Fixing MLB's Worst Starting Pitching Rotations for 2021

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2021

Fixing MLB's Worst Starting Pitching Rotations for 2021

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    In today's MLB of launch angles and rising home run rates, pitching still wins championships.

    Without a strong starting rotation to lean on when the October lights shine brightest, a manager can be forced to turn to openers and bullpen games with the season on the line, as we saw with a number of teams during the expanded 2020 postseason.

    Upgrading a rotation is easier said than done this offseason since the free-agent market is extremely thin on pitching talent beyond National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer.

    Still, there are several quality veteran arms available and a wealth of bounce-back candidates that could prove well worth a roll of the dice.

    Ahead we set out to fix the worst starting rotations in baseball, though it wasn't as simple as starting with last year's ERA numbers.

    Each team's projected rotation, courtesy of FanGraphs, was reviewed, and clubs were separated into three categories:

    • Contending teams with solid rotations already in place
    • Rebuilding teams unlikely to make major additions
    • Contending teams with work to do to rebuild their staffs

    There were six teams that fell into that third category, and that's where we focused our attention, analyzing the starters and suggesting additions before closing things out with a proposed rotation.

    Let's start with a rundown of the teams from the first two categories.

Projected Rotations for the Teams Not Included

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    The Dodgers rotation should again be one of the best in baseball in 2021.
    The Dodgers rotation should again be one of the best in baseball in 2021.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Solid Rotations Already in Place

    These range from the cream of the crop to average, but no one would categorize them among the worst in baseball:

    • ARI: Zac Gallen, Madison Bumgarner, Caleb Smith, Luke Weaver, Merrill Kelly
    • ATL: Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, Drew Smyly, Kyle Wright
    • CWS: Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech
    • CIN: Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Wade Miley, Michael Lorenzen
    • CLE: Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Triston McKenzie
    • HOU: Zack Greinke, Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Jose Urquidy, Cristian Javier
    • LAD: Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, David Price, Dustin May
    • MIA: Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, Elieser Hernandez, Sixto Sanchez, Trevor Rogers
    • MIL: Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Josh Lindblom, Adrian Houser, Eric Lauer
    • MIN: Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, Michael Pineda, Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer
    • NYM: Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, David Peterson, Seth Lugo, Steven Matz
    • OAK: Chris Bassitt, Jesus Luzardo, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Daulton Jefferies
    • PHI: Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, Spencer Howard
    • SD: Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack, Adrian Morejon
    • STL: Jack Flaherty, Kwang Hyun Kim, Carlos Martinez, Austin Gomber, Miles Mikolas
    • TB: Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, Michael Wacha, Josh Fleming, Trevor Richards
    • WAS: Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Erick Fedde, Joe Ross


    Rebuilding Teams Unlikely to Make Major Additions

    The focus for these teams is finding free-agent bargains and giving their rising prospects chances to prove themselves, so don't expect big signings:

    • BAL: John Means, Alex Cobb, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann
    • DET: Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Michael Fulmer, Jose Urena, Tarik Skubal
    • KC: Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, Mike Minor, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic
    • PIT: Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, Mitch Keller
    • SF: Kevin Gausman, Johnny Cueto, Anthony DeSclafani, Logan Webb, Shaun Anderson
    • SEA: Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Nick Margevicius, Chris Flexen
    • TEX: Kyle Gibson, Jordan Lyles, Kohei Arihara, Dane Dunning, Kolby Allard

Boston Red Sox

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    Chris Sale
    Chris SaleAssociated Press

    Projected Rotation

    • RHP Nathan Eovaldi
    • LHP Eduardo Rodriguez
    • RHP Tanner Houck
    • RHP Matt Andriese
    • RHP Nick Pivetta

    The Boston Red Sox used 16 different starters to get through a 60-game schedule in 2020, and they were without the lefty duo of Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez for the entire season.

    There were some bright spots, however.

    Nathan Eovaldi put together a bounce-back season, posting a 3.72 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 48.1 innings in the second year of a four-year, $68 million deal, and 2017 first-round pick Tanner Houck had a 0.53 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 17 innings over his first three MLB starts.

    Still, a lot will hinge on how quickly Sale (Tommy John surgery) and Rodriguez (myocarditis) can return to form.

    Free-agent signee Matt Andriese can be a useful swingman, and Nick Pivetta has enough upside to be worth the gamble of last year's trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, but neither should be counted on to make anything close to 30 starts.

    The Red Sox are the perfect team to swing for the fences on a one-year deal with the uber-talented but oft-injured James Paxton. He is plenty familiar with the American League East from his time with the New York Yankees, and if he does bounce back, it would be a nice personnel win.

    Bryan Mata, the best pitching prospect in the Boston system, is also ready for an MLB trial after closing the 2019 season at Double-A. His fastball-slider combination gives him closer upside, but there's still a chance he sticks in the rotation.

    Proposed Rotation: LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, RHP Nathan Eovaldi, LHP James Paxton, RHP Tanner Houck, RHP Bryan Mata

Chicago Cubs

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    Adbert Alzolay
    Adbert AlzolayNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Projected Rotation

    • RHP Kyle Hendricks
    • RHP Zach Davies
    • RHP Alec Mills
    • RHP Adbert Alzolay
    • RHP Colin Rea

    Chicago Cubs starters finished sixth in the majors with a 3.77 ERA last season, but the projected staff looks much different heading into 2021.

    NL Cy Young Award runner-up Yu Darvish was traded to the San Diego Padres, while Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are free agents, leaving Kyle Hendricks as the last man standing.

    Zach Davies was part of the return in the Darvish deal, and he had the best season of his career in 2020 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 69.1 innings, but his 3.88 FIP paints a better picture of what can be expected. He fits best as a No. 4 starter on a contending team.

    Alec Mills showed flashes in his first extended MLB action last year, and Adbert Alzolay pitched his way into the conversation with a 2.95 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 21.1 innings, but relying on both to hold down spots would be risky given their limited track records.

    Colin Rea is a place-holder and nothing more than organizational depth.

    As the Cubs begin to retool, taking a chance on a pair of the market's more intriguing bounce-back candidates to fill out the rotation in the short term would make a lot of sense. Corey Kluber and Chris Archer have impressive histories of success, and with clean bills of health, they could deliver significant value on one-year, incentive-laden deals.

    Proposed Rotation: RHP Kyle Hendricks, RHP Zach Davies, RHP Corey Kluber, RHP Chris Archer, RHP Adbert Alzolay

Colorado Rockies

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    Jon Gray
    Jon GrayAlex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Projected Rotation

    • RHP German Marquez
    • LHP Kyle Freeland
    • RHP Antonio Senzatela
    • RHP Jon Gray
    • RHP Ryan Castellani

    Even with another strong year from German Marquez and bounce-back performances from Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela, Colorado Rockies starters still finished 20th in the majors with a 4.83 ERA.

    The other two spots in the rotation were disasters.

    Jon Gray struggled to a 6.69 ERA and 5.06 FIP in 39 innings, and his strikeout rate plummeted from 9.0 per nine innings to a career-low 5.1.

    Rookie Ryan Castellani finished fourth on the team in innings (43.1), but he had more walks (26) than strikeouts (25).

    The directionless front office does not appear ready to throw in the towel on this core, but Colorado can't hope to contend without at least one significant addition to the starting staff and a return to form by Gray.

    It's always tough to attract top-tier pitchers to Coors Field, so the trade market may be the better approach to shoring up the staff.

    A deal for Texas Rangers right-hander Kyle Gibson, who finished seventh among qualified starters with a 51.5 percent ground-ball rate in 2020, could be a creative approach to upgrading the unit. He has two years and $17.3 million left on his contract, and the Rangers are clearly in sell mode.

    Proposed Rotation: RHP German Marquez, LHP Kyle Freeland, RHP Kyle Gibson, RHP Antonio Senzatela, RHP Jon Gray

Los Angeles Angels

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    Griffin Canning
    Griffin CanningTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Projected Rotation

    • LHP Andrew Heaney
    • RHP Dylan Bundy
    • RHP Griffin Canning
    • LHP Patrick Sandoval
    • RHP Jaime Barria
    • RHP Shohei Ohtani

    If there's one team that should outbid anyone and everyone for the services of NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, it's the Los Angeles Angels.

    The Angels have finished 29th in the majors in starters' ERA each of the past two seasons, logging a 5.52 ERA this past year while finishing with another sub-.500 record.

    Bauer has expressed an interest in pitching every fourth day, and putting him in the same rotation as Shohei Ohtani, who will likely only pitch once per week, could create some headaches for manager Joe Maddon, but it could also be the ticket to getting the most out of both of those pitchers.

    With Bauer penciled into the role of staff ace, suddenly the Angels rotation would look solid.

    Andrew Heaney posted a 4.46 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 66.2 innings in 2020, Dylan Bundy was one of the bargain pickups of the year with a 3.29 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 72 strikeouts in 65.2 innings to finish ninth in AL Cy Young voting, and a healthy Griffin Canning still has No. 2-starter upside.

    Are the Angels ready to offer something like a five-year, $175 million contract?

    That might be what it takes to sign Bauer this winter, but it would be money well spent to strengthen the rotation for the age-29 to age-33 seasons of Mike Trout's career.

    Proposed Rotation: RHP Trevor Bauer, LHP Andrew Heaney, RHP Dylan Bundy, RHP Griffin Canning, RHP Jaime Barria, RHP Shohei Ohtani

New York Yankees

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    Deivi Garcia
    Deivi GarciaJae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Projected Rotation

    • RHP Gerrit Cole
    • LHP Jordan Montgomery
    • RHP Deivi Garcia
    • RHP Michael King
    • RHP Domingo German

    Jordan Montgomery has a 4.14 ERA in 230.2 MLB innings, and he pitched extremely well in Game 4 of the ALDS with four innings of three-hit, one-run ball as the starter.

    However, he has no business being penciled into the No. 2 starter spot on a team with World Series aspirations.

    Deivi Garcia and Michael King have pitched a combined 63 MLB innings; Domingo German is getting lit up in winter ball after spending the 2020 season serving a domestic violence suspension; Luis Severino may not be available until midseason as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery; and top prospect Clarke Schmidt didn't look ready in his first taste of the big leagues last year (7.11 ERA in 6.1 innings).

    For all that's being made of whether DJ LeMahieu re-sign, the rotation should be the No. 1 concern for Yankees fans.

    Signing Taijuan Walker to a multiyear deal would be a nice first step. He's still just 28 years old and pitched extremely well in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery last year.

    From there, re-upping Masahiro Tanaka makes a ton of sense, and he was rock-solid once again in 2020 with a 3.56 ERA in 10 starts, though he did struggle in the playoffs for the first time.

    Those two signings would allow Garcia and Schmidt further time to develop in the minors and would leave the team less reliant on a speedy return from Severino. It's not the most exciting approach to shoring up the staff, but it's the right one given the other items on their offseason to-do list.

    Proposed Rotation: RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP Masahiro Tanaka, RHP Taijuan Walker, LHP Jordan Montgomery, RHP Domingo German

Toronto Blue Jays

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    Nate Pearson
    Nate PearsonJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Projected Rotation

    • LHP Hyun Jin Ryu
    • LHP Robbie Ray
    • RHP Nate Pearson
    • RHP Tanner Roark
    • RHP Ross Stripling

    At first glance, this looks like a potentially solid staff.

    However, Robbie Ray (11 GS, 6.62 ERA, 7.8 BB/9) and Tanner Roark (11 GS, 6.80 ERA) were both shelled in 2020 after putting up promising numbers the previous season.

    Then there is top prospect Nate Pearson, whose high-octane fastball and wipeout slider give him one of the highest ceilings of any pitching prospect in baseball. The 24-year-old remains a significant part of the team's future, but he couldn't find the strike zone in his MLB debut, issuing 13 walks in 18 innings while struggling to a 6.00 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.

    Ross Stripling has enjoyed success as a starter in the past, but he really fits best as a swingman.

    Finding a reliable No. 2 starter to slot behind Hyun Jin Ryu should be the team's top priority, and Jake Odorizzi could be that guy at a relatively reasonable price.

    An All-Star in 2019 when he went 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 178 strikeouts in 159 innings, Odorizzi dealt with multiple injury issues in 2020 and wound up making just four starts. A year after accepting a qualifying offer, he could be one of the best bargains in this free-agent class.

    That would mean relying on Ray, Roark and Stripling to only fill two rotation spots, and they would still have Thomas Hatch, Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, T.J. Zeuch and Sean Reid-Foley as in-house options should that group falter.

    Proposed Rotation: LHP Hyun Jin Ryu, RHP Jake Odorizzi, RHP Nate Pearson, LHP Robbie Ray, RHP Tanner Roark


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