Playing a 162-game season is a marathon, and expecting an entire pitching staff to stay mostly healthy all year is unrealistic. Just ask the Seattle Mariners, who used 40 different pitchers between their starting staff and bullpen last year.
It’s hard to compete for a playoff spot and even harder to get deep into October without a solid rotation in place. With that in mind, which squads have a chance at being a top-10 unit in 2018? We use FanGraphs’ projections as a guide (although we veered off the path a few times), with the projected Opening Day rotations coming via Roster Resource.
10. Arizona Diamondbacks
Projected fWAR: 15.7
The DBacks’ rotation has gone from one end of the spectrum to the other over the last two years. Their 8.9 fWAR and 5.09 ERA in 2016 were both among baseball’s worst before making a complete turnaround in 2017, with the fifth-highest fWAR (23.2) and third-best ERA (3.67).
When looking at how the starting staff is currently constructed, there are questions at the top. Robbie Ray just enjoyed a breakout campaign, but some underlying stats suggest he may be in for negative regression. Meanwhile, Zack Greinke’s lack of velocity is concerning enough for manager Torey Lovullo to hold off on naming the veteran as Opening Day starter for the time being.
There’s good depth behind these two in Walker, Godley, and Corbin, but it’ll be tough for the group to reach last year’s level of production if Greinke and Ray aren’t able to lead the way.
9. St. Louis Cardinals
Projected fWAR: 15.7
When using ERA as the barometer, the Cardinals’ rotation was the 10th-best in baseball last season. Carlos Martinez has been as consistent as they come since becoming a full-time starter in 2014, too — he’s never thrown fewer than 179 innings (increasing each year) and has been worth at least 3.3 fWAR in each. It just gets a little dicey after him.
That starts with Adam Wainwright, who needs to bounce back from the worst season of his long and productive career. He posted a 5.11 ERA in 123 innings of work in 2017, and while his 4.70 SIERA shows he was a bit unlucky, it wasn’t by much.
Luke Weaver will get his first shot at a full year in the big leagues after an impressive 60.1 innings with the Cards last year. He’s looked solid in Grapefruit League action (9 strikeouts and just 1 walk over 9 innings), but Miles Mikolas hasn’t been nearly as effective while he continues adjusting back to baseball in the states. However, after allowing 10 earned runs in his first 4.2 innings, his third start was much better (no runs on 4 hits in 4 innings).
8. New York Mets
Projected fWAR: 16.5
“As long as they stay healthy” is a phrase the Mets seem to use just about every year. But still, the top of this rotation is rock solid if both Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard can take the mound every fifth day. Jason Vargas provides veteran stability in the middle, which is good because the rest is anyone’s guess.
Among those five hurlers, FanGraphs is projecting the most innings for Harvey (138), and he’s probably the most interesting guy to follow. With free agency on the horizon, this is an important platform year to at least show he can still be a capable starter. It all starts with his four-seamer, which has easily been the most frequently used pitch throughout his career.
After opponents posted just a 71 wRC+ against the offering in 2013, that number has consistently climbed before settling in at a career-worst 172 mark last year.
7. Boston Red Sox
Projected fWAR: 15.9
The Red Sox had the American League’s second-best rotation in 2017 when looking at both ERA (3.73) and fWAR (23.9), and for the most part, it’s because of Chris Sale (2.90 ERA, 7.7 fWAR in 214.1 innings). The same group is back for another season, but the big question involves the health of Drew Pomeranz, Steven Wright, and Eduardo Rodriguez.
Pomeranz has been dealing with forearm tightness, and although his status for Opening Day is questionable, he’s taking steps toward being on the active roster. However, both Wright (surgery in May) and Rodriguez (surgery in October) won’t be ready for the start of the season as they continue progressing from respective knee surgeries.
Those three are crucial pieces to the puzzle for Boston because it rounds out what could be a deep and productive starting staff if they all have a clean bill of health.
6. New York Yankees
Projected fWAR: 16.4
The Yankees didn’t make any additions to the starting rotation despite a reported interest in doing so, but this group will likely get a boost anyway by having Sonny Gray for a full season after acquiring him via trade last July. Pairing him with last year’s breakout star and AL Cy Young finalist, Luis Severino, is enough of a formidable top of the rotation.
It’ll be even better if Masahiro Tanaka repeats his second-half performance from 2017 and leaves the first-half performance in the rearview mirror. He posted a 5.47 ERA and .354 wOBA prior to the All-Star break, with the most concerning part being the 2.03 homers he allowed per nine innings. The right-hander lowered that number to 1.41 after the midsummer classic, which was also accompanied by an ERA (3.77) and wOBA allowed (.286) we’re more accustomed to seeing from him.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected fWAR: 18.5
Among the clubs listed here, the above Opening Day rotation projection is probably the most meaningless for the Dodgers. They boasted one of baseball’s best rotations last year despite only having one pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) qualify for the ERA title.
While there are a number of left-handed pitchers here, the most interesting of all is Alex Wood. He put together a career year upon being inserted into the rotation, but his production was awfully front-loaded. After dominating to the tune of a 1.67 ERA, a .214 wOBA allowed, and a 30.9% strikeout rate through 80.2 innings, he looked very different for the final 71.2 frames.
Seeing regression after a performance like should be expected, as his ERA settled in at 3.89 with a .321 wOBA allowed, but his strikeout rate dipped all the way down to 18.0%. That also coincided with a steep drop in his swinging-strike rate (13.6% in first half, 9.7% in second half). What wasn’t as expected, though, was a drop in fastball velocity (92.5 mph in first half, 91.0 mph in second half).
He was regularly averaging 92-93 mph through his early-season starts, but it consistently fell throughout the year, culminating with an 89.7 mph mark in his final regular-season start. With durability issues, one would have to imagine that Los Angeles will adjust accordingly.
4. Washington Nationals
Projected fWAR: 16.7
The Nats get to do something this year that seems kind of rare. First-year manager Dave Martinez will hand the ball over to one of the top-six finishers in last year’s NL Cy Young voting three out of every five days. Even if Gio Gonzalez is primed for regression based off his peripherals, there’s a lot of experience and production at the top with him, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg.
Washington’s fifth rotation spot is a bit of an unknown with A.J. Cole, but Tanner Roark is the guy that can help take this group to the next level. He’s thrown at least 198 innings in a season twice between 2014-16. In those campaigns, Roark has posted 3.2 fWAR with a sub-3.00 ERA in each. Advanced ERA estimators were higher, but he’s outperformed them for the majority of his big league career.
While the 31-year-old’s 4.67 ERA from 2017 was a career-worst mark, he did revert back to more of his old self following the All-Star break. A key for the right-hander will be to continue inducing soft contact — that improved as the season progressed, but the 16.7% soft-hit rate he produced was the lowest of his career, and much lower than what he produced in 2015 (21.9%) and 2016 (23.1%).
3. Chicago Cubs
Projected fWAR: 17.9
This group was going to be intriguing to follow before they signed Yu Darvish. Adding him into the mix just makes it even better. A full year from Jose Quintana will also undoubtedly provide a lift and potentially make up for any decline from Jon Lester.
When looking at this projected starting five, the one with easily the most inconsistent track record is Tyler Chatwood. As is the case with most pitchers who call Coors Field home, the right-hander performed much better on the road (3.31 career ERA) than he did in the thin air of Denver (5.25).
This comparison was even more extreme over the past couple years, with a home ERA north of 6.00 and a road mark that was under 3.00 since 2016. There have also been equally distinct gaps in his BABIP numbers during time time — it was 110 points lower on the road in 2016 and 130-plus points lower in 2017. One thing that stayed consistent, though, was his walk rate, which was high everywhere. It was actually worse on the road (12.5%) than at home (11.9%) last year.
2. Cleveland Indians
Projected fWAR: 18.8
It’s hard to generate a lot of headlines when you share a rotation with someone as dominant as Corey Kluber — just ask Carlos Carrasco. He’s been incredibly consistent since 2014 if we take a look at a number of statistics in the table below.
Carrasco and Kluber are projected to accrue 10.6 fWAR between the two of them. That in itself already sounds fantastic, but we can put it further into perspective when noting that this projection is higher than nine other rotations overall.
1. Houston Astros
Projected fWAR: 19.2
When using fWAR, the Astros had baseball’s sixth-best rotation in baseball last year. They accomplished this despite only having Justin Verlander on board for a month, a much different version of Dallas Keuchel following the All-Star break (1.67 ERA in first half, 4.24 in second half), and basically no production from Lance McCullers in the second half (8.23 ERA in 27.1 innings).
Oh, and they went out an added Gerrit Cole, which was more of a luxury than a necessity.
With all that in mind, it’ll be interesting to see how Charlie Morton performs after the best year of his career. His 95 mph average four-seam fastball velocity was a career-high mark, as was his 26.4% strikeout rate and 10.9% swinging-strike rate. That velocity bump also helps the effectiveness of his curveball — opposing hitters mustered just a 17 wRC+ against the offering, which included a 44.3% strikeout rate and 17.7% swinging-strike rate.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s also written a book about how to become a sports blogger. You can sign up for his email newsletter here.