2020 Foresight: Projecting the Best Starting Rotations in 2020
Major League front offices have undergone wholesale philosophical changes in recent years. Gone are the days when teams would sign a veteran slugger to a one-year deal to get incrementally better just to create the illusion that the front office is trying to win when in reality the team doesn’t stand a chance. Front offices realize that there is no sense in spending resources and draft picks just to boost their win total from 72 to 78 games. Instead, teams who have uncompetitive, aging rosters would rather tear everything down, trade off assets, suck for a few years while they accumulate talent, and emerge from the rubble in a few years boasting a youthful and dynamic roster that is ready to contend. This youth revolution has proven to be effective in recent years and in large part it is because teams now value prospects more than ever, especially pitchers.
As of now, there are roughly 8-10 teams who have a realistic shot at winning a World Series in the upcoming two years, but when that window closes, the teams that are currently in rebuilding phases will replace most of these teams as contenders. When teams like the White Sox, Phillies, and Braves emerge in a few years, it will be in large part due to their incredibly talented and young pitching staffs that they are currently building. With that said, I have compiled a list of what I project to be the most formidable starting pitching units in 2020. In this list, there are future Cy Young Winners, All-Star game starters, and most importantly, the aces that you will watch lead their respective squads to World Series titles.
Below is the criteria I used to compile this list. As with any projection system, these rankings are largely based off evidence, but naturally, subjectivity plays a large factor.
Considerations for Rankings:
- Amount of elite starting pitcher (SP) prospects.
- The organizational depth of SPs.
- Current starting pitchers that will still be on the roster in 2020.
- Projected performance of currently rostered SPs in 2020.
- Spending power in free agent market.
Top 2020 Rotations:
1. White Sox
1. Jose Quintana (L)
2. Carlos Rodon (L)
3. Michael Kopech (R)
4. Lucas Giolito (R)
5. Reynaldo Lopez (R)
Depth: Carson Fulmer (R), Zach Burdi (R), Spencer Adams (R), Dane Dunning (R)
Prior to December 6th, 2016, the White Sox were stuck in a position that no team wants to be in. The Southsiders had both an uncompetitive major league roster and a depleted farm system. But in just two December days, GM Rick Hahn orchestrated two moves that completely revamped their struggling farm system. In just 36 hours, the White Sox traded perennial Cy Young contender Chris Sale to the Red Sox and defensive stud Adam Eaton to the Nationals. In return, the Sox acquired an enviable collection of young arms that included Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning. Not only did these moves signal to the league that they were officially in rebuilding mode, it also instantly transformed a bottom tier farm system into a system that had the most prolific future rotation in the game.
As of now, the White Sox future rotation will be headed by All-Star left-hander Jose Quintana (if he is not traded first), followed by southpaw ever improving southpaw Carlos Rodon. If all works out, this rotation will also include flamethrowing righty Michael Kopech, a man whose legend is growing faster than his 105 mph fastball. If Kopech can become Noah Syndergaard 2.0 like many scouts believe, the top of this rotation will be scary good. But the slough of pitching talent doesn’t stop there, as Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez are also highly touted prospects who have possessed electric stuff and already have big league experience, despite only being 22 and 23 respectively.
In order for this rotation to reach its ungodly potential, it will depend in large part on White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper teaching the 6’6 255 righty repeatable mechanics. How soon people forget that prior to a few rocky big league outings in the dog days of summer, Giolito was considered the top pitching prospect in baseball. With a change of scenery, Giolito will finally have the opportunity to realize his potential in 2017, a development that would surely excite fans on the south side.
While Kopech and Giolito emergence into superstardom would be a best case scenario, the White Sox system also has contingency plans. Carson Fulmer, a 1st round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2015, is another young righty who can light up the radar gun. While some scouts believe that Fulmer’s future is in the bullpen due to his high-effort delivery, if he manages to prove them wrong, he could become yet another top rotation arm for the ChiSox.
All in all, pitching prospects are very unpredictable, but even if only two of these guys come into their own, you can count on hearing “He gone” from announcer Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson a lot in coming years.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
1. Clayton Kershaw* (L)
2. Julio Urias (L)
3. Yadier Alvarez (R)
4. Brock Stewart (R)
5. Kenta Maeda (R)
Walker Buehler (R), Jordan Sheffield (R), Whoever-the-top-free-agent-SP-is-in-2019.
The Dodgers are one of the rare teams that are poised for a World Series title in 2017 and appear to be a juggernaut for years to come. It is worth noting that the rotation shown above is almost surely not to be the actual rotation in 2020 as the Dodgers are among the most active teams in both trades and free agency. Their unmatched ability to dump resources on high upside injury-prone starting pitchers such as Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Rich Hill allow them to take risks without having to worry about failing in the process (strangely, all three of these guys signed identical 3 year, 48 million dollar deals, but I digress). This competitive advantage makes the Dodgers a mainstay on this list regardless of whether they actually make intelligent baseball decisions.
In order for the boys in blue to continue to have a top-notch starting rotation, they need to sign Clayton Kershaw when he becomes free agent eligible in 2018. Kershaw is indisputably the top pitcher in the game and perhaps the best pitcher of all time, so any rotation that he leads is automatically catapulted to elite status. It would be tough to imagine the Dodgers letting their homegrown superstar walk considering their seemingly endless flow of money and therefore it is safe to say assume that Kershaw will be the Dodger’s ace for years to come.
After Kershaw (who in terms of WAR is essentially the equivalent of two aces), the rotation is stocked with elite prospects. Most notable of the bunch is precocious 20-year-old Julio Urias, a Mexican lefty who not only has an incredible repertoire of pitches that he couples with superb command, but also poise and maturity way beyond his years. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that Urias has the potential to become the best pitcher in baseball in just a few years.
Following Urias on this list is Cuban righty Yadier Alvarez, the crown jewel of the Dodgers 2016 international free agent class. At only 19, Alvarez has a fastball that sits between 93-97, a plus two-plane slider and a 12-6 curve. Although his changeup is a little behind the rest of his pitches, he has more than enough stuff to dominate hitters, especially with his smooth and effortless delivery. The Dodgers hope that his command will get better with age, and if it does, watch out.
Rounding out the Dodgers speculative 2020 rotation is Brock Stewart and Walker Buehler. Stewart has an opportunity to break camp with the Dodgers this spring due to his prodigious performance last fall in Triple-A (1.47 ERA in 14 starts). Buehler looks to have a promising future as he comes from a long lineage of successful Vanderbilt starters.
The Dodgers not only have a barrage of future top-of-the-rotation starters, but they also have the best remedy in case these youngsters don’t pan out: money.
3. New York Mets:
1. Noah Syndergaard (R)
2. Jacob DeGrom (R)
3. Steven Matz (L)
4. Zack Wheeler (R)
5. Thomas Szapucki (L)
Depth: Robert Gsellman (R), Justin Dunn (R), Anthony Kay (L)
Coming in second on this list is a rotation that is already considered to be perhaps the best in the game. Although the Mets will likely lose Matt Harvey to free agency following the 2018 season (he is a Scott Boras client), New York will still have two of the four playoff starters from the 2015 pennant winning team. It is worth noting that DeGrom will be 32 in 2020 and has already started to deal with arm problems, but I’ll take my chances on a guy who has never had an ERA worse than 3.04 in his career.
The potential dominance of this rotation is predicated on Steven Matz and Zach Wheeler becoming solid starters in the middle of this rotation. Although Matz had health problems of his own in 2016, he still churned out a rookie season in which he posted a 3.41 ERA, while averaging nearly a strikeout a season. While many believe that Matz faulty left elbow will lead him to spend a day with Dr. James Andrews in the near future, bouncing back from Tommy John might as well be the norm nowadays.
Zack Wheeler is more of an enigma. Since being dealt to the Mets from the Giants at the 2013 deadline, Wheeler has struggled to stay on the field. The former top prospect is looking to bounce back from Tommy John surgery in 2017, but if he can put his health problems behind him, he has the potential to emerge as an above average number three starter in coming years. I understand that this is a big if, which is why the Mets are lucky to have other young hurlers to fill the void if Wheeler falters.
Most notable of this group are early rookie of the year candidate Robert Gsellman and lefty strikeout extraordinaire Thomas Szapucki. Gsellman pitched well in his July call-up in 2016 en route to an impressive 2.42 ERA. The peripheral stats suggest he may have gotten a bit lucky in his brief big league stint, but Gsellman nonetheless is a high floor / low ceiling guy who can eat up innings as a more than a serviceable back of the rotation option.
The Metropolitans have some significant injury concerns in their starting rotation, making them perhaps the most volatile rotation on this list, but with their ceiling as high as any team on this list, it’s not hard to justify their spot on this list.
4. Tampa Bay Rays
1. Chris Archer (R)
2. Jose De Leon (R)
3. Blake Snell (L)
4. Brent Honeywell (R)
5. Jake Odorizzi (R)
Depth: Chih-Wei Hu (R), Matt Andriese (R)
The Rays have followed the same formula for almost a decade now, build around young controllable starting pitching and hope the offense does just enough to win games. The decision by GM Matt Silverman to hold onto Archer amidst trade rumors this offseason demonstrated that management shows no intention of deviating from this pitching-first philosophy. This vision became more clear when they swapped starting second baseman Logan Forsythe for Jose De Leon, who was the top pitching prospect in the Dodger’s organization at the time of the trade. This pitching-centric roster construction has fared well for the Rays in the past as they are widely regarded as one of the best organizations in baseball at developing young pitching talent.
The future of the Rays rotation is largely dependent on the success of Chris Archer, who is coming off a down year in 2016. After signing an extremely team-friendly 6 year, 25.5 million dollar deal after his rookie year in 2014, Chris Archer rewarded the Rays foresight with a career year in 2015, finishing 5th in the AL Cy Young voting. Archer slumped this past season, but his peripheral numbers suggest that he is poised for a bounce back in 2017.
Following Archer in the Rays rotation are righty Jose De Leon and lefty Blake Snell. De Leon features perhaps the best changeup of any prospect in the game to go along with a curveball that is also developing into an out pitch. Add two plus off-speed pitches to a fastball that regularly registers in the mid-90s and you get a pitcher with the pure stuff to be considered a top-of-the-rotation starter for years to come. Blake Snell, considered the top pitching prospect in the Rays system heading into the 2015 season, also is equipped with multiple strikeout pitches. Snell struggled in 2016 due to worrisome control problems (5.16 BB/9). These control issues were not due to rookie jitters as Snell showed a track record of struggling with location throughout his minor league career (4.5 BB/9 across 6 minor league seasons). Despite Snell’s inability to locate his pitches, he still managed a 3.39 FIP in 2016, an encouraging sign for the Rays considering Snell has yet to harness his electric stuff. Snell will never be an elite starting pitcher due to these control issues, but if the young lefty can begin to find the strike zone more, which is a big if, he can fit nicely into the middle of the future Rays rotation.
Top prospect Brent Honeywell is another young arm that could bolster the Rays rotation in the future. Honeywell features one of the most unique pitches in baseball: a screwball. Honeywell has used his screwball in tandem with his high-velocity fastball to dominate the lower levels of the minors. If he continues the fast track to the majors that he currently is on, he could make his debut in St. Petersburg before the year is over.
Rounding out the Rays future rotation is established righty Jake Odorizzi. While solid right-handers without strikeout stuff are less exciting to write about than the Snells or Honeywells of the world, he is far more of a sure thing than the aforementioned pitching prospects. Pitching prospects are extremely volatile and having a consistent pitcher who can perennially put up a mid-3 ERA should not be understated.
5. Atlanta Braves
1.Julio Teheran (R)
2. Kolby Allard (L)
3. Ian Anderson (R)
4. Luiz Gohara (L)
5. Mike Soroka (R)
Depth: Sean Newcomb (L), Joey Wentz (L), Max Fried (L), Touki Toussaint (R), Kyle Muller (R), Lucas Sims (R), Aaron Blair (R)
John Coppolella rebuilding plan has been no mystery: acquire as many high-profile starting pitchers as possible in hopes that some of them pan out. Coppolella has been consistent and effective in carrying out this plan as Atlanta currently has more top prospect starting pitchers than any organization in baseball. While the only proven pitcher on the list above is Julio Teheran, the Tribe still deserves a spot on this list purely based on the sheer amount of pitching talent that is running around their farm.
It is impossible to devote adequate attention to each one of Atlanta’s promising young hurlers because doing so would require more text than I want to write and you want to read. To give a general idea of the Braves unparalleled organizational depth, consider the following: Atlanta has 5 starting pitchers in the top 100 prospects according to ESPN’s Keith Law and 10 starting pitchers in the top 200. This means that even if less than a third of these prospects pan out, the Braves will still have a full rotation of top flight pitching.
When one looks at Atlanta’s core of young pitching prospects, it is impossible to ignore how many of them are left handed. Headlining this group of left-handers are Kolby Allard and Luiz Gohara (acquired from the Mariners for Malex Smith last month).
Allard, headlined the class of prep pitching prospects when he was drafted with the 14th overall pick in 2015 and has done nothing to disappoint the Braves organization since, posting a 2.98 ERA across 16 starts in High-A / Double-A last season.
When the Braves traded for Luiz Gohara last month, it was considered to be a steal for Atlanta by most talent evaluators across the industry. Gohara, formerly the top pitching prospect in the Mariners system, dropped 30 pounds prior to last season and posted a 1.81 ERA in High-A as a result. If Gohara can continue the success he enjoyed last season, he could be dominating hitters in Sun Trust Park sooner rather than later.
2016 1st rounder Ian Anderson, has perhaps the best stuff in the Braves system, boasting a high 90s fastball to go along with an elite sinking changeup and a swing-and-miss curveball. Anderson has extremely high upside, but similar to Mike Soroka and Joey Wentz, he could easily end up in the bullpen.
I made it this far without even mentioning Sean Newcomb, the prized possession in the Andrelton Simmons trade in 2014, and the top pitching prospect in the organization heading into 2015. The fact that I cannot even dedicate enough time to a guy who has been rated as one of baseball’s top 100 prospects two years in a row, demonstrates just how ripe the Braves system is with pitching prospects.
Recognizing how unpredictable young starting pitchers are, I tried very hard to place rotations that had more proven commodities higher on this list. However, the law of large numbers suggests that despite many of the Braves pitching prospects being high-ceiling / low-floor profiles, a few of them will pan out, and when they do, this rotation could have multiple aces heading their future rotation.
It was painstakingly difficult to not include the teams listed below on this list. The distinguishing factor that forced me to leave these teams off the list was the fact that these rotations could easily fall apart if one of two things go wrong, whereas the rotations listed in the top-5 can afford a few errors and still be dominant. I could easily see any of these three rotations surpassing the teams that I listed in the top 5. With that said, here are the next three rotations that just barely missed the cut.
1.Vince Velasquez (R)
2. Aaron Nola (R)
3. Jared Eickhoff (R)
4. Sixto Sanchez (R)
5. Franklyn Kilome (R)
Depth: Kevin Gowdy (R), Mark Appel (R), Adonis Medina (R)
1. Corey Kluber (R)
2. Danny Salazar (R)
3. Carlos Carrasco (R)
4. Trevor Bauer (R)
5. Triston McKenzie (R)
Depth: Brady Aiken (L), Ryan Merritt (R)
1.Francis Martes (R)
2. Lance McCullers (R)
3. Joe Musgrove (R)
4. Dallas Keuchel (L)
5. Franklin Perez (R)
Depth: David Paulino (R), Forrest Whitley (R)