We've breezed through ten of the teams in the National League starting rotation rankings, so it's time to reveal the top five. But first, if you missed the previous editions of the rankings, check out numbers 15 through 11 and 10 through 6 before diving into the top five.
There are lots of talented pitchers on the teams listed below, and we kick it off with a team with which local readers are pretty familiar:
5. St. Louis Cardinals
Candidates: Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Dakota Hudson, Alex Reyes, John Gant, Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Ryan Helsley
If I were making this list a month ago, the Cardinals would have probably been ranked third. But that was before Carlos Martinez’s spring of shoulder setbacks; though the team has stressed its handling of the standout right-hander is precautionary, with an eye on preserving him for the rigors of a long season, it doesn’t feel safe to count on Martinez’s contributions as a starter until he proves otherwise.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, the strength of their pitching staff comes in the form of its depth. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty provide a solid one-two punch, even without Martinez entering the equation. Michael Wacha--who's enjoyed a marvelous spring thus far--and Adam Wainwright fall in behind, two pitchers whose tracks records in the big leagues are rivaled only by their elite injury histories the past few years. If Wacha and Waino give the Cardinals a healthy 30 starts this season, look out.
Even if they don’t, St. Louis returns John Gant, Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon to soak up the opportunities. Fill-ins on last year’s starting staff, the trio combined for 34 starts with an ERA of 3.73 across 173.2 innngs in those outings--if that's not a capable aggregate output for a No. 5 starter, I don't know what is. But the depth doesn’t stop there for the Cardinals.
Though he’ll need his innings to be balanced delicately, Alex Reyes might be healthy for the first time since September 2016. Even if the Cardinals only push him to around 120 innings, those innings will be a godsend if Reyes performs anything like he did upon that first MLB call-up two and a half years ago. Dakota Hudson, used as a late-inning weapon for St. Louis down the stretch, could also be a significant factor in the competition for a rotation spot to open the season.
4. Atlanta Braves
Candidates: Mike Foltynewicz, Julio Teheran, Kevin Gausman, Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Max Fried, Luiz Gohara, Bryse Wilson
The Braves’ formula for starting pitching is very similar to the one the Cardinals employ--they've got a big ol' pile of arms--but it trends a tad younger. Though the veteran presence in the Atlanta group isn’t quite as substantial as St. Louis’, the Braves also go nine or ten deep with potential contributors to their 2019 rotation. Mike Soroka (No. 24), Kyle Wright (No. 30), Ian Anderson (No. 32), Touki Toussaint (No. 50) and Bryse Wilson (No. 82) all represent the Braves’ strength in young pitching on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list (Luiz Gohara checked in at No. 78 last year), while Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb are rising stars already cemented in the MLB rotation.
Don’t sleep on Kevin Gausman or Julio Teheran, either; both are just 28 years old, perhaps with some potential yet untapped. Even without elevating to that next level, the pair forms a solid middle of a Braves rotation bursting with young talent around them. Despite elbow troubles delaying the start of the season for Foltynewicz, Atlanta’s group gets the slight nod over St. Louis on this list. I may be counting these chickens before they all hatch, but Atlanta’s pitching looks to be set for years to come.
3. New York Mets
Candidates: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, Jason Vargas, Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo
There are worse ways to start off your group than with the reigning Cy Young winner. Jacob deGrom was out of this world for the Mets last season, so he vaults the rotation up the rankings pretty substantially. Noah Syndergaard enjoyed a nearly-healthy season behind deGrom last year (25 starts). He’s still a stud, and hopefully this can be the season ‘Thor’ elevates back to 30+ starts to help pace the rotation in Queens.
2019 will be another important season for former uber-prospects Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler--both were mostly healthy last season, and avoiding the injured list is the key to keeping this Mets starting group among the best in the league once again. Are you sensing a theme, here? Just like it’s been for years, the Mets have a rock-solid rotation on paper. They just need to keep everyone on the field.
The fifth spot in the rotation isn’t quite as glamorous as the rest, as Jason Vargas stumbled to a 5.77 ERA in 20 starts last season. Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman had been fill-in starters for New York in past seasons, but both filled into their bullpens roles in 2018. It legitimately seems like the Mets could go with Vargas at the five spot, a questionable decision based on 2018 numbers.
If any team would seem to have a spot for Dallas Keuchel or Gio Gonzalez, it’s got to be the Mets, right? At any rate, if each of the top four in the group can log a full season in the rotation, New York may not even need a decent fifth starter to reach the playoffs.
2. Washington Nationals
Candidates: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Jeremy Hellickson, Joe Ross, Eric Fedde
At the top, this is a star-studded group. Max Scherzer has an argument for being the best pitcher in baseball--and having seen Mad Max with his game face on, there’s not a chance I’m going to argue with him about the color of the sky if he tells me its green--much less his credentials as a hurler. Stephen Strasburg didn’t get a full season in last year, which hurt the Nationals rotation numbers overall--depth wasn’t necessarily their strong suit.
Boy, oh boy, have they gone out and changed that this winter. First, Washington signed the starting pitching prize of the free agent class, lefty Patrick Corbin. If he’s anything for D.C. like he was in 2018 for Arizona, slotting his 200 innings, 246 Ks, 3.15 ERA and 2.47 FIP in line behind Scherzer and Strasburg is just plain unfair.
But the Nats weren’t finished yet. They quietly went out and bolstered their rotation further with a two-year deal for Anibal Sanchez, poaching him from rival Braves. Atlanta had a dazzling staff in 2018, and Sanchez performed among the best of them, with a 2.83 ERA in his 136.2 innings. Now he’s the number-four for the Nationals? Are you kidding me? Likely fifth-starter Jeremy Hellickson is no slouch, either, signing back with Washington on a one-year pact following a successful 19 start-campaign last season (3.45 ERA).
Joe Ross and Eric Fedde provide depth for the group, but with the five slated to begin the season in the rotation, the Nationals figure to improve considerably upon their 9th-ranked starters’ ERA among NL teams last season. They may have lost Bryce Harper, but the gains made in the rotation should keep the Nats highly competitive in the NL East and in the National League at-large.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Candidates: Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Rich Hill, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling, Julio Urias
In the race for the best starting rotation in the National League coming into the 2019 season, it feels like the Nationals and Dodgers, then three or four car-lengths, and then everybody else.
So how do you choose between these two rotations in an epic arms race?
Though he hasn’t had a fully healthy season since 2015, Clayton Kershaw is still Clayton Kershaw, and if he can log anything close to 33 starts for the Dodgers, you pretty much know what they’re going to get from him. Hyun-Jin Ryu was otherworldly in 15 starts last season, posting a 1.97 ERA and 1.008 WHIP. But for me, the edge goes to the Dodgers over the Nationals because of Walker Buehler.
Buehler is the wunderkind looking to build on his 2018 coming out party, in which he threw 137.1 innings at a 2.62 ERA and 0.961 WHIP. And to culminate his first full MLB season, Buehler brought it on the biggest stage, twirling seven innings of two-hit, shutout baseball against the Red Sox as part of that marathon Game 3 of the 2018 World Series.
The Dodgers were relatively careful with Buehler’s workload last season, but 2019 is his opportunity to prove he has the durability to launch himself into perennial-Cy-Young-candidate territory. 180-200 innings of Buehler would be bad news for National League hitters; the guy’s a menace.
Throw in the numbers for Rich Hill and Ross Stripling with a sprinkle of the seismic potential of the now-healthy Julio Urias, and it’s hard to park the Dodgers rotation at any spot but the top one heading into the 2019 season.