Examining the A.L. East Starting Rotations (Intro and Baltimore)
Examining the A.L. East Starting Rotations (Intro and Baltimore)
by Cary Greene
March 9, 2022
Continuing on with my comparison of American League East Division rivals, I now move to the Starting Rotations. Projected WAR is certainly one way to measure the impact of a pitcher who logs significant innings and so ultimately, the rankings are based off of this stat. However, there are many other aspects that go into measuring the potential effectiveness of a pitching staff, over the long haul. We’re not going to have a full 162 game season this year and it remains to be seen exactly how long the MLB season will be this year, but certainly organizational depth is very important.
Most teams have a number of AAAA type starters stashed in Triple A and these types of pitchers can ride their respective shuttle buses to and from the big league team in order to make spot starts as needed and depending upon matchups. Some teams have highly rated pitching prospects who are stepping into a starting rotation this season, or will be doing so at some point during the season. Other teams have some quality prospects who are still in the low minors and it will take longer for their impact to be felt. True Tier-1 high-end starting pitching prospects are very hard to come by.
There are actually only three of them in the American League East. Shane Baz, with the Rays, is one of them. He’s expected to open the season in the Rays starting rotation. The other two Tier-1 prospects are with the Orioles. Grayson Rodriguez, set to open the season in Triple-A and DJ Hall, who will open the year in Double-A. In the team charts in the body of this article, Yellow rows signify the high-end Tier-1 prospects. Green rows highlight the Tier-2 prospects, Blue rows are Tier-3 prospects and Light Orange are Tier-4 prospects.
Consequently, the Yankees don’t have any Tier-1 pitching prospects. Luis Gil is the top Yankee pitching prospect and he’s New York’s lone Tier-2 grade prospect as he struggles with command but otherwise has an electric arm.
What is unique about the American League East this year is that there are four teams who have World Series championship aspirations. The Rays, Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays have all set their sites on contending. Will each team’s pitching ultimately dictate their respective fates? In all likelihood – yes. Previously I examined each World Series champion since 1903 and I only found seven instances when a team with below average pitching during the regular season managed to win the World Series. In five of those instances, the winning team actually got very good pitching when it mattered most.
For example, in 2012, the Giants had a regular season ERA of 3.68 but their post season mark of 1.46 was lights-out! Their ERA+ during the season was 96, a full 5 points from the 2012 league average of 101. I had to really sift through baseball stats to find a single team in World Series history that didn’t win with pitching that came together at the right time of year and I found only two teams that managed to win with below average pitching and both championships happened within the last decade.
In 2014, the Giants rode Madison Bumgarner’s sparkling 0.43 postseason ERA to another title, though the staff overall posted a 3.98 ERA in the postseason, which was much worse than league average (3.74) in 2014. They won despite below average pitching, no matter how we slice it. Granted, they had a hot ace in the hole, but the rest of the staff was far below average which makes them an anomaly.
The other team that defied the trend was the 2017 Astros, who had a 99 ERA+ which was below league average of 101. In the postseason that year, as Yankee fans well remember, the Astros got good pitching when it mattered. The league average ERA that year was 4.35 and the Astros put up a 4.64 overall postseason ERA, despite the efforts of Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton, the Astros had a suspect bullpen that, when combined with the starting rotation, produced an overall below average pitching staff. The 2017 Astros clearly won with the best OPS+ (123) of any World Series Champion in the last 10 years though and the cheating scandal they were embroiled in probably made a big difference overall.
During my research for this article, I noted that hitting isn’t all that important compared to pitching. Only 26 of 117 World Series winners had better hitting than pitching (22.2%). A team that truly wants to win absolutely needs very good pitching. It’s also paramount that a team’s pitching is firing on all cylinders in the postseason. Some teams have very good pitching during the regular season but it doesn’t pan out in the postseason. Last year’s Yankees, White Sox and Dodgers are recent examples.
Also important to note, the average World Series winner over the 117 seasons of World Series history had an OPS+ of 103.91 – so a team with an offense below this threshold is highly unlikely to hit enough to win it all. This means that a championship team needs to give their pitching staff enough run support to win close games. Championship teams find ways to score against good pitching. The 2020 Dodgers are a perfect example of this. They had a fantastic, multidimensional offense which was capable of scoring in multiple ways. Their regular season OPS+ was 119, the league average was 100. The Dodgers beat a determined and stingy Rays team who could also score in bunches and they also needed their dominant pitching in order to win a tightly played World Series.
Another important stat emerged for me to note. Over the last 117 seasons, the average World Series winner had an ERA+ of 113.66 and this is a highly important stat for teams with World Series aspirations to be aware of. Were there any teams in the American League East last year with overall pitching at or above an ERA+ of 113.66? Actually, only the Yankees – who posted a 115.
Based on projections, what we know at this point in the offseason is that there are projected to be three American League East Teams with pretty good overall pitching. In order, they are the Rays, the Yankees and the Blue Jays. The Red Sox are projected to have close to league average pitching and their projections may be sand-bagged a bit due to Boston having a questionable bullpen. If the Red Sox were to make the postseason this year, they’d have to shut down some good offenses, which in a five or seven game series will require solidly above average pitching – something Boston simply lacks at this time. They do however have a plan and we will look at this, but first let’s examine what else the projections show us.
We also know that, in order, the Blue Jays, the Yankees and the Red Sox are each projected to have well above league average offenses, while the Rays are much closer to league average. This means that Tampa may struggle to score in the postseason and they will need to play many tight games and overcome good offenses in order to win a World Series championship.
This information is significant, if we use past history as our teacher. The Yankees and the Blue Jays are best equipped to win a World Series if we use current projections as our barometer.
The Yankees will attempt to ride a single ace, Gerrit Cole and otherwise bash their way to a World Series championship with a predominantly right-handed lineup >> something they’ve been trying to do (and failing at) for the past five years. Clearly the Yankees need more front end pitching to slot in behind Cole and they need some upgrades offensively and better lineup balance. Last season, the Yankees had an OPS+ of only 100, which was barely above the league average of 97 and fell short in the one game playoff against the Red Sox. The Yankees are being held back by a generally not productive enough infield and catching that just doesn’t cut it, so Brian Cashman may look to provide more lineup balance and more offensive fire-power when the lockout ends.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays had the best offense in the Division last year and their pitching is very close – but they did lose Robbie Ray and Steven Matz. The question will be, can newly acquired Kevin Guzman combine with a full season of Sean Manaya to provide a net positive increase? Also, can Toronto add a reliable 5th starter to put them over the top? If they do these things, they have what it takes to win it all.
Last year, the Red Sox got shut out by Shane McClanahan and the Rays 5-0 to open the Division series, but they reeled off three straight wins to advance to the League Championship series. Boston’s pitching was shaky in the series against Tampa but the Rays couldn’t suppress Boston’s offense. The Red Sox pitching fell apart completely against the Astros. Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, Nick Pavetta and Eduardo Rodriguez just didn’t get the job done.
Starting pitching can make a huge difference in a team’s overall success, so how do the American League East Division rivals really compare heading into the season? Can their farm systems provide serious boosts and do they have available, nearly ready depth to rely on? Are their rotations sustainable and built for continued success beyond the coming season? How much payroll is each team spending on starting pitching relative to their rivals? I’ll examine the teams in reverse order, from the worst to the best.
Worst Projected Rotation in AL East: ORIOLES
● Projected WAR: 7.0
● Cary’s Rank in Al East: 5th
● 2021 ERA+ 78 – worst in MLB
● Trade Value of MLB Starters: 45.4 / AVG Age: 22.9
● Total Payroll for MLB Starters: $11.05 million / Avg Per SP: $1.84 million
● AVG Yrs Team Control: 4.7
● Trade Value of MiB Starters: 109 / Two Tier 1 Prospects / Six Tier 3 Prospects
○ T1 – Grayson Rodriguez, Double-A, FV: 65
○ T1 – DJ Hall, Double-A, FV: FV: 55
● Staff Ace: John Means
How did the Orioles Build their Projected Rotation? (6 Draft Picks / 3 Trades / 1 Free Agent / 1 International Amateur Signing)
● Drafted John Means in 2014, 10th Round
● Signed Jordan Lyles this offseason for 2 years and potentially $17 million
● Traded with Braves in 2019 for Bruce Zimmerman (also received C Brett Cumberland for Kevin Gausman and Darrin O’Day)
● Drafted Keegan Akin in 2019, Round 2
● Drafted Zac Lowther in 2019, Round 2
● Traded with Dodgers in 2018 for Dean Kremer (also received OF Yusniel Diaz, 3B Rylan Bannon, IF Breyvic Valera and RHRP Zach Pop for Manny Machado)
● Drafted Grayson Rodriguez in 2018, Round 1, #11 pick
● Traded with Angels in 2019 for Kyle Bradish (also received Isaac Mattson, Zach Peek and Kyle Brnovich for Dylan Bundy)
● Drafted DL Hall 2017 Round 1, #21 pick
● Signed Alexander Wells in 2016 as an International Amateur
● Drafted Mike Bauman in 2017, Round 3
The team with the worst overall starting rotation in the American League this season will be the Orioles, who are immersed in a massive rebuild and consequently, they have the number one overall Draft pick in this year’s Draft, thanks to “winning” a tiebreaker with the Diamondbacks for which team had the world record in 2019. The Orioles have mostly focused on building starting pitching through the MLB Draft.
The Orioles rotation is projected to be a 7.3 WAR outfit by fangraphs.com. John Means is the workhorse of the staff and he’s followed by Jordan Lyles, Bruce Zimmerman, Keegan Allen, Zac Lowther and Dean Kremer.
Last season the Orioles had the worst pitching in MLB as evidenced by their measly 78 ERA+. Since they already hit rock bottom, they have to get better, don’t they?
Well, most scouts feel they will start showing signs of competitiveness this year and they’ll actually become a lot better by 2023. While I tend to agree, that’s not going to help the Orioles win a World Series this season and based on their team payroll and their adversity to trading pieces that could accelerate their rebuild, I’m frankly not sure what the franchise is actually planning. Their rebuild is moving at the pace of a snail and it appears that Baltimore is quite content to toil away in misery for the foreseeable future.
Means is a very valuable starter, given he only makes $3.25 million and his ability to eat innings and get outs is very good, perhaps the Orioles will keep him around as their youth begins to mature. He was an 11th round pick in 2014 and he made the All-Star team as a rookie in 2019, earning perhaps a little obligatory recognition. There are a couple of things worth noting about Means. The first is that he’s very unlucky when it comes to giving up home runs. He has the largest gap between home runs allowed and “expected” home runs in MLB, giving up +3.8 HR and while this is a kooky stat that is ballpark adjusted, what comes to mind for me, thinking back to 2020, Tyler Wade hit a line drive “porch job” off him and Luke Voit popped a Camden Yards grand slam off him. Both of those home runs would have been easy outs in just about any other stadium. The guy is actually unlucky, as Yankee fans can attest.
Means has added velocity as he’s matured and his numbers at this point suggest a very solid profile as a starting pitcher and an innings eater.
The Orioles do have a fantastically good Farm System that features top tier talent, depth, high floors and high ceilings and has just about everything you could want in a minor league system. That said, their starting rotation was putrid last year so there is a ton of need to improve it.
Baltimore’s farm system boats two Tier-1 pitching prospects who could each easily become aces – 22 year old righty Grayson Rodriguez and 22 year-old lefty DL Hall. Both are Double-A level talents presently. Fangraphs ranks Grayson Rodriguez as the number 2 overall prospect in MLB and oh by the way, number one on the list is Orioles catching prospect Adley Rutchsman, who is due to open the season as the Orioles starting catcher. Rodriguez is expected to join the starting rotation in the second half of the season.
No team in the American League East has more youth piping into its big league rotation than the Orioles do. The chart below shows in yellow, two “Tier 1” prospects who are potential aces in the making, will likely be arriving this season. In addition, there are four untested “Tier 3” prospects who will be counted on to eat innings. Ton’s of future upside exists with this rotation but for now, the Orioles will continue to take their lumps as they work on finishing so many young, potential imbued arms. In terms of trade value, only the Rays have a better overall minor league starting pitching component to their farm system.