Last year, I ran through my picks to click on the mound in 2015. There were a couple of hits -- thank you Danny Salazar, Kyle Gibson and Nate Eovaldi -- and a few misses, and several guys got hurt, but there’s still plenty of reason to believe in what Zack Wheeler, Drew Smyly and Marcus Stroman might do, just one year later.
With that mixed bag in mind, who are the guys I’ll be following most closely to see if they’re going to bust out on the mound in 2016? In some cases, I'm picking guys who are already good and will take it up a notch, and in others, guys who will do better than they have before. And no tabbing rookies in this space (sorry, Tyler Glasnow and Jon Gray), and no doubling down on guys like Smyly and Stroman -- that would be too easy now that they’re back in action, plus let’s again use career RA/9 to projections from the new Bill James Handbook and FanGraphs’ Steamer for ERAs to compare past performance with future potential.
1. Jeff Samardzija, San Francisco Giants: 4.48 RA/9 career | 2016 James 3.58 ERA, Steamer 3.48 In four seasons as a rotation regular, Samardzija has gone 35-52, most of it time spent pitching for bad ballclubs in Chicago. His runs allowed per nine in that time is 4.33. After apparently breaking through in 2014 with a 2.99 ERA with the Cubs, last year he tumbled badly with the White Sox, leading the majors in runs allowed and the AL in homers surrendered. So that’s what he is, right? Aren’t we done here? Well, no, because as big as the Giants’ investment in him in the offseason was ($90 million over five years), there’s a lot of reason to believe that Samardzija is just getting started.
The easy thing to look at if you want to pick Samardzija for a 2016 breakthrough is his 3.69 FIP over that time, which in turn owes plenty to a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.36. His numbers were even stronger in the NL, and he’s going back to the NL. Simple enough -- those are strong indicators. But just as important, Samardzija is leaving behind all sorts of things at U.S. Cellular Field that shouldn’t be a problem for him pitching for the Giants.
What are those? First, he’s going from pitching in front of one of baseball’s worst defenses to one of baseball’s best; the Giants’ .706 Defensive Efficiency ranked second in baseball, where the Sox’s ranked 28th at .673. Second, he got poor support from a bad White Sox bullpen; half of the runners he left on base scored after he came out of the game (nine of 18), when the MLB average was 30 percent. The Giants owned baseball’s best mark (21 percent), which you can lay at the doorstep of Bruce Bochy’s savvy and the skills of Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo and friends, because the Giants have been tops on that score in three of the past five years. And lastly, Samardzija is going from the Cell, reliably one of the easiest places to allow home runs, to AT&T Park, the hardest in the past three years.
Simply put, he’s the right guy in the right place at the right time to bounce back and bust out.
You might think that Verlander is back as far as he can come after bringing his ERA back down to 3.38 last season in 20 starts, but remember, the start to his season was delayed by an early-season triceps injury that kept him shelved until June. What I’m here to say is that he’s back. His ERA after the All-Star break was in the top 10 among all starters (2.80), and his strikeout rate at that time was a sweet 23.6 percent. He did that despite not seeing his velocity come back up to its former mid-90 mph glory; he was sitting at 93 mph with his four-seam, much the same as when he struggled the previous two seasons, but with a little more movement and some additional vertical break on his slider. Sometimes a guy just needs the time to master what he has to work with, and it really looks like Verlander has done just that. If he gets the benefit of the kind of run support a lineup boosted by a healthy Miguel Cabrera can crank out, he’ll get the wins that will make a few more folks notice.
Carrasco just made his first 30-start season and went 14-12 with 10.6 K/9, so you might argue that he already has broken through. But looking at his peripherals and his second-half performance, you can see how he might just be getting started. His second-half strikeout rate of 32.5 percent trailed only guys named Strasburg and Kershaw among big league starters, and his .071 well-hit average against after the break trailed only the Cy Young Award-winning stretch run of Jake Arrieta (.067). Add in the negative impact he suffered dealing with the Indians’ first-half woes on defense before they called up shortstop Francisco Lindor -- allowing an ugly .339 BABIP -- and you can see why they were wise to hold onto Carrasco instead of shopping him: He’s not just a solid starter, he’s an ace coming into his own.
You’ve already heard all about the Snakes’ new headline duo atop the rotation after they signed Zack Greinke and traded for Shelby Miller, but what didn’t get as much attention is that they’re rounding out what should be an excellent front three because Corbin’s comeback from Tommy John surgery appears complete. Handled carefully in a half-season, he averaged little more than five innings per start while notching 4.6 strikeouts for every walk. Skip referring to him as the third man because working on a longer rein now that he has healed up, he’s a good bet to be the second-best starter behind Greinke, and a big part of the reason why Arizona will be back in the postseason picture.
Following in Aroldis Chapman’s footsteps by signing with the Reds in 2014 after emigrating from Cuba, Iglesias turned heads in his abbreviated big league debut, showing command of a four-pitch mix, and rattling off seven consecutive quality starts beginning on Aug. 1. But between a couple of stints in the minors, an oblique injury that cost him a month, some time in the bullpen and getting shut down in mid-September, he made only 16 big league starts while going 3-7. Given a full season in The Show, he may not rack up wins on a weak Reds roster, but his 26 percent strikeout rate was a preview of 2016 dominance.
See if you remember the last time the Padres picked up a live arm drafted in the early rounds, touted highly, and then stuck in a swing role in Oakland, then put him in Petco, and enjoyed the results. Former second-rounder Tyson Ross turned out just fine, and the hope here is that former first-rounder Pomeranz finally gets a clean shot at a rotation job he hasn’t gotten since he was shipped to the Rockies by the Indians. While this might seem a reach, the last two slots in the Padres’ rotation aren’t locked in, and thanks to a good fastball and curve, Pomeranz’s strikeout rate has been a steady 23 percent the past two years. Put Pomeranz in Petco and let him pitch every fifth day, and he could blossom into another quality starter picked up cheaply.
Even teams that might lose 100 games rack up saves tallies, and Vizcaino finally seems to have found a path to a career in the bullpen after struggling with injuries. Via James’ projections, Baseball Info Solutions has Vizcaino pegged for 38 saves, which might seem extremely high, but remember, games the Braves do win will be close, creating lots of opportunities. At this point, I wouldn’t bet against his squeezing past Freddie Freeman as the token Braves All-Star -- somebody has to go, and competition at first base is fierce.
8. Tyler Duffey, Minnesota Twins: 3.10 RA9 | 2016 James 3.46, Steamer 4.18
Duffey used up his rookie status with his late-season summoning to shore up the rotation down the stretch, so he’s somebody I’ll squeeze in here because nobody should lose sight of him among the Milones or Nolascos (or more highly touted farmhands like Jose Berrios, Trevor May and Alex Meyer). But in Duffey’s 10-start spin with the Twins, he notched seven quality starts and 8.2 K/9. With his combo of low-90s heat, a nasty curve and exceptional command, you might think he’s a cookie cutter-perfect product of the assembly line that gave us dominating control fiend Brad Radke back in the day. Putting him here reflects my expectation that he’ll live up to that tradition.
Remember him? The Angels didn’t give up Mark Trumbo for nothing, after all, but after Skaggs missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery he had in August 2014, he should be fully healed and ready to compete for a spot in the Angels’ crowded rotation picture as a 24-year-old with parts of three different big league seasons already under his belt. Before he broke down, the lefty was showing excellent sink on his fastball, and his curve was developing into the swing-and-miss pitch people expect it to be. Because he has options, he may have to wait as the Angels sort through their veteran alternatives, but with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson struggling of late and heading into the last years of their respective deals, he may not have to wait long.
Much depends on what role the Cubs ultimately end up needing Warren to fulfill, but his 2015 performance with the Yankees showed that he’s a perfectly handy utility pitcher if that’s what you need. But coming over to the NL, I could see Warren turning into a solid No. 4 starter, or as their late-game fireman as he settles back into a role where he can dial his fastball back up into the mid-90s. It’s a nice problem to have, one that will be interesting to see once pitching coach Chris Bosio gets a full camp in with him. But either way, Warren will eliminate any suggestion that trading Starlin Castro to the Yankees was a matter of money management and getting the former middle-infield star out of Ben Zobrist’s way in Wrigleyville.
Honorable mentions to Jon Niese & Ryan Vogelsong, Pittsburgh Pirates: Every year, only a very few veterans win the race to Pittsburgh to get a shot at retreading their careers by working with pitching coach Ray Searage. This year, it’s Niese and Vogelsong, and I wouldn’t bet against either resurrecting his fortunes while pitching for the Pirates after we all saw the magic worked with Edinson Volquez and J.A. Happ.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.