Starting pitching after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season will be strange. Even with playoffs included, last season’s innings leader was Houston’s Framber Valdéz, with just 94 2/3. A number of teams are flirting with six-man rotations to reduce workloads as pitchers rebuild their arm strength. Without a minor league season in 2020, most prospects haven’t thrown in real game action in 18 months.
The shortened season also interacted with injuries in an unfamiliar way. It’s not just that the usual handful of prominent pitchers missed a full year because of Tommy John surgery. In a normal year, a less debilitating injury that lingers for a month is routine; last year, that meant missing half the season.
In other words, there are a lot of important pitchers who have barely pitched, if at all, since 2019, whether because of injury or other absence, including pitchers who chose to sit out the 2020 season. Let’s highlight the five teams whose playoff hopes depend most on the state of these returning arms in 2021. Note that this quintet doesn’t include the Dodgers, with David Price back after opting out of the 2020 season, because they’re essentially a playoff lock anyway; or Atlanta, with Mike Soroka, because he at least threw 13 2/3 innings last year before tearing his Achilles.
New York Yankees
Corey Kluber, 1 inning for Texas in 2020
Luis Severino, 0
Jameson Taillon, 0 for Pittsburgh
Domingo Germán, 0
With Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton gone, the Yankees have invested in variance with their starters, with as many as six rotation candidates—this quartet, plus 2018 Tommy John recipient Jordan Montgomery and rookie Deivi García—with very high ceilings and very low floors. It helps, of course, to lead with Gerrit Cole, but New York needs half of its more uncertain arms to succeed, in order to round out a playoff rotation and avoid the starter scarcity from last postseason.
That hope starts with Kluber, a two-time Cy Young winner with Cleveland who’s barely pitched since 2018. In 2019, Kluber’s season was cut short when a line drive broke his arm; in 2020, after Cleveland shipped him to Texas in exchange for outfielder Delino DeShields and young reliever Emmanuel Clase, Kluber tore a muscle in his shoulder after just one inning. The Rangers flopped, but given that Cleveland non-tendered DeShields—now back with the Rangers!—after the season and that Clase was suspended for PEDs, the deal now seems like a lose-lose proposition.
Yet Kluber apparently impressed in a private workout in January, leading to a one-year, $11 million Yankees deal. If he is remotely in the range of peak Kluber, that sum will prove a steal: The last time he was healthy, he finished third in AL Cy Young voting.
Severino has the second-best track record among this foursome, with consecutive All-Star campaigns in 2017 and 2018. But like Kluber, Severino has barely pitched since then. Severino threw only 12 regular-season innings in 2019 as he dealt with shoulder and lat issues, and then he underwent Tommy John surgery near the end of February 2020. Although an exact return date isn’t yet clear, manager Aaron Boone estimated somewhere in the range of “midseason, All-Star break, the trade deadline.”
Taillon—wait for it—also has barely pitched since 2018, thanks to Tommy John surgery in August 2019, after a summer full of elbow pain. That earlier procedure means Taillon is ready now, though, and he’s struck out nine in 5 2/3 innings this spring after an offseason trade. Now with a noticeably shorter arm action, Taillon could become the latest Pirates right-hander—after Cole, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow—to achieve escape velocity after escaping Pittsburgh.
Finally, Germán missed the 2020 season because of a suspension under MLB’s domestic violence policy. He has thrown nine scoreless innings this spring training, with a 13-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
New York Mets
Marcus Stroman, 0
Noah Syndergaard, 0
The city of New York could build one of the best rotations in baseball out of missing 2020 pitchers returning to action. In the Mets’ case, although the team added useful pitching depth this winter with the likes of Taijuan Walker and Joey Lucchesi—which is already coming into play, with Carlos Carrasco’s torn hamstring—the best version of the rotation certainly features Jacob deGrom, Carrasco, Stroman, and Syndergaard at the top.
Of the returning duo, there is much less uncertainty about Stroman, who opted out of the 2020 season due to concern about the coronavirus. But he signed the Mets’ qualifying offer rather than enter free agency, tying a consistently solid pitcher to the team for another year. Although Stroman’s surface stats look erratic, with a bouncy ERA year to year, his FIP has been remarkably stable every season since he debuted in Toronto, and there’s no reason to expect anything different in 2021.
Syndergaard, like Severino, missed last season following Tommy John surgery that March; the Mets’ fireballer is reportedly targeting a June return. One obvious question is how the surgery and time off will affect Syndergaard’s magnificent fastball; here is a ranking of the fastest average fastballs in the pitch tracking era (since 2008), for starters who threw at least 500 four-seamers in a season:
- Syndergaard, 2016 (98.6 miles per hour on average)
- deGrom, 2020 (98.6)
- Syndergaard, 2019 (97.8)
- Nathan Eovaldi, 2016 (97.7)
- Syndergaard, 2015 (97.7)
- Severino, 2018 (97.6)
- Syndergaard, 2018 (97.6)
The only reason Syndergaard’s 2017 season is missing from this leaderboard is because he was hurt and didn’t throw enough fastballs to qualify; he averaged 98.6 mph that year, too. In a bullpen session Thursday, Syndergaard hit 96, a strong start for someone who isn’t fully back yet.
Yet a more important, secondary question is how the surgery and time off will affect how that fastball actually plays. In part due to spotty command, in part due to inconsistent secondary offerings, Syndergaard’s results hadn’t matched that effortless velocity in his last two healthy seasons, when his strikeout rate was barely better than the MLB average.
The Mets are division favorites, with the majors’ fourth-best-projected rotation, per FanGraphs—and that’s with Syndergaard projected for a 3.73 ERA. They might be fine if he’s just fine, too. But if he’s better than that, harnessing the potential that helped him break out in his 2016 All-Star campaign—a half-decade ago at this point!—this rotation’s upside will have no bounds.
Stephen Strasburg, 5
Surprise! The Nationals have the most stars-and-scrubs roster for any playoff contender. Washington’s top five players—Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin in the rotation, plus Juan Soto and Trea Turner in the lineup—project for a combined 22.6 WAR this season. That’s the second-best mark for any team’s five best players, behind only the juggernaut Dodgers. (The Dodgers are so loaded that Clayton Kershaw is projected sixth on the team in WAR.)
But the Nationals have the worst projected total from the rest of the roster for any club inside the top half. On average, teams project to get about 49 percent of their WAR from their five best players—but for the Nationals, that figure is a whopping 63 percent. Only the non-contending Rockies, with Trevor Story, Germán Márquez, and not much else, have a higher concentration.
So it’s crucially important that all of the Nationals’ stars play up to their billing. That includes a bounce-back season from Scherzer and an MVP-level campaign from Soto—and a return to form from Strasburg, who shut down his 2020 campaign early due to numbness in his right hand.
If Strasburg is healthy now, though—and he looks the part, with eight strikeouts in four spring training innings—he could benefit from the extended time off. In 2019, Strasburg led the National League with 209 innings pitched, then tossed another 36 1/3 frames in the playoffs. He hadn’t exceeded 200 innings in a year since 2014.
Strasburg already won a World Series MVP for the team that drafted him no. 1. He’s lived up to every bit of expectation. Yet with Scherzer headed for free agency after this season and the consensus worst farm system in baseball, per FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and The Athletic, after a muted championship defense in 2020, this season may represent the final real chance for this era of Nationals to compete. They need Strasburg, the sole remaining original member of this core, to do so.
Los Angeles Angels
José Quintana, 10 for the Cubs
Shohei Ohtani, 1 2/3
Unlike other pitchers on this list, who mangled their elbows and shoulders in the course of doing their jobs, Quintana barely pitched in 2020 because of a fluke injury: He cut his thumb while washing dishes, necessitating five stitches and a surgical procedure to heal. Then, after briefly returning to the mound, he sat for another month due to lat inflammation.
That surely wasn’t the walk-year performance Quintana envisioned, and he had to settle for a one-year, $8 million contract in free agency. But the southpaw has plenty of talent—in 2016, Quintana was a deserving All-Star; in 2017, he was the centerpiece of the midseason trade that sent Eloy Jiménez to the White Sox—and he can help a pitching staff that’s needed it for, oh, half a decade at this point.
Since his All-Star campaign, Quintana has been an average pitcher, with a 100 ERA+, rather than a top-of-the-rotation force. But more than almost any other playoff hopeful, the Angels could use consistent, average innings. In the past half-decade, the Angels have had only five pitchers qualify for the ERA title (Jered Weaver, Ricky Nolasco, Dylan Bundy, and Andrew Heaney twice); only the A’s, with four, have a smaller count in that span.
Until last year, Quintana had qualified for seven ERA titles in a row—one of just six pitchers to do so. Granted, one of those other pitchers was Julio Teheran in Atlanta, and the Angels went down that path last season, only to find a 10.05 ERA in 10 games. Maybe Angel Stadium is where midrotation pitchers go to collapse.
But Quintana isn’t sure to fail just because of the identity of his new team. A rotation with Bundy, Heaney, Ohtani, and Quintana looks decent, and decent is all the Angels need, with Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon and Ohtani himself in the lineup.
Speaking of Ohtani: The last time he was healthy, all the way back in 2018, he was the Angels’ best starter over 51 2/3 innings, with a splitter that doubled as the majors’ most unhittable offering. He was hit around for five runs in his last spring training start—but a more encouraging sign is his nine strikeouts in four spring innings thus far. There’s still reason to believe. (Read Ben Lindbergh for much more on Ohtani, and his return from injury, here.)
Boston Red Sox
Chris Sale, 0
Eduardo Rodríguez, 0
By FanGraphs WAR, last season’s Red Sox had the worst pitching staff in modern MLB history, with 30 Boston pitchers combining for negative-0.1 WAR. Part of that problem was a sub-replacement-level relief corps; the other part of that problem was the worst starting staff in the majors.
The one silver lining is that the staff can’t possibly be as poor this season. And it will get a boost as early as Opening Day, when Rodríguez takes the mound after a scary run-in with COVID-19 last season: He had “never been that sick in [his] life,” he said, and after aborting a bullpen session due to fatigue, he was diagnosed with myocarditis and shut down for the season.
Rodríguez says he is now healthy and “ready to go,” and manager Alex Cora has already named him the Opening Day starter. His health and safety, of course, are far more important than whether he can recapture the form that led to a handful of down-ballot Cy Young votes in 2019.
Sale’s return comes with more of a precedent, after his Tommy John surgery in March 2020. Like with Severino, Sale doesn’t yet have a clear return date; like with both Severino and Syndergaard, there are also questions about how effective Sale will be upon returning after an odd 2019 season.
On the one hand, the last time Sale pitched in the majors, he experienced the worst results of his career; on the other, even in that season, Sale still posted the second-best strikeout rate among all pitchers with 100-plus innings (35.6 percent). Unprecedentedly poor luck with fly balls turning into home runs—even relative to the leaguewide spike—was the main culprit behind his unsightly 4.40 ERA.
Sale will be 32 years old by the time he pitches again, with a lot of innings on that surgically repaired left arm. The Red Sox probably need a vintage season from their erstwhile ace if they’re to contend in a crowded AL East race. They won’t know until midseason whether Sale has that form still in him.