By Michael Levitt
In addition to the hitters to watch that were detailed last week, there are also pitchers who are worth keeping an eye on and could grab hold of an important role for their club. There are plenty of position battles among pitchers, and some of them are more exciting than others.
The Chicago White Sox announced over the weekend that top prospect Michael Kopech will start the year in the bullpen, which leaves Carlos Rodon and Reynaldo Lopez to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation. The loser would likely become the long reliever and possible spot starter in the bullpen. It should be a good battle to watch, as both have had promise in the past but have struggled with either injury (Rodon) or ineffectiveness (Lopez). Rodon re-signed with the White Sox this offseason for one year and Lopez was demoted to the alternate training site for part of last season, so both pitchers have something to prove. If whoever wins the spot can overcome their past issues, the White Sox rotation could be among the best in the league.
Another team in the American League Central division is also having an interesting battle for the last spot in their rotation. The Minnesota Twins have the first four spots in their rotation solidified, but the fifth spot is up for grabs between Matt Shoemaker, Randy Dobnak, and Devin Smeltzer. Shoemaker is the favorite to get the spot after signing for one year and $2 million this offseason, although he has a propensity for getting hurt that has limited him to less than 15 starts per season every year since 2016 and an average of six starts per season over the last three years. Because of that, it is likely that either Dobnak or Smeltzer will see some time in the rotation this season, but how much time is unknown. Smeltzer has had some success out of the bullpen in the past, so the Twins could decide to keep him in the bullpen as opposed to starting in the minor leagues if he does not win the spot. Dobnak had success in the rotation at the beginning of last season but fell off after that and was eventually sent to the alternate training site, so he may have a leg up over Smeltzer. It seems to be Shoemaker’s spot to lose at this point though.
Perhaps the most high-profile position battle is with the Toronto Blue Jays. After re-signing Robbie Ray and locking top prospect Nate Pearson into a rotation spot, only one spot is open. The competitors are trade acquisition Steven Matz and former Los Angeles Dodgers swingman Ross Stripling, with a few others on the outside looking in. Matz has shown signs of being a quality starting pitcher but has matched that with equal amounts of ineffectiveness. The Blue Jays acquired him from the New York Mets in the offseason with the thought that fresh scenery will help him live up to his potential, so he will likely get a shot in the rotation at some point this season. Toronto also got Stripling via trade, although he joined the team at the trade deadline last season. He struggled in his time with the Blue Jays but will look to bounce back this year. Matz is the frontrunner at this point, but Stripling will get a chance to show that he deserves to be a full-time starting pitcher instead of bouncing between the rotation and bullpen.
The Mets have their own competition going on for the final spot in their rotation after trading Matz away, at least until Noah Syndergaard is back from Tommy John surgery around midseason. The favorite so far is youngster David Peterson, who did well in his first go-round of the majors last season and was expected to fill the fourth rotation spot until Taijuan Walker was signed. Instead, Peterson will battle with trade acquisition Joey Lucchesi and former top prospects Sean Reid-Foley and Jordan Yamamoto for the final spot in the rotation. The Mets received Lucchesi from the San Diego Padres in a three-team trade this offseason and will hope that he can regain his past success after he lost favor with the Padres and spent most of last season at the alternate training site. Reid-Foley went to the Mets as part of the return package for Matz but has not had much of an opportunity at the major league level. Most of his major league experience last season was in the bullpen, but prior to that pitched mostly in the rotation, although with little success. Yamamoto came over to the Mets via trade after being removed from the 40-man roster by the Miami Marlins, and will try to fulfill his promise after struggling to a 6.20 ERA in 90 career major league innings over the past two years. He was exceptionally bad last season in three starts and one relief appearance, but at 24 years old is a decent flier for the Mets to take a chance on.
The other New York team also has a rotation battle on its hands. The Yankees have the first four spots locked up between ace Gerrit Cole, bounce-back candidate Corey Kluber, former Pittsburgh Pirates top starter Jameson Taillon, and late bloomer Jordan Montgomery, but the fifth spot remains to be seen. It will likely go to either top prospect Deivi Garcia or enigmatic Domingo German. German remains a bit of a wild card after missing all of 2020 on a league suspension for violating the domestic violence policy. However, the Yankees seem to think that he still has something to offer, although Garcia is the frontrunner at this point. Garcia made six starts for the Yankees down the stretch last year, showing his talent even through his struggles. He managed to strike out 33 batters while walking only six in almost 35 innings, although he logged an unimpressive 4.98 ERA. With more of a chance, Garcia could become a dependable starting pitcher who the Yankees can rely on if they need to. There are other competitors fighting for the spot as well, but Garcia and German seem to be the two most likely candidates for the job. Considering Kluber, Taillon and Montgomery are all relatively injury-prone, it is possible that the losers of the fifth spot still see some time in the rotation this year, although the Yankees have never shied away from trades to fill spots as well.
All these competitions will likely get solved in spring training and are worth watching, as they could represent the next crop of ace pitchers getting their first chance at a major league rotation. For many baseball fans, spring training is a time to not only see the stars of today, but also the stars of tomorrow. And with many teams manipulating the service time regulations to receive an extra year of control over their best prospects, few prospects will be afforded a chance to make their club’s opening day roster. So, when some do a chance, it is worth watching, whether they succeed or not.
Edited by Emma Moloney