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Season Preview: The Best Case Scenario for the Starting Rotation

Here’s the best-case scenario for every starting pitcher (and more) in 2023

2022 World Series Game 6: Philadelphia Phillies v. Houston Astros Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Hemingway said what was true at dawn was often a lie by noon. Mike Tyson expressed this sentiment with a more amusing turn of phrase: everyone’s got a plan until you get punched in the face. And so it is with starting rotations; your vision of the season in April is often unrecognizable from the reality of September.

So what’s a realistic best-case scenario for the 2023 rotation?

Aaron Nola

Nola is handed the ball on opening day for a reason: the kid from Baton Rogue is a bonafide ace. He’s a machine designed to deliver strike outs. In 2022, he pitched 205 innings and struck out 235, and his 3.25 ERA was the second lowest of his major league career.

Yet, last year’s record of 11-13, despite his finishing with the fourth best WAR among pitchers and the seventh best WHIP, betrays something on the field last season was working against Nola.

He typically struggles in September. But that’s understandable for Nols, especially in a year like 2022 when he was asked to do so much for so long.

Having run support helps, too. Too often last season did Nola put up an imposing number of K’s on the board only for the bats to fail to show up. With a lineup that was already good but now also includes the likes of Trea Turner, Nola should have the breathing room to post a win record that reflects the phenomenal talent he possesses.

Best case scenario for our opening day starter is that he gets a contract extension that will keep him in a Phillies uniform for the foreseeable future and he spends the next seven months dominating from the mound. After a long season of eating innings, hopefully there’s enough pitching depth to cut down on innings and keep him loose all season long. And maybe – just maybe – he’ll need to make room for his NL Cy Young Award.

Zack Wheeler

Well look at that, chief. Turns out we’re holding two aces.

In 2022, Wheeler carried a 2.82 ERA over 153 innings and struck out 163. And that’s a slight decline from his performance in 2021 when he came in second place in the Cy Young vote, beating out the likes of Scherzer, Urias, and deGrom.

Provided he stays healthy, there’s no reason to expect anything other than another extraordinary season from the 6’4” Georgia native. The seriousness and tight focus he brings to the mound hasn’t been seen since Doc wore pinstripes.

But staying healthy is the thing for Wheels, isn’t it? In August of last year he went on the IL with right forearm tendinitis. Of course, he returned in early September and picked up his remarkable season right where he left off.

Wheeler’s spring training numbers at first glance may make you wince. As of this writing, he’s made three starts and gave up ten earned runs over 6.1 innings. But he’s working with a catcher he’s not used to and adjusting to the pitch clock. Spring training is a time for pitchers to work out mechanics. Wheeler has posted dismal preseason numbers before, as have Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, and followed up with impressive regular seasons. In his 2011 Spring Training debut, Lee hit his first batter, allowed a walk, and gave up two runs over two innings. Such is preseason ball.

The guy is tough and built to pitch. Best case scenario is he stays healthy and repeats what he did over the past two years. And maybe this year the Cy Young he deserves will finally come his way.

Ranger Suárez

It’s said nothing can get Ranger’s heart rate over 60 bpm. His easy swagger on the mound these past few years seems to lend credibility to that claim.

Ranger Suárez truly stepped into view when he was brought in to relieve Spencer Howard on multiple occasions in 2018. Since then, he’s been asked to fill the unconventional role of a plug and play pitcher. You need him to start? Hand him the ball. Need a middle reliever? He’s your guy. Someone needs to close? Look no further than Ranger.

Last year he proved he’s more than just versatile. He’s come into his own as a solid and reliable arm. He’s more than capable of stepping up in high tension situations. In 2022 he started a career high 29 games (in 2021 he started 12, the next highest was 3 back in 2018) and went 10-7 with a 3.65 ERA.

And you’d be hard pressed to find a pitcher who has more confidence in himself.

On Friday, March 10th, Ranger was pulled from a WBC exhibition game against Houston after he reported tightness in his left arm. No MRI was ordered, and the current recovery plan is rest. From the information released so far from the Phillies and Suárez, this is a very minor setback, even though it may result in missing the start of the season.

There’s every reason to believe Ranger is just now hitting his stride as a starter. Best case scenario is the tightness in his arm is nothing more than temporary discomfort and he will return to the mound in early April to keep doing what Ranger does best.

Taijuan Walker

Dave Dombrowski said he wanted to find an arm who could reliably start and chew through innings.

Enter Taijuan Walker.

In each of the past seasons with the Mets <gag>, Walker made 29 starts and threw over 155 innings. Much has already been written about the quality of his performance before and after the All-Star break. His command seems to erode halfway through the season, leaving too many fastballs over the plate that wind up in the stands. However, the second half of last season wasn’t nearly as dire for Walker as the numbers seem to indicate at first glance.

Best case scenario for Tai Weezy is he makes further progress in sustaining his command through 30 starts - and the Phils figure out a rotation schedule that allows additional rest between starts - as his numbers could easily match those of Nola and Wheeler.

Bailey Falter

Among the many memorable moments of last year’s postseason, the one Bailey Falter probably wishes we would collectively forget is when he gave up four runs to San Diego before being pulled in the first inning in what turned out to be the most bizarre and amusing game of October. For some, his calamitous postseason debut overshadows his praiseworthy performance earlier in the season when he filled in for an injured Zack Wheeler.

In August, the 25 year old from California posted a 2.45 ERA over three games and 18.1 innings. All three games were wins. September was almost as impressive with 25.2 innings thrown over 5 games with 3.51 ERA. That would have been even better except for an outing against the Braves <gag> when he gave up 6 earned runs over 3.2 innings.

At the moment, Falter is the favorite for the fifth starter spot. He has experience in the majors. He possesses the aptness and capacity to be a competent starter. Best case scenario is he strengthens the skills he demonstrated last season and grows in both experience and confidence. He has the potential to be a hell of an anchor for a hell of a rotation.

Cristopher Sanchez

Sanchez looked good over his first nine appearances last season, which included two starts. He struck out 17 and carried a 3.48 ERA over 20 innings. After that…well, he finished the season with a 5.63 ERA after 20 more innings that included a third start.

Best case scenario is he will continue to get the ball and pick up innings, find solid footing that he can ride with some consistency, and serve as a dependable backup starter when needed.

Andrew Painter

A lot has already been written about the promise of Painter, his preseason injury, and predictions of his future. If you need a refresher, I recommend starting with this article from our own Joe Edinger.

The 19 year-old has impressed nearly everyone with whom he’s worked with both his talent and maturity. According to Todd Zelecki’s sources, it appears that Painter will not require surgery. Best case scenario is that Painter can take the mound and go a few innings around the same time Harper makes his season debut. And who knows - maybe he turns out to be our post-All-Star break answer to Spencer Strider.

Nick Nelson

Remember that episode of Breaking Bad where he locked Jessie in that pit and then forced him to help smuggle his dead cleaning lady out of his apartment? Wait…checking my notes. Huh. I could have sworn that was Nick Nelson. Anyway...

The 27 year-old right hander threw 68.2 innings last year with a 4.85 ERA and a 1.485 WHIP. That’s better than his 8.79 ERA in 2021 when he wore a Yankees uniform. He’s likely to post numbers similar in ‘23 as those from ’22. He’s your middle of the road, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency pitcher. He’ll see more relief innings than first innings, but there’s a good chance he’ll be asked to start at some point. Best case scenario is that when he’s needed, he brings his best stuff. And the bats show up in force to back him up.

Garrett Stubbs

Hear me out, chief. The video below provides a pretty compelling argument why this dark horse candidate should be given serious consideration for a starting rotation spot. Best case scenario is that Cotham and Topper recognize this gift bestowed upon them by the baseball gods and bump Nola on opening day for Stubbs.

Who needs Shohei Ohtani?

Best case scenario for the starting rotation is first and foremost they remain as healthy as they did in 2022. Nola, Wheeler, and Suarez never suffered major injuries and when they were out missed very little time. After that, we’d like to see them pitch well and consistent throughout the entire season and stay strong into the postseason.

Best case scenario for the starting rotation is first and foremost they remain as healthy as they did in 2022. Hopefully the depth of starters and relievers is leveraged to give everyone enough rest to prevent injuries and to keep them sharp throughout the back half of the season.

Of course, the absolute best case scenario is Anna Kendrick shows up at my house to watch Wheels punch out Altuve to end game a complete game shutout of Game 7 of the 2023 World Series.