On Wednesday night, New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole and current free agent/former San Diego Padres left-hander Blake Snell are were named the 2023 Cy Young winners. Snell had a terrific finish to the season, pitching to a 1.20 ERA in his final 23 starts this season. It’s his second career Cy Young after he previously won the award in 2018.
For Cole, this is his first career Cy Young after finishing top five in the voting five times previously, including runner-up twice (2019 and 2021). With Chris Sale hampered by injuries in recent years and aging out as ace, Cole was the best active pitcher to have never won a Cy Young. That changed Wednesday night.
There has now been at least one first-time Cy Young winner every year since Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander each won for the second time for 2019. Let’s look now at the pitchers best positioned to be the next pitcher to win his first career Cy Young. Here are the pitchers other than this year’s finalists — Cole, Gray, and Gausman in the AL and Zac Gallen and Logan Webb in the NL — poised to really pop in the near future, and capture their first ever Cy Young.
Front of the line
Believe it or not, Castillo has never received a single Cy Young vote in his career. Not even a token fifth-place vote. He’s been an All-Star three times, including 2023, and since 2019 he’s pitched to a 3.43 ERA while ranking sixth among all pitchers in starts (135), sixth in innings (795 2/3), and fifth in strikeouts (893). Castillo is already right on the cusp of getting serious Cy Young consideration and he certainly has the talent to put up a Cy Young-caliber season in the near future. With his 31st birthday next month, 2024 might be Castillo’s best chance to take home the hardware.
Fried was the Cy Young runner-up in 2022 and he pitched at a Cy Young level around a hamstring strain, a blister, and a forearm injury in 2023. The injuries are a concern, particularly the forearm trouble, though Fried pitched well after he returned and he turns 30 in January. He is at a prime Cy Young winning age. Since 2020, Fried owns a 2.66 ERA in 484 2/3 innings. Here’s another thing to keep in mind: Fried will be a free agent next offseason. He wouldn’t be the first player to have a career year in his free agent year, and Fried at his best can certainly be Cy Young caliber.
The 2023 season was a very up-and-down year for Strider, who had as many months with a sub-3.00 ERA as he did with a 5+ ERA. I think we can chalk that up at least somewhat to a young pitcher learning how to navigate the long 162-game season. Strider leads all pitchers with 483 strikeouts over the last two seasons despite ranking 36th in innings (318 1/3 innings). He is a 300-strikeout season waiting to happen and a great candidate to pair those 300 strikeouts with an ERA closer to 2.00 than 3.00. Strider turned only 25 in October. He has youth on his side and thus a nice long runway to get that first career Cy Young.
There is no better combination of strikeouts and ground ball ability in the game today. Valdez, who finished fifth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2022, has gotten 65.2% of the batters he’s faced the last three years to either strike out or hit the ball on the ground. That is easily the highest rate among the 104 pitchers with at least 300 innings from 2021-23. Alex Cobb is a distant second at 62.8%, and no one else is at 60%. Valdez has all the ingredients needed to win a Cy Young. He eats innings, he misses bats, and he keeps the ball on the ground and in the park. With a good defense behind him, things could all come together for him and result in a Cy Young the way it did another Astros lefty in the not-too-distant past: Dallas Keuchel.
No one asked me, but Wheeler would be by pick for the next pitcher to win his first career Cy Young. He probably should have a Cy Young already, though I don’t begrudge the voters who went for Corbin Burnes‘ per-inning excellence over Wheeler’s bulk workload in 2021. Regardless, Wheeler has a premium combination of power and precision. He throws five pitches regularly (and has a sixth pitch too) and has command of all them, so he has a weapon for every batter. Wheeler can exploit anyone’s weakness. He misses bats and gets weak contact, which tends to lead to good things. It helps that the Phillies are poised to improve their defense by putting Bryce Harper at first base full-time and committing to Kyle Schwarber at DH.
In the mix
Just about the only thing standing between Buehler and a Cy Young is health. He missed the entire 2023 season with his second career Tommy John surgery, and although the second Tommy John carries more risk than the first, it is not as risky as it once was. Nathan Eovaldi is a reminder of that every postseason. Buehler finished fourth in the 2021 NL Cy Young voting, and while his strikeout totals are merely great rather than otherworldly, he does enough other things well (limit walks, keep the ball in the park, etc.) to keep runs to a minimum. As long as his elbow holds up, Buehler should be back in the Cy Young mix soon.
I might have López a tier too low. He took his game to another level after joining the Twins in the Luis Arraez trade last offseason, specifically adding a sweeper that helped him boost his strikeout rate from a slightly above average 23.6% in 2022 to an elite 29.2% in 2023. López added those strikeouts without increasing his walk rate either, which is impressive because it can be difficult to throw the sweeper for strikes. A five-pitch pitcher with the ability to miss bats and keep the ball on the ground is going to have a lot of success in this game. López has put himself firmly in the 2024 Cy Young conversation, at minimum.
I know it’s all Ohtani, all the time right now, but do not lose sight of how remarkable a player he is. He led the AL with 44 home runs this season after finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting last season. Elbow surgery will keep Ohtani off the mound in 2024, so the earliest he will return to the Cy Young conversation is 2025, but are you going to bet against this guy? His MLB career to this point has been “no way, Ohtani won’t be able to do that” and then Ohtani doing whatever “that” is far better than any player reasonably should. If not for the elbow surgery, he would be firmly at the front of the “next pitcher to win his first Cy Young” line.
Similar to Wheeler, Nola has not been helped much by Philadelphia’s defense the last few years — his FIP (3.31) and expected ERA (3.30) greatly outpaced his actual ERA (4.09) from 2021-23 — and perhaps he’ll find himself in front of a better defensive team next year now that he’s a free agent. The larger point is the core underlying Cy Young skills are there. Nola gets strikeouts, limits walks, and logs a ton of innings. He has two top-four Cy Young finishes to his name already (2018 and 2022). It’s not unreasonable to think that, at age 30, Nola can win his first career Cy Young, with or without a great defense behind him.
Year 1 in MLB was a smashing success for Senga, who was a Rookie of the Year finalist and surely logged several Cy Young votes. He got better as the season progressed — 2.58 ERA and 3.0 K/BB in the second half after a 3.31 ERA and 2.4 K/BB in the first half — suggesting he grew more comfortable with, well, everything. New league, new hitters, new schedule, new culture, the works. It’s a big adjustment and Senga handled it masterfully. Now that he’s experienced all that for the first time and will go into 2024 knowing what to expect, don’t be surprised if the soon-to-be 31-year-old is even better in Year 2 with the Mets.
Since debuting in May 2022, Kirby has been a top 15-ish pitcher in the big leagues. Among the 44 pitchers with at least 300 innings the last two seasons, the 25-year-old is 17th in ERA (3.37) and first in K/BB ratio (7.2, while no one else is at even 6.0). Kirby does not walk batters (MLB-leading 3.2% walk rate the last two years) and he might actually throw too many strikes. Pounding the zone like he does is admirable, but it’s OK to pitch off the plate sometimes and get hitters to chase. Kirby has another level to his game and the bet here is he gets there soon now that he has more experience under his belt.
For the first time in his career, Luzardo put together a fully healthy season in 2023, and the result was over 200 strikeouts and the first 4.0-WAR season by a Marlins pitcher not named Sandy Alcantara since the late José Fernández in 2016. It’s never been a question of ability with Luzardo. He’s just struggled to stay healthy. With any luck, 2023 is an indication his body is beginning to cooperate, and the recently turned 26-year-old is on his way to becoming a bona fide ace.
McClanahan had Tommy John surgery in August and the timing means it is likely he will miss the entire 2024 season, so pencil him in as a 2025 Cy Young candidate. Also, Rays pitchers usually don’t stay healthy enough to win the Cy Young. The Rays are very good at many things, but keeping pitchers off the IL is definitely not one of them. Perhaps McClanahan will buck that trend once he returns with his rebuilt elbow. He certainly has Cy Young stuff and upside.
Being demoted to Triple-A can be a letdown, no doubt about it, but do not underestimate the learning potential of a demotion back to the minors. Rodriguez, the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball entering 2023, made his MLB debut in early April and had a 7.35 ERA and 2.7 K/BB in his first 10 starts. The Orioles sent him to Triple-A for a few weeks and, when he returned to the big leagues in July, Rodriguez pitched to a 2.58 ERA and 3.5 K/BB in his final 13 starts. All the tools are there for Rodriguez to become a top of the rotation starter. Things clicked when he went back to Triple-A and he’s a much better pitcher now than his 2023 season numbers would lead you to believe.
RHP Yoshinobu Yamamoto
Technically, Yamamoto is not even an MLB pitcher yet. The Orix Buffaloes in Japan have posted their ace, however, and he is expected to sign a nine-figure contract in the coming weeks. Yamamoto, who turned only 25 in August, won his third straight Eiji Sawamura Award this season. That is Japan’s equivalent to the Cy Young. He pairs a mid-90s fastball with a wipeout splitter, a high spin curveball, and a cutter that is seemingly impossible to square up. Yamamoto also pounds the strike zone, having thrown all four pitches for a strike at least 65% of the time in 2023. All indications are Yamamoto can be an impact starter right away for whichever team signs him.