1. RHP Sonny Gray
After finishing third in the 2015 Cy Young voting, nobody could have predicted the dismal 2016 campaign Sonny Gray had ahead of him. Even when he wasn’t struggling with injuries he struggled on the mound, finishing 2016 with a 5-11 record and a soaring 5.69 ERA in just 117 innings pitched.
Still just 27 years of age, it’s hard to believe that a year of good health won’t bring the former first round pick back to All-Star form.
Although Gray will want to bounce-back to guarantee a lucrative contract in his future, there’s nobody counting on him to bounce-back more than the A’s front office and their rebuilding plans. He remains under team control for the next three seasons, which adds a tremendous amount of value to his trade stock.
The A’s will likely wait to move him until he shows signs of his old self, maximizing the return in any potential trade. Gray has the potential to garner a hefty package of top prospects, which could be crucial to the team’s ongoing rebuilding process.
2.LHP Dallas Keuchel
Unlike some of the other starting pitchers on this list, the Astros need Dallas Keuchel to bounce back for a sole purpose: to contend.
The Astros’ lineup is as good as any lineup in the majors, especially with the additions of Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick to compliment their abundance of young talent. Yet what the Astros will need to compete with the powerhouse teams in the American League, specifically the Red Sox and Indians, is good pitching, which will all start with Dallas Keuchel.
Houston has solid starting pitching depth, yet the 29-year-old Keuchel is the only dynamite top-of-the-rotation starter on that staff. We know this based on his 2014 and 2015 campaigns, where he threw for at least 200 innings each year while maintaining a sub-3.00 ERA.
The 2015 Cy Young award winner took a huge step back in 2016, finishing with a 9-12 record and a 4.55 ERA in 168 innings pitched, as his season was cut short in late August due to shoulder inflammation.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch may look to limit Keuchel’s innings in 2017 as the southpaw experienced arm fatigue in 2016, which could have been the source of his struggles and almost certainly led to his shoulder injury.
The Astros will need him healthy and back to an ace-caliber form so that they can confidently put someone on the mound to face dominant pitchers like Chris Sale and Corey Kluber come playoff time.
3. RHP Matt Harvey
The Mets had high expectations for their rotation entering the 2016 season, with Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard leading the top of their rotation.
After finishing third in the league in team ERA, it would be fair to say that their whole starting staff including Steven Matz and yes, Bartolo Colon, met or if not exceeded these expectations; with the exception of Matt Harvey.
Harvey finished the year with a 4-10 record and a 4.86 ERA, the first time in his career that his ERA exceeded 3.00. Some issues with his mechanics were evident as early as opening day, as he failed to fool batters the way he had in the past with a career low 7.38 K/9.
Harvey also began to experience pain and numbness throughout his whole arm midway through the season and was soon diagnosed thoracic outlet syndrome, a shoulder injury that would require surgery. His season would be cut short in early July after just 92.2 innings pitched.
Although it is usually a difficult recovery for pitchers who undergo this certain procedure, Harvey is expected to be healthy by Spring Training. A comeback year for Matt Harvey would give the Mets the best rotation in the National League, good enough to compete with the strong pitching staffs in Washington, San Francisco, and even Chicago. It wouldn’t be the first time Harvey has bounced back from an injury, having put out a strong 2015 campaign after undergoing Tommy John surgery the year before.
His performance in 2017 will also have significant implications on his financial future, as the 27-year-old will look to stay healthy for the remaining two years on his contract to increase his chances of getting long-term deal.
The Cubs will likely be the consensus favorite entering the 2017 season, yet a potential return to ace-form from Matt Harvey puts the Mets, who have a World Series drought of their own, in the mix to steal their crown.
4. RHP Jordan Zimmerman
Jordan Zimmerman’s time in Detroit got off to a rough start, in the first year of a five-year deal worth $110 million.
He finished the year with a 4.87 ERA and just over 105 innings pitched, as he made only four post All-Star break appearances due to a number of injures, with a lingering neck-strain being the most prominent. It’s also worth noting that he struggled mightily in these four appearances, surrendering 15 earned runs in just 9.2 innings combined.
Although the Tigers have shown signs that they could be preparing for a rebuild, they still have the pieces to be a contending team having won 86 games last season.
Zimmerman is the X-factor of these pieces, as a return to his sub-four ERA and 200 inning-self would give Detroit one of the top rotations in baseball, complimenting Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer at the top of the rotation.
Even if the Tigers do decide to become sellers at the trade deadline, they will want to dump the remainder of Zimmerman’s enormous contract regardless of his performance, which would be nearly impossible unless he returns to his old-self. Zimmerman will make $18 million this season and is set to make over $24 million annually over the next three seasons, which would be a devastating blow to any rebuilding movement the Tigers wish to start.
Regardless of if the Tigers are contenders or not in 2017, they need the Jordan Zimmerman to stay healthy and become the All-Star pitcher he was for Washington not long ago.
5. LHP David Price
It’s unfair to say that David Price had a bad 2016 season, finishing the year with a 17-9 record and a 3.99 ERA. He continued to be the workhorse he has been throughout his entire career, leading the league in games started and innings pitched.
With that said, he was certainly not the ace that the Red Sox gave a seven-year contract worth $217 million to, the largest contract ever given to major league pitcher.
The former Cy Young award winner finished the season with his highest ERA since his 2009 rookie season, which can mostly be attributed to the 4.34 ERA he entered the All-Star break with. He certainly improved in the second half of the season, but was still not the consistently dominant starter the Red Sox hoped for.
He also struggled in his only postseason start, surrendering five earned runs in 3.1 innings in the division series against Cleveland.
It’s hard to pin his struggles on his change in uniform, as he has been pitching in the AL East for almost the entirety of his career. The tremendous workload the 31-year-old has seen over the course of his career could also be a factor, yet Price struggled the most in the first half of the season, making fatigue an unlikely source of his regression.
The Red Sox are praying that the southpaw’s 2016 struggles were just a fluke, as the David Price of old paired along with Chris Sale and Rick Porcello could give them the best rotation in baseball. If his regression continues in 2017, it could be a long six years for Boston’s front office and their payroll.*
*Statistics from MLB.com
Contract information from spotrac.com
Featured Image from the New York Daily News