The Philadelphia Phillies are entering the 2021 season with plenty of question marks.
There is a four-man competition (at least) for the everyday spot in center field. The bullpen is fully revamped, but it is unclear how it will perform. It is yet to be decided who will fill the final two spots in the starting rotation to open the season.
But one thing is for sure: the top of the Phillies rotation, led by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, is one of the best in baseball.
Nola, likely to start on Opening Day for the fourth consecutive season, cemented himself as the staff’s ace during a brilliant 2018 campaign in which he pitched to a 2.38 ERA and finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting. Wheeler – entering his second season with the Phillies after signing a five-year, $120 million deal last offseason – pitched to a 2.92 ERA in 2020, the lowest of his career.
But where do these teammates rank among the best one-two punches atop a rotation throughout baseball?
Only two pairs of current teammates rank in the top-10 in fWAR since 2018. They are Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, who play for the division-rival Washington Nationals, and the duo of Nola and Wheeler.
But Scherzer and Corbin both struggled in 2020 with ERAs of 3.74 and 4.66, respectively, and there are questions whether a 36-year-old Scherzer, specifically, is over the hump.
Elsewhere in the division, the New York Mets have the single best pitcher in baseball, Jacob deGrom. Who their number two is – Carlos Carrasco? Marcus Stroman? – does not really matter, because deGrom is that good.
Since 2018, deGrom has won two National League Cy Young Awards and has an fWAR of 18.7 — 7.7 more than the eighth place Nola. Carrasco battled Leukemia in 2019, but came back to have a stellar 2020 in which he pitched to a 2.91 ERA in Cleveland. Stroman opted out of the 2020 season, but is coming off a 3.22 ERA in an excellent 2019.
The Los Angeles Dodgers added 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer to an already stacked rotation this offseason – it can probably be argued that any combination of Bauer, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler outranks Nola and Wheeler.
Bauer, who has had somewhat of an up-and-down career, pitched to a 1.73 ERA and struck out 12.3 hitters per nine in 2020. He joins Kershaw, an eventual Hall of Famer who pitched to 2.16 ERA last season, and Buehler, who has a 3.03 in his first three full major league seasons.
The San Diego Padres, meanwhile, built a dynamic rotation from scratch this offseason. The two best pitchers they acquired – Yu Darvish and Blake Snell – certainly have a case as one of the best duos in baseball.
Darvish, who had a 2.01 ERA and struck out 11 hitters per nine innings, might have been the National League Cy Young Award winner had it not been for Bauer’s brilliant 2020 season. And Snell, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2018, enjoyed a bounce-back year after struggling in 2019.
Beyond the Padres, Dodgers and Mets, no team has a one-two punch that definitely ranks above Nola and Wheeler.
The Chicago White Sox certainly have a case with the combination of Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn. Giolito has pitched well over the last two seasons, with a 3.43 ERA and 11.7 strikeouts per nine during that time. Lynn struggled in 2018, but ranks fifth in fWAR over the last two seasons.
If this were after the 2019 season, the Yankees would have a case — they still do, really, because they have Gerrit Cole. Cole, of course, earned the richest contract in baseball history after a 2019 that saw him pitch to a 2.50 ERA and strike out nearly 14 hitters per nine.
But it is a question of who slots behind him. It might be Luis Severino, but injuries have kept him off the field — he has made three starts since 2019 — and it remains to be seen how he returns from Tommy John surgery.
There are other names that could make their way into the conversation during the 2021 season. In Milwaukee, Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes were both excellent in 2020 — but Burnes only has 16 career starts.
And how long will it be before a duo atop the Miami Marlins rotation cracks this list? Sixto Sanchez broke out in a big way last season, and he could form an elite top of a rotation with one of the several young arms in the Marlins system, if not Sandy Alcantara.
But the combination of Nola and Wheeler is clearly one of the best in baseball. And the Phillies hope that Zach Eflin’s emergence continues in 2021 to create a formidable big three.
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