It's time to reveal the top five starting rotations in the National League entering the 2018 season. Before getting into the list, check back for the previous rankings you may have missed:
Let's get to the top five.
5. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have a lot of potential in their rotation, but they also have seemingly more question marks than any of the other teams listed in the top five. Carlos Martinez is the team’s ace, and he certainly has the stuff for Cy Young potential—he just needs to put it all together. He’s taken the ace mantle from Adam Wainwright, who will begin this season on the DL with another injury, this time a hamstring. Waino has said he wants to focus on the present rather than worry about what may come in the future, but he needs to get healthy enough to improve upon his rough numbers from 2017 (5.11 ERA, 84 ERA+). Rookie Jack Flaherty will slide into the rotation in Wainwright’s place to open the year (6.33 ERA in 10 starts last season).
How the rest of the rotation breaks will bear much of the weight on how these predictive rankings will hold up. Luke Weaver offers plenty to be excited about after last year’s success (7-2, 3.88 ERA and 3.17 FIP), but his limited MLB sample is reason for caution. Michael Wacha was fine last year with a 103 ERA+ in 165 innings, but he tends to deal with shoulder trouble in even years—his innings load will be something to watch. Miles Mikolas is the biggest unknown after coming back to MLB from the KBO, but he’s looked good in his recent spring starts; the Cardinals need Lance Lynn-esque innings out of him.
Part of the reason for putting St. Louis in the top five is the imminent return of Alex Reyes, who was dynamite at the end of 2016 before missing last season due to Tommy John surgery, but there's a chance he ends up in the bullpen as he is eased back in on an innings limit. I wouldn’t be surprised to look back in a few months to find the Cardinals struggling to stay in the top eight NL rotations, nor would it be a shock to see them challenge in the top three—there are a lot of ways this could go.
-Adam Wainwright (DL)
-Alex Reyes (DL)
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
Holy strikeouts. In 2017, D-backs starting pitchers combined for the second-most strikeouts in the National League, with Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray ranking in the top five in the league. Both pitchers were more than just K’s though, as Greinke and Ray combined for 32 wins and an ERA just above 3.00 as the 1-2 punch in the Arizona rotation. They’re back and ready to chase down those numbers from a year ago in home park (Chase Field) that could benefit pitchers after the installation of a humidor in the offseason.
The other three D-backs starters—Patrick Corbin, Zack Godley and Taijuan Walker—combined for around 10 wins above replacement. That sort of depth is pretty outstanding, considering there isn't any real weak link in the bunch. Considering the relative youth in the rotation, it's certainly plausible that ace-like performers beyond Greinke or Ray could still rise out of the crop. This group should make for a formidable rotation for the second year in a row in the desert.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
There are worse ways to start off a pitching rotation than Clayton Kershaw—and there probably aren’t any better ones. He’s the best pitcher of his generation because of his insane consistency—he hasn’t had a season with an ERA above 2.91 in a full decade. Not once. At age 30, he’s shown no signs of slowing down except when injuries keep him off the field, which has happened occasionally in recent years. He's a pretty safe bet.
The depth behind him is pretty strong, too, as the Dodgers basically have a bunch of No. 2 or No. 3 starters throughout their rotation. Alex Wood had a sub-3.00 ERA last season with the highest winning percentage in the NL (16-3, .842). Rich Hill’s veteran renaissance continued in 2017, and he appears to be another reliable arm for LA this coming year. Hyun-Jin Ryu didn’t pitch a complete season last year, but when he was out there for his 24 starts, Ryu compiled a 111 ERA+. And though Kenta Maeda struggled at times last year, he has upside better than where he’ll likely be slotted in the rotation.
Outside the starting five, Los Angeles has some young talent to be excited about, as Walker Buehler could burst onto the scene some time this summer. Don’t forget about former top prospect Julio Urias, who could make his return later this summer after rehabbing from shoulder surgery.
2. Chicago Cubs
Before signing Yu Darvish, the Cubs held promise in their rotation, but it also wasn’t difficult to see a scenario where the bottom might drop out beneath them. At one time a bona fide ace, Jon Lester didn’t really resemble that same pitcher for much of 2017. Though a rock solid No. 2, Jose Quintana hasn’t yet been a Cy Young candidate anchoring a competitive rotation. Kyle Hendricks was that pitcher for Chicago in 2016, finishing third in voting for the award, and could potentially get back to the level again this year. Beyond those three, Chicago had a couple question marks following 2017.
Hendricks, Quintana, Lester would have been a fine trio to build around, but to retain their chokehold on the division, the Cubs wanted better than fine. On paper, Darvish instantly transforms the group from good to exceptional. Rounding out the rotation, Tyler Chatwood could be a sneaky good signing; last year’s NL leader in losses, Chatwood joins the Cubs to escape a home ballpark in Coors Field that ate him alive in 2017 (6.01 ERA, .884 opponents’ OPS at home as opposed to a 3.49 ERA and .695 opponents OPS on the road).
It’s high-end depth that puts Chicago’s rotation among the best in the league. The addition of Darvish eases the expectations for each of his rotation-mates, and his addition could free up Mike Montgomery for the swingman role similar to the one in which he thrived last season.
1. Washington Nationals
The Nationals are anchored in their starting rotation by a tremendous top three. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are each capable of putting up Cy Young caliber numbers. Each posted sub-3.00 ERAs in 2017, combining for in 577 innings pitched.
Slotting in behind them, Tanner Roark struggled keeping the ball in the yard last season to the tune of a career-high 23 home runs allowed. His 4.67 ERA far exceeded the 2.83 mark he set the year prior, but his peripherals would indicate reason for optimism. Batted ball luck wasn’t kind to Roark last year, as opposing hitters enjoyed a .302 BABIP against him. Additionally, Roark posted a career-best 8.2 K/9 in 2017, indicating he’s still got pretty good stuff. Look for bounce-back year from Roark to give the Nats a formidable top four in their rotation in 2018.
AJ Cole had decent numbers (3-5, 3.82 ERA) over 52 innings pitched for Washington last year, and may have earned a crack at the fifth spot in the rotation. While that final slot could present weakness, it should be far less debilitating than what any other NL team might experience; once again, the Nationals can expect their rotation to carry them to the NL East crown—and perhaps beyond.