We started off by breaking down the bottom five rotations in the NL. Now it's time to bring the middle five, before moving on to the top five on Thursday.
Let's get to today's rankings, beginning with a new-look rotation for one Cardinals foe in the NL Central:
10. Cincinnati Reds
Candidates: Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, Luis Castillo, Tanner Roark, Anthony DeSclafani
The Reds had some terrible starting pitching a year ago, but the group looks vastly different heading into 2019. The guys that remain--Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani--both possess the potential to turn into solid mid-rotation arms, at the least, while the new guys all possess a higher pedigree than the pitchers they’re replacing for Cincinnati.
It’s that combination that gives me the confidence to bump the Reds rotation--which finished ranked 14th in the NL with a ghastly 5.02 ERA last season--up to 10th on this year’s pre-season rankings. The depth isn’t spectacular, which could prove troublesome given the checkered health histories of DeSclafani and Sonny Gray. But Alex Wood and Tanner Roark are proven commodities who both logged at least 30 starts last season, so even if things go off the rails for Cincy, at least the plan will have been more solid than in years past. These off-season moves to bolster the club prove the Reds are at least trying to make some noise in 2019, which is respectable.
The Reds have an interesting crop of swing-men that could be in the ‘next-man up’ seat should anything happen to any one of the starting five; Brandon Finnegan, Michael Lorenzen. Amir Garrett, Tyler Mahle and Garrett Stephenson are among them.
9. Philadelphia Phillies
Candidates: Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zack Eflin, Jared Eickhoff
If I were just ranking National League aces, Philadelphia’s lead man would land higher on the list. Aaron Nola is a bona fide No. 1. Massive workload, strikeouts, run prevention--the guy had it all in 2018, vaulting himself into the top tier of MLB starters. And even as he ages out of his prime, you could do worse than Jake Arrieta as your No. 2 starter. But after that?
That’s where things start getting fuzzy for Philly.
The trio of Velasquez, Pivetta and Eflin have just a single season of league-average pitching--a 100 or higher rating by ERA+--between them. One season out of nine. And that was Velasquez’s 2016, in which he posted a 101 ERA+, narrowly above league-average. Injured last season, Jared Eickhoff hasn’t had a league-average season by ERA+ since his 115 mark in 2016.
Sure, it’s possible every Phillies starter three through six on the depth chart all finally has his breakout season in 2019, but based on the increasingly significant sample we’ve seen throughout their careers thus far? The only way they aren’t considered below-average is with a heavy dose of benefit of the doubt.
Now, the Phillies are expected to be a lot better this season; they added some serious firepower to the lineup. So if finally existing on a decent team brings the best out of the middle-to-back of the Phillies rotation, they could have something special on their hands. Since we haven’t actually seen it yet from many of these guys, though, I’m hesitant to rank this rotation any higher on the list.
Nola and Arrieta can only carry them so far--who else can step up in the rotation will prove a vital question for Philly’s postseason hopes.
8. Arizona Diamondbacks
Candidates: Zack Greinke, Zack Godley, Zack Godley, Luke Weaver, Taijuan Walker (Tommy John), Merrill Kelly
Arizona was easily the toughest team to place in the rankings. I had to acknowledge Patrick Corbin’s departure from a starting group that ranked fifth in ERA in the NL last season (3.83). I had to consider the talented Taijuan Walker’s timeline in recovering from Tommy John last April. I had to account for Luke Weaver’s addition without placing disproportionate weight upon the epic collapse I witnessed him have for St. Louis down the stretch of 2018. And finally, I had to learn who the heck Merrill Kelly was (Dbacks signed the 30-year-old out of the KBO in Korea this winter).
Minus Corbin, there’s a lot to like about the D-backs rotation. Zack Greinke is still an ace churning out 200-inning seasons, even if his contract is outrageous. Fellow Zack with-a-‘k’ Godley struggled with command last season, leading the NL in both wild pitches and hit batsmen, but his 3.82 FIP was nearly a run lower than his 4.74 ERA. And he still logged 178.1 innings in 32 starts while punching out 185 hitters. Plenty of positives for the nearly 29-year-old.
The X-factor, here, is Robbie Ray. Ray has dynamic strikeout stuff. He struck out 218 batters in both 2016 and 2017, in nowhere near 200 innings either season. Last year, he logged only 24 starts thanks to an oblique injury early in the year, but he still K’d 165 in 123.2 innings. If Ray can limit his walks and home runs allowed, he’ll be one of the most dominant pitchers in the NL; as it was in 2018, Ray’s ERA sat at 3.93, as his HR/9 soared to 1.4, and his K/BB lagged at 2.36.
Still, solid top three in this rotation. How Weaver and Kelly perform at the back of the bus will determine a lot about the perception of this rotation as a whole. Weaver, once a shiny prospect, lost some luster without the development of a third pitch last season. If he can remedy that situation, he’ll be a capable No. 4. If Kelly performs the KBO version of Miles Mikolas’ transition from NPB in Japan last season, it would be a welcomed boost for the group. And if Walker returns from Tommy John looking strong, the D-backs could still have one of the more intriguing rotations in the NL this season.
7. Pittsburgh Pirates
Candidates: Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, Jordan Lyles, Nick Kingham, Steven Brault, Mitch Keller
If the Pirates are to compete in a suddenly deep NL Central, it’s likely going to have to come on the backs of their pitching staff. Jameson Taillon is a good place to start, having asserted himself as a capable ace. The 27-year-old will look to raise the ante once again this season after compiling 179 strikeouts and a 3.20 ERA in 191 innings in 2018. Pittsburgh paid a king’s ransom in prospects for Chris Archer at last year’s trade deadline, so the Buccos desperately need him to improve upon the average output his provided over the final months of the season.
The rest of the rotation feels decidedly average, but perhaps my brain isn’t giving Trevor Williams enough credit for the breakout season he enjoyed in 2018: 14-10, 3.11 ERA and 170 innings in 31 starts. Those are some sturdy numbers, especially for the presumptive middle-man in the rotation.
Even if Jose Musgrove isn’t especially exciting, proven innings at a near league-average level from the back-end of your rotation is something not every team enjoys. I also like the Pirates’ pick-up of Jordan Lyles to provide general depth to the staff--he was really good as a reliever for Milwaukee late last season.
Nick Kingham and Steven Brault have flirted with MLB success, and Mitch Keller is the next pitching prospect expected to cut his teeth in the majors for Pittsburgh. The depth is unspectacular, but it has an outside chance to keep an otherwise stagnant Pirates squad out of the basement in the division.
6. Chicago Cubs
Candidates: Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, José Quintana, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery
The Cubs rotation in 2018 was regarded as a disappointment. Yu Darvish was an injured bust, and the rest of the group seemed to lag in the consistency department as the Cubs navigated some frustrations on their way to a wild card berth. The group with which they figure to enter 2019 is largely the same; will the outcome be different?
On paper, it’s hard to argue with the names the Cubs list in their probable rotation--but it’d be even more difficult to argue against if it were 2016. A rotation that would have been absolutely dynamite a few years ago suddenly looks a little vulnerable. But is the situation really as dire as it seemed at times last season?
Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks both posted ERAs below 3.50 last year. Cole Hamels was tremendous after the Cubs acquired him for the stretch run, posting a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts. Jose Quintana hasn’t lived up to the Eloy Jimenez-sized price tag the Cubs paid to acquire him a couple years back, but he still logged 32 starts and 174.1 innings in 2018. If all of those numbers are replicated, the Cubs could be one healthy Yu Darvish away from the starting rotation being a sincere strength once again.
If that doesn’t come to pass, the buck will be passed to Tyler Chatwood--a bust of a signing in his first season as a Cub last year--or Mike Montgomery, a solid pitcher for whom the Cubs simply haven’t yet been able to determine a consistent role.
Check back Thursday for the top five rotations, and if you've read the first two sections, you know Thursday's write-up will reveal the Cardinals spot in the rankings.