With the bottom third of the National League rotations out of the way, we're now getting to the middle tier, a group in which several anticipated postseason contenders reside. Which ones will see their pitching carry them into October? Let's get to the list:
10. San Francisco Giants
This rotation—and its ranking—looked a lot different like, three days ago. Then it was revealed that Jeff Samardzija will open the season on the DL with a shoulder injury. People thought ‘Boy, the Giants’ pitching depth is really going to be tested early on.’ And that was before San Francisco ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner took a Whit Merrifield comebacker off his left hand Friday afternoon.
Yeah, it broke his hand. His pitching hand. He’s going to be out for a period of time that will likely be measured more accurately in months than in weeks. And all the retooling the Giants went through to bolster their lineup this offseason may have been for naught, as their pitching is suddenly substantially less than anyone could have expected.
Johnny Cueto is the new No. 1 in San Fran, but last year may have been a sign that he’s not what he once was. The Giants need pre-2017 Cueto in the worst way this season. Chris Stratton should land a rotation spot, as he was pretty strong in 58 innings last year (114 ERA+). Ty Blach threw 163 passable innings last year, and the Giants are going to need him to fill a similar amount this time around. Tyler Beede is a regarded prospect that could get a look; he’s probably not ready, but the Giants don’t have many attractive options right now. Too bad Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn already signed.
If Samardzija is out for an extended period—and assuming Bumgarner is out until July or so—it wouldn’t be tough to see how this ranking might drop below even 10th in the NL. When Derek Holland is your fallback option, things could get worse in the Bay area before they get better.
-Madison Bumgarner DL
-Jeff Samardzija DL
-Anyone whose pitching hand isn’t broken
9. Philadelphia Phillies
The 2018 Phillies rotation could be a great example of the difference one elite player can make. Before Philadelphia added Jake Arrieta on a three-year deal in free agency, it would have been reliant on a stable of questions marks behind the sturdy, but still developing, Aaron Nola. With Arrieta in the fold, he and Nola form a capable top of the rotation for a Phillies team trying to make its way back to competitiveness.
There are few certainties for the rest of the group, but plenty of potential for the remainders to round out a solid group. Vincent Velasquez flashed potential in 2016 with an electric 10.4 K/9 rate in 131 innings, but saw that rate fall off along with his overall effectiveness last season—he’s got to get back to form.
How the Phillies fill out the final two spots remains to be seen. Jerad Eickhoff would have been tabbed for one of them, but he’ll begin the season on the DL. Nick Pivetta appears to be penciled into a spot, but his 9.5 K/9 rate isn’t enough to overcome a 6.02 ERA, so he’ll need to be better for the team to thrive. Ben Lively could get a look as the fifth starter, among others.
-Jerad Eickhoff (DL)
8. Colorado Rockies
The Rockies rotation is definitely young, but it’s not unknown or inexperienced. Health provided, Colorado should feel confident in where it stands with its projected starting five, as it features five returners who combined for more than a hundred starts for last year’s wild card team.
Jon Gray has ace potential, and the baseball world would be better for getting to see what he can do with 30+ starts in his age-26 season. Even pitching his home games at Coors Field, Gray has legitimate All-Star potential. Tyler Anderson, German Marquez and Kyle Freeland each had an ERA in the 4.00s last season, but all had better than average years according to ERA+, which includes ballpark factors in its statistic.
Set for his age-29 season, Chad Bettis is the elder statesman of the rotation, and finished with a 5.05 ERA and 99 ERA+ (a touch below average) in 2017. That was in only nine starts, though, and Bettis’ numbers from the two prior years likely fall more in line with what he can do when healthy. Not to mention that his desire as a veteran to lead the rest of his rotation-mates should motivate him to keep up with them on the mound throughout this upcoming summer. Additionally, Colorado’s depth is strong with Antonio Senzatela as another option for the rotation; he filled in capably last year in 20 starts and a 107 ERA+ in 36 total games.
-Jeff Hoffman (DL)
7. Milwaukee Brewers
The narrative all winter was that the Brewers needed to add a high-end arm to its rotation. Though the rumored reinforcements never arrived, Milwaukee’s group might be sneaky good enough to surprise some people this season.
Chase Anderson will get the ball to open the season, and he was fantastic last year, breaking his trend of three straight mediocre years preceding that one. Zach Davies won’t pitch until the fourth game of the year, but that’s because the Brewers want to line him up to start the home opener—he’s now put together consecutive effective seasons in the Milwaukee rotation, and will be looking to further establish his name among the league’s elite this season. Last year, Jhoulys Chacin found a way to bounce back from a rough 2016 by going 13-10 with a 3.93 ERA in 180 innings for San Diego; his addition wasn’t the Lynn or Arrieta fans might’ve been seeking, but he could provide quality innings for this group.
Brent Suter has just 16 MLB starts to his name, but he’s looked good in limited opportunities over the last two seasons (3.40 ERA in 103 innings with a 129 ERA+ for his career); he’s been named to the rotation to begin the year. The wild card in this rotation is Jimmy Nelson, who performed as well as anyone in the rotation in 2017 before going down with a shoulder injury. He’s expected to begin throwing off a mound again in April, and could return somewhere around the All-Star break, give or take. Add him to an already solid group, and the rotation gets even stronger.
The Brewers have beefed up their lineup with additions like Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Rather than do the same with the rotation, they seem to be banking on the idea that last season wasn’t a fluke for several of their starters who had career years in 2017. If those guys can repeat those efforts this year, the Brewers will be a force to be reckoned with in the NL playoff picture.
-Jimmy Nelson (DL)
6. New York Mets
Okay, they have to be better this time, right? Right? The Mets are without a doubt the most difficult team to place in the power rankings, because if you wanted to base it strictly on what they did last year, they would wind up near the bottom---among National League teams, only Reds starters had a worse ERA than the 5.14 mark Mets starting pitchers compiled as a group last season.
But look at these names! Jacob deGrom! Noah Syndergaard! Matt Harvey! Zack Wheeler! Steven Matz! Once upon a time, this was viewed as a group that would collectively dominate hitters for years to come. So, what is this group now?
It may not be the best rotation in baseball, a popular viewpoint less than a year ago, but there is reason to believe the Mets rotation can rebound in 2018. Starting with the obvious, the guy they call ‘Thor’ is pretty dang good, and injuries left only seven starts for Syndergaard in 2017. Slot him beside deGrom for a full season, and the Mets rotation should already have regained your attention.
Harvey, Matz and Wheeler all pitched only partial seasons thanks to various injuries last season—oh, and they were all pretty horrendous when they did pitch. But based on the pedigree of these players/prospects, I’m comfortable extending the benefit of the doubt for one more season. A healthy Matz was dominant when he burst onto the scene, and Harvey has a significant track record as an ace-like performer. Can he get his body to cooperate in a contract year? Wheeler has had a rough spring, so he’ll begin the year in AAA. Ideally, that’s not where he’ll end it.
Ravaged by injuries a year ago, the Mets’ addition of Jason Vargas made a lot sense—but then he got hurt in spring (broken bone in his glove hand). Seth Lugo will start the year in the rotation until Vargas (or maybe Wheeler) is ready. Robert Gsellman filled in last year, and is available again for rotation depth or to pitch out of the bullpen.
This is it Mets; I’m getting off the ride if this is another injury-riddled circus. Godspeed.
-Jason Vargas (DL)
Check back soon for the rankings of NL rotations 6 through 1.