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Ranking the AL East starting pitching rotations

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After a handful of high-risk, high-reward acquisitions, the Yankees could have one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball come playoff time – assuming everything goes right.

2021 New York Yankees Photo Day Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Entering the 2021 season, the best rotations in the AL East look quite a bit different from the year before. While the bottom two teams stood pat, limiting long-term salary and optimizing their rosters for draft equity (read: losing), the three contenders each shed dead weight and brought in a handful of new faces.

Since we’re dealing with so many players under consideration, I’ve included each team’s projected total starting pitching WAR per FanGraphs Depth Charts as well as their expected Opening Day rotations’ projected WAR.

5. Baltimore Orioles (7.0 fWAR)

1) John Means (2.0)

2) Dean Kremer (1.0)

3) Keegan Akin (1.1)

4) Félix Hernández (0.6)

5) Bruce Zimmerman (0.5)

As per their typical ranking on these lists, the rebuilding Orioles bring up the rear in the starting pitching department. With Félix Hernández and Matt Harvey in tow, the Orioles could be a feel-good story if the two former Cy Young contenders find a way to right their wayward careers. The more than likely scenario, however, is that the two former aces are pretty washed and no longer able to contribute to winning baseball in a meaningful way; they each posted a negative WAR value in 2020.

The Orioles’ one bright spot, John Means, followed up an excellent 2019 with a solid 2020. At 27 years old, he should be in the prime of his career, and has proven capable of generating outs without traditionally overpowering swing and miss stuff. By leaning on his highly accurate, high spin rate four-seamer, Means was able to generate lots of poor contact while scarcely allowing a walk. He even underperformed his xERA by almost a run and a half. He’s a solid third starter on a contender, but no bona fide ace.

4. Boston Red Sox (12.2)

1) Martín Pérez (1.3)

2) Nathan Eovaldi (2.2)

3) Eduardo Rodríguez (2.4)

4) Garrett Richards (1.8)

5) Tanner Houck (0.7)

They had the worst starting rotation in the majors through the 2020 season (per FanGraphs WAR), but should be slightly improved by adding a couple of potential contributors. Without Chris Sale, the Red Sox’s rotation is a shell of its former self. Since Sale is under contract for another four years, it’s in both parties’ best interests to shelve him in 2021 at least until he’s 100 percent healthy, or more realistically, the Red Sox are again ready to contend.

After missing 2020 with myocarditis (contracted from a scary bout with COVID-19), Eduardo Rodríguez appears primed for a return to form in 2021. He’s impressed so far in spring training, and was an above average four-pitch pitcher from 2016 through 2019.

Though he’s struggled through the past two seasons since a breakout 2018, former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi has been an impressive innings eater following his return from a second Tommy John surgery.

In his first taste of big-league action, the Red Sox’s tenth-ranked prospect Tanner Houck was better than advertised, winning all three of his starts and allowing two runs across 17 innings. However, his 3.81 xERA seems more predictive of Houck’s near future performances. His fastball isn’t very good at an average of just 92 mph from the right side, but in his limited action, his slider looked like it could be one of the very best in the majors. His slider dives across the zone like a frisbee with 88 percent more horizontal break than an average one. His hard-biting sinker has looked solid so far too, but he’ll probably need a changeup and improved control to make the most of his one plus-plus pitch.

3. Toronto Blue Jays (13.8)

1) Hyun-Jin Ryu (3.4)

2) Robbie Ray (2.7)

3) Tanner Roark (1.3)

4) Nate Pearson (2.3)

5) Steven Matz (1.6)

In 2019, the Blue Jays had the fourth-worst starting pitching in 2020 (per FanGraphs WAR). Beyond Ryu, who was admittedly excellent, the Jays who saw the second and third-most innings, Tanner Roark and Matt Shoemaker, posted negative WAR values. Shoemaker is a Twin now, but Roark could be burnt, as his 6.65 xERA backed up his awful 6.80 ERA. If he pitches the way he did last year, it’ll be hard for him to make it through a full season in the majors in the middle of a rotation for a hopeful contender.

Robbie Ray returns too, but hasn’t been able to overcome his control problems since 2017. Like Roark, Ray finished 2020 with an ERA and xERA greater than 6.00. Combined with Roark, they could provide the foundation for a solid sandwich considering the fact that they are both completely toast. Steven Matz would be a welcome addition if it were two years ago, but he also finished 2020 with an xERA over six, leading to a 9.68 ERA. Simply put, he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball.

The Jays’ one glimmer of hope beyond another dominant season from Ryu is the club’s top prospect — and sixth overall in baseball. In his first 18 innings of big-league ball, Pearson was bad, but he’s only 24 and already possesses four plus-offerings. He has a fastball that sits in the upper-nineties complimented by a curveball, slider, and changeup all of which he can throw for strikes. He’s yet to find a groove in the majors — he also features a fourth percentile walk rate — but when he does, he’s got the stuff to be a stud.

2. Tampa Bay Rays (11.6)

Tyler Glasnow (3.6)

Ryan Yarbrough (1.7)

Chris Archer (2.0)

Michael Wacha (1.0)

Rich Hill (1.0)

In 2021, Blake Snell will earn $10 million from the San Diego Padres. While his salary does jump to more than $13 million in 2022 and $16 million in 2023, the Rays apparently saw greater utility in reacquiring forlorn lefty Chris Archer for a one-year, $6.5 million deal than retaining Snell for a marginal increase. Though the Rays might have had a case for Archer over Snell at those prices in 2017, Archer hasn’t even eclipsed a league average ERA+ since, while Snell’s pitched his way into baseball’s elite, including a couple of dominant playoff performances. While Snell’s peripherals have slipped from his Cy Young winning season, he’s significantly outperformed Archer since his first stint with the Rays.

Even with Snell gone, Tampa still controls one of the greatest young starting pitching talents in Tyler Glasnow. He was hit a bit harder in 2020 than in his more dominant 2019, but much of that can be chalked up simply to the shortened season given that his xERAs were separated by less than a run, while his ERAs had more than two runs of space between them. With a huge heater capable of eclipsing triple digits and an even bigger hammer, Glasnow’s stuff compares favorably to almost any active pitcher. If he can reign in the control and fine tune the craft, he has ample talent to become the very best pitcher in baseball.

1. New York Yankees (18.0)

1) Gerrit Cole (5.5)

2) Corey Kluber (2.9)

3) Jameson Taillon (2.1)

4) Jordan Montgomery (2.2)

5) Deivi García (1.5)

The Yankees had a top-ten starting rotation (5.3 WAR) in 2020, but a large portion of that total was due to Gerrit Cole’s steady dominance (1.5 WAR). Beyond Cole, the Yankees lacked a second dominant arm, something that hurt them in their ALDS matchup against the Rays. During the regular season, however, Jordan Montgomery emerged as a solid piece in his second year back from Tommy John surgery. His elite opponent average velocity and playoff start against the Rays is suggestive of a pitcher capable of even greater things in the near future.

Deivi García had a handful of nice starts in the regular season, then allowed a homer in his single playoff inning. He’ll get plenty of runway to prove he’s a quality starter in 2021, but could eventually be supplanted by Luis Severino, Domingo Germán, or even Clarke Schmidt depending on any of them overcoming inconsistent health and performance.

Newcomers Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon slot in for the departing Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton. At their best, Kluber was a Cy Young winner, whereas Taillon was a quality All-Star. If they can regain any of the juice that made them special in the past without a significant injury, the Yankees’ rotation should be a lot better than last year.