Sticking with Saturday's theme of picking hitters who could break out in 2015, today we turn to the moundsmen. Remember, no rookies, so don’t wonder why Andrew Heaney or Alex Sanchez aren’t here. And to compare and contrast past performance with future potential, we’ll use career runs allowed per nine innings compared to what ACTA’s Bill James and FanGraphs’ Steamer project for ERAs in 2015.
1. Danny Salazar, Indians: 4.17 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.61 ERA, Steamer 3.63
Corey Kluber isn’t going to be the last bit of good news in the Indians’ rotation. While you could pick Carlos Carrasco or Trevor Bauer for this list as well (especially if we took it beyond 10 pitchers), Salazar should be the best of the Tribe’s gaggle of up-and-comers. There’s no question about his mid-90s heat, his slider generates lots of ground-ball opportunities, and he has added a good swing-and-miss change of pace to give himself a three-pitch arsenal. But even a guy whiffing 10 men per nine needs a little help from his friends. After earning an early demotion, upon his return Salazar got a big benefit from the Indians’ in-season improvements on defense after a historically awful start on D. Assuming the Indians are done stress-testing the limits of defensive possibility, Salazar should be able to settle in and do his thing over a full season as one of the best young starters in the league.
2. Michael Pineda, Yankees: 3.42 RA9 career | 2015 James 2.74 ERA, Steamer 3.91
It may be even easier to nominate Pineda for this list than it was to name Machado among the hitters, but before you cry foul, think on this: Newly minted teammate Nathan Eovaldi is a year younger and already has nearly twice as many career big league starts (79) as Pineda does (41). Pineda has pitched only in parts of two seasons in the majors -- most of 2011 for the Mariners and his 13 starts last year as a Yankee; I don’t know if we’ve talked this much about a guy who hasn’t pitched all that much since Joe Magrane 25 years ago. We can’t just chalk it up to New York navel-gazing. As Pineda promptly proved, the talent is there, reflected in last year’s 8-1 K-BB ratio. So let’s skip over last year’s suspension and the years lost to injury and focus on the idea that his first 30-start season is going to be something special.
3. Zack Wheeler, Mets: 4.08 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.57 ERA, Steamer 3.90
He doesn’t have Jake deGrom’s hair or Matt Harvey’s panache, but the Mets will happily “settle” for another top-shelf starting pitcher in what might quickly develop into the best rotation in the division within the next year or two. (Yes, including the Nationals. Or the Marlins’ rotation of the moment, assuming everyone’s healthy.) In the second half, Wheeler really came into his own, goosing his whiff rate beyond one per inning, and he generates a lot of ground-ball outs on his hard slider, curve and four-seam fastball (you read that right). If the Mets had a premium glove at shortstop (not least to compensate for Daniel Murphy’s shortcomings at second), Wheeler would be a quick, easy bet for dominance. In the meantime, count on better run support in 2015 to help him generate a better record as he comes into his own.
4. Drew Smyly, Rays: 3.45 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.30 ERA, Steamer 3.47
He’s the immediate payoff for putting David Price in Detroit, and the timing could not be better for the Rays, as they will control the next four years of Smyly’s time just as he hits the age range when he’s primed for regular rotation work. With a nice fastball/cutter mix, he generates a lot of swinging strikes, and working in front of the intensely defense-minded Rays, he shone down the stretch before being shut down. The brass may have scrammed from Tampa Bay, but with Smyly joining a rotation stocked with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and eventually Matt Moore, there’s still plenty of gold on the roster.
5. Danny Duffy, Royals: 3.99 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.67, Steamer 4.00
The Royals may never have to face the kind of second-guessing the Nationals did over shutting down Stephen Strasburg in 2012, but you can’t tell me Duffy wouldn’t have been a better choice to start a postseason game than Jeremy Guthrie, even allowing for questions about his health after he missed most of September. That’s because southpaw starters with heat that sits at 94 mph don’t grow on trees, and pairing that with Duffy’s biting curve is just tasty for everyone who doesn’t have to face him. Last year was Duffy’s first shot at a full-time rotation gig since 2011 after losing much of 2012 and 2013 to Tommy John surgery and recovery, but the league didn’t catch up to him down the stretch, eking out a .602 second-half OPS after putting up a .607 OPS in the first half. Armed with any kind of run support, he’ll have a big year.
6. Kevin Gausman, Orioles: 4.36 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.69 ERA, Steamer 4.19
You can argue with me over whether Chris Tillman has already had his big breakthrough, but after an awesome stretch run from him, I’m looking forward to the next breakout in Baltimore. Like Salazar, Gausman cooks with gas, throwing mid-90s heat while mixing in a sweet splitter as a swing-and-miss pitch. Pulled in and out of the rotation on an as-needed basis, Gausman was adaptable, but I’m giving him some benefit of the doubt that, handed a regular role instead of being skipped or shipped out, he’ll break out in his age-24 season.
7. Tony Cingrani, Reds: 3.69 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.46 ERA, Steamer 3.75
The Reds traded from their rotation depth this winter, and while some of that was frustration that their formula for success hadn’t generated that much of it, the knowledge that they would be getting Homer Bailey back from the DL and had Cingrani ready to step into a full-time gig didn’t hurt. Pitching in the homer-happy Gap, the venue will never be the lefty Cingrani’s friend, not unless he improves his ground-ball rate. But he has the tools to help himself: consistent low-90s heat and a slider hitters pound into the ground. The hope is that reps will help him improve his touch and separation on his changeup, because he could use better depth in his off-speed arsenal to upset hitters’ timing.
8. Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays: 3.86 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.28, Steamer 3.75
This is going to be fun. Just standing there, Stroman is not the sort of guy whom prospect mavens drool over. Righties standing 5-foot-9 almost automatically get written off as relievers-to-be, not rotation regulars. But between good velocity (fastball sits around 93-94 mph) and a solid five-pitch assortment, he fills the bottom half of the zone with strikes and brings the game down to his level, posting a 4-1 K-BB ratio. You can add in that his already excellent debut season could have been even better with stronger defensive support (2.84 FIP), while ESPN Stats & Information’s Mark Simon reports that Stroman posted the third-lowest hard-hit rate in the majors among pitchers who threw 100 innings last season, just 10.9 percent. Back in the day, a lot of people said that Tim Lincecum was too short, and while there’s only one Freak, we may end up saying there’s only one Marcus Stroman too.
9. Kyle Gibson, Twins: 5.04 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.99 ERA, Steamer 4.55
This may not be as easy a case to make, but he is a prime example of what has become an organizational type for the Twins, a huge strike-thrower who pounds away low and outside and keeps his infield busy, sort of a bigger version of Scott Erickson with even better command. As ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Simon tweeted earlier this month, Gibson kept some pretty extraordinary company last year, tying for second in the majors in starts with seven or more innings pitched and no runs allowed with six. If the Twins’ infield defense jells this year, he’ll stay on that list.
10. Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees: 4.38 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.65 ERA, Steamer 4.44
Eovaldi is already in his third organization before he has even faced his first spin with arbitration, which to keep the cup half-full says something about his desirability. It’s easy to love someone with a high-70s curve, high-80s slider and high-90s fastball, but as Keith Law has pointed out, despite a good amount of experience he’s still very much a work in progress, looking to gain touch on his curve and change. He faded badly down the stretch after carrying a heavy first-half workload, but per FanGraphs he was also let down by his defense, ranking seventh in the majors in differential between his FIP and ERA in 2014. Pitching in New York against tough American League East lineups with the DH won’t make matters any easier, but handled with care, he could blossom into a workhorse.
Relievers to mention because they’re people too: Neil Ramirez of the Cubs and Carter Capps of the Marlins. Yes, high-90s heat is always going to turn heads, and yes, they might be one injury away from racking up big saves totals for those of you who worry about that sort of thing.
Finally, I really want to put Tyler Matzek of the Rockies on this list because of his talent, but in the history of formulas for frustration, say you start with a top-shelf young pitching prospect, add Coors Field and you get ... well, here’s hoping things turn out better than they have so far for Jhoulys Chacin. They are both on the list of guys all non-Rockies baseball fans would probably love to see pitching anywhere else but Denver.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.