.

    Meanwhile, Aaron Civale looks like the real deal.

    The 25-year-old had a 2.34 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 10 starts last season, and his 3.40 FIP in 57.2 innings provides plenty of reason for optimism that he can hold down a rotation spot.

    The Indians have done an excellent job squeezing a little something extra out of fringe pitching prospects in recent years, and the 2016 third-round pick could be the next to exceed initial expectations.

Colorado Rockies: LHP Kyle Freeland

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    Kyle Freeland
    Kyle FreelandDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Which Kyle Freeland will show up in 2020?

    In 2018, the left-hander was a bona fide Cy Young candidate, going 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 202.1 innings to finish fourth in the balloting.

    His encore performance was a disaster.

    The 27-year-old was shelled to the tune of a 6.73 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in 104.1 innings, surrendering a .296 opponents' batting average while serving up a staggering 25 home runs for a 2.2 HR/9 rate.

    Jon Gray and German Marquez are a solid one-two punch atop the Colorado staff. But if the Rockies are going to have any chance of rebounding from a 91-loss season, they'll need others to perform significantly better than they did last year. Freeland is at the top of that list.

Detroit Tigers: Daniel Norris

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    It's easy to forget that it was Daniel Norrisnot Matthew Boydwho was considered the prize of the David Price blockbuster at the 2015 trade deadline.

    The 27-year-old has dealt with various injuries and a thyroid cancer diagnosis, but he finally stayed healthy long enough to make 29 starts and toss a career-high 144.1 innings last year while posting a 4.41 ERA.

    If he can do a better job keeping the ball in the ballpark after allowing 25 home runs for a 1.6 HR/9 rate, he could join Boyd at the top of the starting rotation while the team continues to rebuild and wait on the arrival of top prospects Casey Mize and Matt Manning.

    With free agency looming for Norris after the 2021 season, the Tigers would love nothing more than for him to pitch his way into being an attractive trade chip.

Houston Astros: Josh James

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The Houston Astros failed to make a major outside addition to address the departures of Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley from the starting rotation.

    A healthy Lance McCullers Jr. will fill one of the spots behind Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, and he falls into the X-factor category as well as he looks to regain his All-Star form.

    However, it's the ability to plug those final two spots on the staff that could determine how the season plays out for the Astros.

    Hard-throwing Josh James was used primarily in relief last season, posting a 4.70 ERA with 100 strikeouts in 61.1 innings, but he was a starter throughout his time in the minors. He'll now fill the No. 4 starter slot on the staff.

    If that swing-and-miss stuff carries over to a starter's role and he pitches closer to his 3.98 FIP, he could be one of the breakout stars of 2020.

Kansas City Royals: Brady Singer

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Brady Singer has a real shot of making the Kansas City Royals roster.

    "Singer's chances of making the team appear better now, especially with the uncertainty regarding right-hander Brad Keller, last year's Opening Day starter. Keller returned from the COVID-19 IL on Friday, and he likely won't be built up enough to make any lengthy starts soon," wrote Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com.

    Even if he doesn't start the season with the big league club, there's a good chance we'll see him make his MLB debut at some point in 2020. It's not out of the question to think he'll be the best pitcher on the staff by season's end.

    That's as much an indictment on the current state of the Kansas City rotation as anything, but Singer has legitimate front-line upside and looked the part last year in his pro debut after going No. 18 overall in the 2018 draft.

    The 6'5", 210-pound right-hander posted a 2.85 ERA and 1.19 WHIP with 138 strikeouts in 148.1 innings between High-A and Double-A, and he'll be the first to arrive in the majors from a talented crop of pitching prospects in the Kansas City farm system.

Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    After whiffing on signing Gerrit Cole, the Angels settled on Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy as the biggest additions to a starting rotation that finished 29th in the majors with a 5.64 ERA last year.

    To have any hope of reaching the postseason, Shohei Ohtani is going to have to make an impact on the mound.

    The 26-year-old had a 3.31 ERA and 1.16 WHIP with 63 strikeouts in 51.2 innings during his rookie season before spending the 2019 campaign recovering from Tommy John surgery while serving exclusively as a designated hitter.

    The Angels plan on pitching him once a week, rather than every fifth game, which should help keep him fresh.

    When everything is clicking, he's the best pitcher on the roster by a wide margin. If he can pitch like an ace for 10 starts, it would go a long way.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Blake Treinen

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The Dodgers will have a new-look starting rotation following the departures of Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu, and David Price's decision to opt out of the 2020 season means they will be relying on some of their younger arms.

    That said, there's a good chance that some combination of Alex Wood, Ross Stripling, Julio Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin will do a fine job holding down the three rotation spots behind Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler.

    The biggest question is still the bullpen.

    Closer Kenley Jansen was not his usual dominant self last year with a 3.71 ERA and eight blown saves, and high-priced setup man Joe Kelly struggled to a 4.56 ERA in the first season of a three-year, $25 million deal.

    That makes free-agent addition Blake Treinen the biggest X-factor on the roster.

    After a dominant 2018 season in which he posted a 0.78 ERA and 0.83 WHIP with 38 saves and 11.2 K/9, he struggled early last year and eventually lost the closer's job in Oakland. He finished with a 4.91 ERA in 57 appearances, and his walk rate more than doubled from 2.4 to 5.7 BB/9.

    The A's non-tendered him to start the offseason, and the Dodgers pounced with a one-year, $10 million contract. If he can come close to regaining his 2018 form, the Dodgers will have plugged the biggest hole on the roster.

Miami Marlins: Pablo Lopez

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    After Caleb Smith and Sandy Alcantara turned in breakout seasons in 2019, right-hander Pablo Lopez could be the next pitcher to command attention for the rebuilding Marlins.

    The 24-year-old posted a forgettable 5.09 ERA in 21 starts last season, but beyond those surface-level numbers there was plenty of reason for optimism.

    First and foremost, his 4.28 FIP suggests he was the victim of some bad luck.

    His numbers were also inflated by a rocky second half in which he was battling a bum shoulder that limited him to just seven starts after the All-Star break.

    During the first half of the season, he had a 4.23 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and a .234 opponents' batting average in 76.2 innings before getting knocked around the tune of a 7.01 ERA in his final seven starts.

    With a clean bill of health, he's capable of a full season's worth of his first-half production. His age and remaining club control through the 2024 season could make him a long-term piece in Miami.

Milwaukee Brewers: Adrian Houser

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Every season, there are always a handful of players I lock onto as potential breakout candidates. Sometimes I'm really right (Ketel Marte), and sometimes I'm really wrong (Nick Pivetta).

    Adrian Houser is one of those guys for me this year. Here's what I had to say in an article that published way back in February, highlighting 10 potential breakout candidates:

    "The road to MLB relevance has been a long one for Adrian Houser.

    "A second-round pick by the Houston Astros in 2011, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers at the 2015 deadline in the deal that also brought Josh Hader, Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips to Milwaukee in exchange for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers.

    "While he regularly appeared on organizational prospect lists, he was never viewed as a future impact player, and entering last season, he had pitched just 15.2 MLB innings.

    "A strong start to the season at Triple-A—where he posted a 1.27 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 21.1 innings over four starts—earned him a call-up to the MLB bullpen at the end of April, and he was an effective relief option throughout May and June.

    "He moved into the rotation full-time at the end of July.

    "By season's end, he was one of the team's most reliable starters, posting a 3.02 ERA and 1.03 WHIP while holding opponents to a .201 average and compiling 52 strikeouts in 47.2 innings over his final 10 starts."

    Newcomers Josh Lindblom, Eric Lauer and Brett Anderson will all need to pull their weight, but it's Houser who could be the key to the starting staff in 2020.

Minnesota Twins: Lewis Thorpe

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Lewis Thorpe struggled to a 6.18 ERA and 1.74 WHIP over 27.2 innings in his first taste of MLB action last season, but there's still reason to believe he can be an X-factor.

    Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson has already hinted at the team carrying two bulk relievers to help stabilize the pitching staff early in the season, and Thorpe is among the frontrunners to secure one of those spots.

    Looking beyond his ugly ERA, Thorpe had a 3.47 FIP that suggests some poor batted-ball luck, and he also racked up 31 strikeouts in his limited work.

    Rich Hill and Homer Bailey will both start the season with spots in the starting rotation, but it's not out of the question to think one or both will not make it the full 60 games based on their recent track records.

    Thorpe, 24, can serve as a multi-inning weapon while waiting in the wings as perhaps the next man up for a spot in the rotation.

New York Mets: Jeurys Familia, Dellin Betances and Edwin Diaz

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    It's hard to talk about one of these late-inning relievers without talking about all three of them.

    In 2018, they were three of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball:

    • Familia: 70 G, 3.13 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9, 10.4 K/9
    • Betances: 66 G, 2.70 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9, 15.5 K/9
    • Diaz: 73 G, 1.96 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9, 15.2 K/9

    The 2019 season was a different story entirely:

    • Familia: 66 G, 5.70 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, 6.3 BB/9, 9.5 K/9
    • Betances: 1 G, 0.00 ERA, 0.00 WHIP, 0.0 BB/9, 27.0 K/9
    • Diaz: 66 G, 5.59 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 3.4 BB/9, 15.4 K/9

    If all three can return to form alongside emerging bullpen star Seth Lugo, the Mets could have one of the best relief corps in baseball. If all three struggle again, they're going to have a difficult time closing out games and nailing down victories.

    At the very least, one of them needs to return to top-tier form in 2020.

New York Yankees: Chad Green

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Chad Green was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, posting a 2.18 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 12.3 K/9 in 144.2 innings spanning 103 appearances.

    He was a key member of the bullpen once again last year but with far less dominant numbers.

    The 29-year-old posted a 4.17 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 69 innings while splitting his time between functioning in a traditional relief role and serving as the team's opener. His walk rate (1.8 to 2.5 BB/9) and his hits allowed (7.6 to 8.6 H/9) both climbed, and his 107 ERA+ made him close to a league-average pitcher.

    With the ability to work multiple innings and pitch in a variety of roles, his contributions will be more critical than ever given the uncertainty surrounding starter workloads.

    Beyond Gerrit Cole serving as the ace of the staff, he might be the most important pitcher on the roster.

Oakland Athletics: Frankie Montas

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    It's unclear exactly what to expect from Frankie Montas in 2020.

    The burly right-hander was in the midst of a breakout season last yearposting a 2.63 ERA and 1.12 WHIP with 103 strikeouts in 96 inningswhen he was hit with an 80-game PED suspension.

    The 27-year-old claimed he "unknowingly ingested" the banned substance, but he took full responsibility for the positive test and continued to work hard on his game throughout the duration of his suspension.

    His reward: an Opening Day start.

    "It means a lot. After what happened last year, I'm just happy to be able to contribute for a full season without all that stuff," Montas told reporters. "I feel like this is every pitcher's dream. For me, this is huge. I'm very happy about it."

    If he gets back to pitching like an ace, look out for Oakland.

Philadelphia Phillies: Nick Pivetta

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Nick Pivetta was a popular breakout pick heading into last season after he posted a 3.79 FIP with 188 strikeouts over 164 innings in 2018.

    Not so much.

    After stumbling out of the gates to an 8.35 ERA and 2.13 WHIP in his first four starts, he was quickly demoted to the minors. He returned at the end of May, and in his third start back, he threw a six-hit, one-run complete game against the Cincinnati Reds.

    He ended up posting a 4.80 ERA in nine starts upon returning to the MLB rotation before he was moved to the bullpen for the remainder of the season. There, he had a 4.38 ERA and 11.3 K/9 in 24.2 innings over 17 appearances.

    So what role does he fill in 2020?

    That remains to be seen, but if he can find enough consistency to hold down the No. 5 starter job or enough swing-and-miss stuff to be a multi-inning asset out of the bullpen, he has a chance to be a major X-factor in 2020.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Chris Stratton

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The San Francisco Giants traded Chris Stratton to the Los Angeles Angels prior to last season amid a 40-man roster crunch, and he was designated for assignment in May after scuffling to an 8.59 ERA in 29.1 innings to start the year.

    The Pirates scooped him up for cash considerations, and he ended up being a revelation in Pittsburgh.

    In 28 games out of the bullpen, he logged a 3.66 ERA with 2.9 BB/9 and 9.1 K/9, recording more than three outs in 14 of his appearances.

    That ability to pitch multiple innings—and even start if needed—will make him a valuable arm on a Pittsburgh staff that is already without Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon.

San Diego Padres: Garrett Richards

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Since turning in a breakout 2014 season and a strong follow-up 2015 campaign with the Los Angeles Angels, Garrett Richards has had a hard time staying on the field.

    The 32-year-old has pitched just 147.1 total innings at the MLB level over the past four seasons, and he underwent Tommy John surgery midway through the 2018 season.

    The Padres signed him to a two-year, $15.5 million contract knowing the 2019 season would mostly be spent recovering, and now they're hoping to reap the rewards of their patience.

    "I think the better years of my career are kind of ahead of me," Richards told reporters. "I've had a lot of time off with some unfortunate injuries, but I think my baseball mind has stayed growing over the years. I'm excited to put it all together now."

San Francisco Giants: Shaun Anderson

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    For the San Francisco Giants, the focus is squarely on the future in 2020, and that means the development of their young players is the No. 1 priority.

    A strong season from Logan Webb would go a long way toward solidifying his place in the long-term rotation plans, and several other young arms are in the mix for significant roles in the bullpen.

    For now, it's unclear exactly how Shaun Anderson fits on the staff, but he's an X-factor going forward.

    The No. 4 prospect in the San Francisco farm system at the start of last season, according to Baseball America, he made his MLB debut on May 15, 2019.

    He finished his rookie season with a 5.44 ERA and 4.77 FIP in 96 innings, making 16 starts before moving to the bullpen and eventually into the closer's role with a pair of saves to finish the season.

    The 25-year-old had 13 saves with a 0.97 ERA and 11.7 K/9 during his junior season at the University of Florida, and maybe that's where he fits best going forward. That's something the team will use the 2020 season to figure out.

Seattle Mariners: Justus Sheffield

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The 2020 season could be a make-or-break year for Justus Sheffield.

    The 24-year-old was once one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball during his time in the New York Yankees farm system, but he has stalled out in the upper levels of the minors.

    He struggled to a 6.87 ERA in 55 innings at Triple-A last year and was knocked around to the tune of a 5.50 ERA and 1.72 WHIP in 36 innings at the MLB level. 

    Despite all of that, he's penciled into a spot in the starting rotation to start the 2020 season, and he'll have a chance to show he belongs in that role going forward.

    His swing-and-miss stuff gives him a high floor as a lefty reliever, and he managed a 9.3 K/9 rate in the majors last year, but he's obviously more valuable going forward if he can deliver on his top-of-the-rotation upside.

St. Louis Cardinals: Kwang Hyun Kim

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Kwang Hyun Kim is a 12-year veteran of the KBO, and he was one of the hitter-friendly league's best pitchers last season when he posted a 2.51 ERA with 180 strikeouts in 190.1 innings.

    The Cardinals signed him to a two-year, $8 million contract during the offseason, and he turned heads during spring training with 11 strikeouts over eight scoreless innings.

    His presence on the roster gives the team some valuable flexibility, specifically with how it decides to deploy Carlos Martinez.

    With Jordan Hicks opting out of the season and Giovanny Gallegos currently sidelined, the Cardinals could opt to use Martinez in the closer's role once again this year and give the No. 5 starter job to Kim. Otherwise, Kim will serve as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen who is capable of jumping into the starting rotation if the need arises.

Tampa Bay Rays: Tyler Glasnow

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    If Tyler Glasnow is really as good as his abridged 2019 season suggests, the Tampa Bay Rays might be legitimate World Series contenders.

    After struggling to establish himself in Pittsburgh, he was traded to the Rays as part of the Chris Archer blockbuster. In his first full season with the team, he went 6-0 with a 1.47 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 46 strikeouts in 43 innings over his first seven starts before forearm tightness led to a rocky outing and eventually sidelined him until September.

    He was able to avoid surgery, and all signs point to a clean bill of health for 2020, so the question now is whether he can pick up where he left off.

    One of the biggest issues for the 6'8" right-hander early in his career was keeping his mechanics in sync, and that will be something to keep an eye on early in 2020. If Glasnow struggles or aggravates the arm issue, Brendan McKay might be next up in the X-factor role.

Texas Rangers: Corey Kluber

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    How much does Corey Kluber have left in the tank?

    From his breakout 2014 season through the 2018 campaign, he went 83-45 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.02 WHIP while averaging 246 strikeouts and 218 innings per season.

    He won two Cy Young Awards during that stretch, and his 31.7 WAR trailed only Max Scherzer (34.5) among all pitchers.

    The 34-year-old got off to a slow start last season, logging a 5.80 ERA in his first seven starts before a line drive back up the middle resulted in a fractured right ulna.

    The Cleveland Indians exercised his $17.5 million club option and then flipped him to the Rangers for a middling return.

    The Rangers don't even need him to return to ace form. If he can just be a reliable No. 3 starter behind Lance Lynn and Mike Minor, he'll make a huge difference and prove well worth his acquisition cost (Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields).

Toronto Blue Jays: Nate Pearson

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Nate Pearson will likely start the season on the taxi squad, but the Blue Jays won't keep him down for long if they're serious about pushing for a playoff spot in 2020.

    The 6'6", 245-pound right-hander has a legitimate 80-grade fastball that sits in triple digits and has touched 104 mph, and he backs it with a wipeout slider, a plus changeup and a playable curveball.

    The 23-year-old might be the best pitcher in the organization right now, and that includes free-agent signing and 2019 NL Cy Young runner-up Hyun-Jin Ryu.

    Pearson had a 2.30 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 119 strikeouts in 101.2 innings over three minor league levels last season, closing out the year at Triple-A, so he has little left to prove in the minors.

    If he's up quick enough, he could give Luis Robert a run for his money in the AL Rookie of the Year race, especially if the Blue Jays are competitive.

Washington Nationals: Austin Voth

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    With Joe Ross opting out of the 2020 season, the No. 5 starter spot for the Nationals is a two-horse race between Erick Fedde and Austin Voth.

    Based on 2019 performance, it shouldn't be a difficult decision:

    • Fedde: 4.50 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 41 K, 78 IP
    • Voth: 3.30 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 44 K, 43.2 IP

    Fedde actually pitched better out of the bullpen last season with a slightly improved strikeout rate (5.1 to 4.6 K/9) and a vastly improved WHIP (1.13 to 1.56) in his nine bullpen appearances relative to his 12 starts.

    The lack of swing-and-miss stuff makes him vulnerable when he faces a lineup multiple times, while Voth showed legitimate strikeout potential last year.

    Both pitchers will likely find their way onto the Opening Day roster, and both could wind up making starts before the season is over. But it's Voth who has the best chance of making a legitimate impact on a starting staff that is already arguably the best in baseball.

        

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

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