Last season, 396 different human beings took the mound as the starting pitcher in a Major League game. Yes, that was a record (blowing past the previous mark of 368 set in the previous full season in 2019), partly attributable to the changing nature of pitcher usage patterns and partly attributable to the spate of injuries coming off the shortened 2020 season.
All of which is to say there are limits to how much we can accurately assess a team’s “starting five” going into the 2022 season. The shortened Spring Training will pose another challenge to teams. Maybe they won’t again use an average of 13.2 starters apiece, but they could come pretty darn close.
Still, it’s fun to look at how the starters stack up going into the year. And on the heels of discussing the Top 10 lineups in MLB on Monday, that’s what we’ll do here with our Top 10 rotations.
We are listing each club’s projected rotation from this list, but, again, it takes a village to fill a rotation over the course of 162 games.
Funny how Scherzer always seems to be in a great rotation, huh? Now, as he pairs with deGrom, the Mets have one of the more accomplished 1-2 punches in MLB history, with five Cy Young Awards and 11 top-five finishes between them. Trading for Bassitt, who has a 142 ERA+ over the last two seasons, further deepens this group.
That doesn’t mean this rotation is without risk. Between deGrom’s elbow issues last season, Scherzer’s age (37) and career innings total (2,665 1/3 including the regular season and postseason), Carrasco coming off elbow surgery and a bad season and Walker coming off knee surgery and a bad second half, nothing is guaranteed. But at the risk of issuing a controversial opinion, leading your rotation with two of the greatest pitchers of their generation is a good thing.
You could put the Brewers ahead of the Mets. You’d get a lot of hate mail from the 11368 zip code, but it would be a justifiable ranking. The Brewers have the reigning NL Cy Young winner in Burnes and the guy who finished fifth in the voting in Woodruff. Last year, every single member of their starting five had an ERA+ of at least 132, or 32% better than league average, and there aren’t a bunch of health questions dogging this group, aside from whether Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta will experience any belated effects from stretching out to career-high workloads in 2021 after the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.
Again, we’ll defer to the Scherzer-deGrom pairing in this particular pecking order (and perhaps get hate mail from the 53214 zip code). But to be clear, it’s more like 1A and 1B. Never sleep on the Brewers.
Even after the departure of reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, the Blue Jays could potentially field an even better rotation than the one that ranked sixth in the Majors in ERA (3.79) last season. That’s because they’ll have a full season from Berríos, their impact 2021 Trade Deadline acquisition (120 ERA+ over the last three seasons), and because of their offseason signing of Gausman (138 ERA+ over the last two seasons).
Ryu, who was league average last season after a run of three straight extraordinary seasons, should benefit from Matt Chapman’s defensive help in the infield. Manoah was a breakout rookie last year (136 ERA+ in 111 2/3 innings), and former top pitching prospect Nate Pearson looms as depth here. Toronto hopes to do for the recently signed Kikuchi, who was terrific in the first half last season (3.48 ERA) before cratering in the second (5.98), what it did last year for Steven Matz, whose career was rejuvenated in his lone season north of the border.
The AL’s best rotation in 2021 (3.57 ERA) will have to account for the loss of Carlos Rodón to free agency, and so much will be riding on former top prospect Michael Kopech making a seamless transition from the bullpen after only pitching 69 1/3 innings in the last two years (Kopech opted out of the 2020 season).
But even with that wild card taken into account, there’s enough stability here in the form of Giolito (128 ERA+ over the last three seasons) and Lynn (146 ERA+ in the last three seasons) to justify a prominent spot in our Top 10. Cease, who has electric stuff and dramatically improved his strikeout rate (from 17.3 percent in 2020 to 31.9 percent) and walk rate (from 13.3 percent in 2020 to 9.6 percent) last year, is a breakout candidate.
The Astros’ 3.63 ERA last season was the second-best in the AL and the fifth-best in the Majors. And that came despite the veteran Zack Greinke, who has since departed in free agency, taking a step backward, and with Verlander still stuck on the shelf.
So the return of Verlander potentially augments a group in which the previously unproven Garcia (123 ERA+ in 155 1/3 innings last year) and Valdez (132 ERA+ in 205 1/3 innings over the last two years) pitched them deep into the World Series in his absence. There is, however, concern about McCullers’ continued issues with the flexor tendon in his throwing arm, and who knows how Verlander will perform at age 39 in his return from Tommy John surgery. For now, we’ll take our chances and bet on the Astros continuing to get quality innings and length from their rotation.
San Francisco entered the offseason with only Webb due to return to a rotation that ranked third in the Majors in ERA (3.44) last season. The Giants wound up re-signing DeSclafani and Wood and perhaps improving on last year’s unit with the additions of Cobb (119 ERA+ last season) and Rodón (183). While Rodón is a question mark, health-wise, after only pitching 43 innings in the second half last season, the Giants’ coaching staff has provided ample example of their ability to help him build on the career re-awakening he enjoyed earlier in the 2021 season. Perhaps they can also unlock left-hander Matthew Boyd, who was signed as a depth option.
Led by Webb, who had a brilliant 2021 (135 ERA+ in 148 1/3 innings) capped by a coming-out party in the postseason (one earned run on nine hits in 14 2/3 innings), the rotation should again be a strength in San Francisco.
It’s been a whirlwind year-plus for this rotation. The only constants have been Buehler, whose 2.82 ERA over the last four seasons ranks third among qualifiers, and Urías, who thrived in his first full season in the rotation with a 2.96 ERA and 138 ERA+ last year. But Kershaw is back from his elbow issues and the additions of Heaney and Tyler Anderson (who’ll open the season as a bulk innings arm out of the bullpen, but can make a spot start if called upon) offer much-needed depth after Max Scherzer’s departure, Dustin May’s injury and Trevor Bauer’s administrative leave.
With those two Cy Young vote recipients locked in and Kershaw hopefully healthy, the Dodgers should be able to again be one of better rotations in baseball, even if repeating last year’s MLB-best 2.93 ERA could prove difficult. It will be fascinating to see if the Dodgers were correct in their assessment of Heaney’s potential after giving a guy with a 5.83 ERA in 2021 an $8.5 million contract. (They’ve certainly fixed other pitchers over the years.)
The Braves bring back most of the principal figures of the group that posted the seventh-best rotation ERA (3.84) in baseball last season. Assuming Morton has no ill-effects from the fractured right leg he suffered during the World Series, this should remain an effective unit, with the 28-year-old Fried, who was in the 90th percentile in limiting hard contact last season, just coming into his own as a bona fide ace and Anderson’s career (138 ERA+ in 160 2/3 innings) off to such a charmed start.
It would be helpful, though, if the defending champs can get Mike Soroka, who finished sixth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2019, back midseason from his extensive Achilles issues and if someone from the Wright-Ynoa-Kyle Muller-Tucker Davidson group vying for the back-end opportunities has a 2022 breakthrough.
We’ve taken to calling this group Gerrit Cole & the Question Marks, a five-man band with a great lead singer but a revolving rhythm section. It’s always hard to know where to rank the Yanks’ rotation, because Cole so positively skews the projections.
But even with Cole having some second-half struggles last season, the Yankees managed to post the 10th-best rotation ERA in MLB (3.91). Cortes’ 2.90 ERA and 148 ERA+ in 93 innings provided a big lift in 2021, and the return of Severino to the rotation after he missed the better part of the last two seasons is a potential big lift in 2022. Taillon should continue to make strides the further he gets from Tommy John surgery (and following ankle surgery), and Montgomery was solid last season. The Yankees are still likely to be in the market for more help here, but Cole & The Question Marks acquit themselves well enough to be included again.
This is an iffy inclusion because of some health concerns at the start of the year. Wheeler, perhaps paying the price for a workhorse 2021 in which he would have been a deserving Cy Young winner, entered camp behind schedule after experiencing offseason shoulder soreness. Suárez was also behind schedule because of visa issues, and Eflin is still getting back up to speed following knee surgery. It also doesn’t help that Nola is coming off a 4.63 ERA that was the fifth-highest among qualifiers last year.
But because Nola’s peripherals (including a 3.37 expected ERA) insist he pitched better than his regular ERA would tell you, because Wheeler had such a monstrous 2021, because Suárez had the second-lowest expected ERA (2.60) of anybody with at least 250 batted balls against last season (only Corbin Burnes’ 1.99 mark was better) and because Gibson will be with them for a full season after last summer’s trade, the Phils deserve a place in this rotation conversation.
The Padres had a brutal 2021 in which Blake Snell and Yu Darvish made three trips apiece to the injured list, among other mishaps. But there’s still a ton of talent in San Diego, particularly with Mike Clevinger returning from Tommy John. … The Marlins of Sandy Alcantara, 2021 Rookie of the Year runner-up Trevor Rogers, Pablo López and other rising young guns are knocking on the door of the Top 10. … The Guardians missed this list for the first time in a long time. But if Shane Bieber makes a seamless return from shoulder issues and Cal Quantrill proves his outstanding second half was no fluke, they’ll be back shortly. … Shane Baz’s elbow surgery setback hurts the Rays for now, but they added veteran Corey Kluber to a group with a lot of young upside and always seem to piece it together. … Despite a rash of injuries, the Cardinals ranked 11th in rotation ERA last season and added Steven Matz. But Jack Flaherty’s injured shoulder clouds their picture for now.