Projecting 2021 Opening Day starters for all 30 MLB teams, including dark horses

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Madison Bumgarner
Dark horse: Zac Gallen

The Diamondbacks have a big-name ace in Bumgarner and while he is no longer at the tippy top of his game, he remains in his prime, and the team’s best candidate to start Opening Day next year. Gallen is a major 2020 breakout candidate — he had above-average swing-and-miss rates on five (!) different pitches during his rookie season last year — but the shutdown could mean we’re headed for a shortened season, and he may not have enough time to jump Bumgarner in the rotation pecking order.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Mike Soroka
Dark horse: Marcus Stroman

Soroka had an incredible rookie season and has the tools to outperform his mediocre strikeout rate (7.3 K/9 in 2019) because he locates so well and has a bowling ball sinker. His league-leading 0.72 HR/9 was no accident. He’s difficult to elevate. Stroman headlines a relatively thin free agent pitching class this coming offseason and has ties to Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos dating back to their time with the Blue Jays. Atlanta reportedly made a run at Stroman at the trade deadline and I could see the team circling back in free agency this winter.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: John Means
Dark horse: Dean Kremer

The Orioles are relatively early in a deep rebuild and Means was their bright spot last season. He improved his changeup and emerged as an above-average starter. The O’s are unlikely to spend money on a big-name free agent and I can’t see them trading prospects for an established starter. As long as he stays healthy, Means is the odds-on favorite to get the ball for the 2021 season opener. Kremer, meanwhile, is Baltimore’s best close-to-MLB pitching prospect. He reached Triple-A last season and has an out-pitch curveball. Kremer should make his MLB debut at some point in 2020.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Eduardo Rodriguez
Dark horse: Robbie Ray

Chris Sale needs Tommy John surgery, which takes him out of the running for the 2021 Opening Day starter. Rodriguez is the Red Sox’s best starter and it’s not particularly close. Nathan Eovaldi is the closest challenger and he has been injured and enigmatic throughout his career. Given their luxury tax machinations and quasi-rebuild this year, I don’t expect Boston to spend big in free agency this offseason. Ray could be an interesting mid-range free agent target though.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Yu Darvish
Dark horse: Adbert Alzolay

Yu Darvish or Kyle Hendricks? Kyle Hendricks or Yu Darvish? That is the choice new Cubs manager David Ross had to make prior to this spring’s shutdown and it figures to be the choice he will have to make again next spring, after Tyler Chatwood, Jon Lester, and Jose Quintana all become free agents. (Lester’s contract includes a vesting option based on innings, which is up in the air right now given the shutdown.) Alzolay is Chicago’s best young MLB-ready arm, though it would be an upset if the 2021 Opening Day nod goes to someone other than Darvish or Hendricks.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Lucas Giolito
Dark horse: Michael Kopech

The White Sox have a former Cy Young winner under contract next year (Dallas Keuchel) though Giolito is clearly their best pitcher, and Kopech could soon join him as co-ace. Giolito’s breakout last year cemented him among the game’s stop starters and Kopech is poised to join him in that tier as he returns from Tommy John surgery. He was arguably the best pitching prospect in the sport when he made his MLB debut in 2018 and he still boasts the same power arsenal post-elbow reconstruction. Few teams have as exciting a young one-two punch atop the rotation as the ChiSox.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Luis Castillo
Dark horse: Tony Santillan

The Reds have had five different Opening Day starters in the last five years and Castillo figures to put an end to the revolving door whenever the 2020 season begins. He is emerging as one of the game’s best starting pitchers thanks to his dead fish changeup and he could lock down the Opening Day spot for the next half-decade. Sonny Gray had a huge bounceback season in 2019 and, if he does it again in 2020, he could wrestle the Opening Day assignment away from Castillo no matter how well Castillo pitches this year. Santillan is the closest thing Cincinnati has to a young starter who could arrive in 2020 and claim the ace position in short order.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Shane Bieber
Dark horse: Zach Plesac

Bieber is already one of the best young starters in baseball and it still feels like he can take his game to another level. The Indians develop pitching as well as any team and it may not be long before Bieber is a no-doubt top-five starter in the game. Mike Clevinger is too well-known to be a dark horse, especially when Plesac is sitting right there. Dan’s nephew enjoyed a breakout 2019 season and he unleashed a new curveball in spring training before baseball got shut down. He may not have Bieber upside, but the tools are there for Plesac to continue getting better and cement his place in Cleveland’s rotation.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Jon Gray
Dark horse: James Paxton

A bounceback 2020 season could put Denver native Kyle Freeland back in the Opening Day seat. For now, his terrible 2019 puts him behind Gray, who is already on the short list of the best pitchers in Rockies history. Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jon Gray. Right? They’re the best Rockies pitchers ever. I reckon German Marquez will be a trendy Cy Young pick this season (and next), but I’m going to go with Paxton as the dark horse here. He will be a free agent after the season and doesn’t giving him a four-year contract seem like a classic weird Rockies move? It does.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Casey Mize
Dark horse: Tarik Skubal

For a deep rebuilding team, the Tigers have several fun 2021 Opening Day starter candidates. Mize and Skubal are joined by Matt Manning to give Detroit three elite and nearly MLB-ready pitching prospects. In this scenario, I am assuming the Tigers will trade Matthew Boyd before Opening Day 2021. I don’t know where, but somewhere. Some team will offer a big package of prospects and GM Al Avila won’t be able to say no. Mize, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, should reach the big leagues this year and he has the name recognition to get the Opening Day assignment in his first full MLB season. (Shoutout to Spencer Turnbull.)

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Justin Verlander
Dark horse: Forrest Whitley

At some point Verlander’s Opening Day reign will end. He’s started 11 career Opening Days, the tenth most in history, and the shutdown could allow him to make his 12th Opening Day start this year. (Verlander was going to miss Opening Day with a lat strain prior to the shutdown and then got groin surgery during the hiatus.) Eventually age will catch up to him and Verlander will no longer be the default option on Opening Day. I am not comfortable predicting it will happen in 2021 though. He’s the guy for the Astros. Whitley is among the game’s best pitching prospects but he’ll need to a) bounce back from a brutal 2019 season, and b) reach MLB and dominate right away to unseat Verlander (or Zack Greinke) for next year’s Opening Day assignment.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Mike Montgomery
Dark horse: Daniel Lynch

Brad Keller is fine. Not great, not terrible, just fine. For a rebuilding team, he’s a respectable Opening Day starter, and the Royals deserve a ton of credit for unearthing a bona fide big league starter in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft. Heck of a job by their front office. The bet here is Montgomery has a breakout 2020 season now that he’ll be given a chance to start every fifth day, and pitch well enough to get the 2021 Opening Day start. Kansas City has a ton of young starters coming up through the system, and while Brady Singer is the biggest name among their pitching prospects, Lynch has nasty stuff and could make a more immediate impact.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Shohei Ohtani
Dark horse: Trevor Bauer

I want to pick Griffin Canning here but his ongoing elbow woes worry me, and I can’t do it. Ohtani will be further removed from Tommy John surgery next year and, when he was healthy in 2018, he pitched at an elite level. I expect him to return to that level in 2020 — the Angels will of course be cautious with him — and solidify himself as the obvious choice for the 2021 Opening Day start. I say that with all due respect to Andrew Heaney. The Halos whiffed on all the big-name starters this offseason and I could see them pursuing Bauer, a SoCal native, as a free agent next winter. Bauer says he only wants to sign one-year contracts the rest of his career and the short-term commitment will appeal to owner Arte Moreno & Co.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Clayton Kershaw
Dark horse: Julio Urias

Will Walker Buehler be a better pitcher than Kershaw in 2021? Yeah, I think so. Heck, he might be a better pitcher right now, though it’s worth noting Kershaw had Buehler beat in ERA (3.03 to 3.26) and WAR (3.1 to 2.0) last season. I think Buehler will be better next year but not enough for the Dodgers to give him the ceremonial Opening Day start. Kershaw was slated to make his franchise record ninth Opening Day start before the shutdown this year and I think Los Angeles will let him go for No. 10 in 2021. Urias has work to do building up his innings and establishing himself as a viable big-league starter in 2020, but the upside is enormous.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Sandy Alcantara
Dark horse: Sixto Sanchez

The Marlins had seven different Opening Day starters in seven years from 2012-18 before Jose Urena made back-to-back Opening Day starts in 2018 and 2019. Alcantara figured to wrestle the Opening Day assignment from Urena before the shutdown this year — did you know Alcantara was one of only 20 pitchers to throw at least 195 innings in 2019? — and he has enough staying power to start the season opener next year as well. Sanchez, the headliner in the J.T. Realmuto trade, is among the game’s best prospects and should make his MLB debut this season.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Brandon Woodruff
Dark horse: Garrett Richards

The Brewers are alarmingly short on rotation depth, but that has been the case for two years now, yet they keep winning. GM David Stearns has done great work cobbling together “out-getters,” as manager Craig Counsell calls them. On a small budget, no less. Woodruff is Milwaukee’s best starting pitcher, hands down, and the obvious chance for the 2021 Opening Day assignment. Richards is an analytics darling (he has sky high spin rates on everything) and he returned from Tommy John surgery late last year. He’ll look to rebuild his stock with a healthy season in San Diego in 2020. If he does that, I could see Richards being a classic Brewers high-upside play on a short-term contract.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Blake Snell
Dark horse: Devin Smeltzer

Now we’re talking. Snell is due to make $10.5 million in 2021 and that’s right around when players enter “he’s making too much money for us” territory for Tampa Bay, so I’m calling a trade now. Snell to the Twins for a package fronted by outfield prospect Alex Kirilloff. Minnesota gets an ace and Snell reunites with Rocco Baldelli. The Twins lack a high-upside pitching prospect close to the big leagues and Smeltzer stands out from a group that includes Randy Dobnak and Lewis Thorpe. Can’t see him unseating Snell though (or Jose Berrios or Kenta Maeda for that matter).

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Jacob deGrom
Dark horse: Steven Matz

Easiest call in this post. It would take an injury or a complete collapse in 2020 for deGrom, the two-time defending Cy Young winner, to not get the Opening Day assignment next season. Noah Syndergaard is out of the running given the Tommy John surgery news, but, even if he had that long-awaited breakout season in 2020, I think the Mets would have started deGrom in the 2021 season opener anyway. Easy call here. I am a Matz fan and he has the potential for more with some pitch selection tweaks, but yeah, this is all deGrom.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Gerrit Cole
Dark horse: Jordan Montgomery

Second easiest call in this post. The Yankees did not give Cole the richest pitching contract in history (by a lot) to not start him on Opening Day as often as possible. The fact James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka will be free agents after this season, and Luis Severino will still be on the mend from Tommy John surgery early next year, only further solidifies Cole’s spot as the 2021 Opening Day starter. Montgomery returned from his own Tommy John surgery late last season and was flashing big velocity in spring training. He’s a nice little 2020 sleeper. (Shoutout to pitching prospects Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt.)

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Sean Manaea
Dark horse: Jesus Luzardo

I know the Wild Card Game did not go well, but Manaea looked really good in his return from major shoulder surgery last year. That was very encouraging for the Athletics and it makes him the favorite to start Opening Day 2021 as I write this one year out. Luzardo though, is impressive. Last year’s shoulder issue threw a wrench into things and figures to leave him short on innings in 2020, but, on a rate basis, I expect him to outproduce Manaea. Very real chance Luzardo gets the season opener over Manaea in 2021.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Aaron Nola
Dark horse: Spencer Howard

I like Zack Wheeler, just not as much as I like Nola. The Phillies have two very good young-ish starters atop their rotation and they have a third coming in Howard. He ranks among the game’s top pitching prospects and he’s expected to make his MLB debut at some point in 2020, possibly very early in the season. Howard’s four-pitch mix gives him a chance to be an impact starter right away and push Nola and Wheeler for the staff ace moniker.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Joe Musgrove
Dark horse: Mitch Keller

Perhaps the new Pirates regime can help Chris Archer reverse his decline. Possible, though I think it’s more likely they help Musgrove take his game to another level, making him the favorite to start Opening Day 2021. There’s quite a bit of untapped potential there. As for Keller, ignore his 7.13 ERA in 48 innings last year. He was historically unlucky on balls in play — Keller had a .265 expected batting average allowed (based on exit velocity and launch angle) compared to his .348 actual batting average allowed — and has some of the best raw stuff in the sport. There’s an ace hiding behind that ugly ERA.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Jack Flaherty
Dark horse: Kwang Hyun Kim

No reason to think it’ll be anyone other than Flaherty. He’s a monster. It would take injury or an unforeseen collapse in performance for the Cardinals to start someone else on Opening Day 2021. Kim looked very good in spring training — he struck out 11 and walked one in eight scoreless innings — and pretty much forced his way into the fifth starter’s spot. The Korea Baseball Organization star is on a two-year contract and has a lethal slider.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Chris Paddack
Dark horse: MacKenzie Gore

I was tempted to give the Padres a big name free agent (Bauer?), but until they unload the Wil Myers contract, I think ownership might rein in spending. That’s fine. There’s no shame in starting Paddack — or personal favorite Dinelson Lamet — on Opening Day. Heck, Paddack was campaigning for the Opening Day start last year, before he even made his MLB debut. Then he went out and backed it up with a great rookie year. Gore is the game’s best pitching prospect and I expect him to start many Opening Days when it is all said and done. Doing it in 2021 may be a year or two early, but special prospects have a way of forcing the issue.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Johnny Cueto
Dark horse: Sean Hjelle

The Giants have had quite a run of Opening Day starters the last decade and a half. They went from Jason Schmidt to Barry Zito to Tim Lincecum to Matt Cain to Madison Bumgarner to … Ty Blach? Ty Blach. Blach started Opening Day 2018 after Bumgarner got hurt late in spring training. Anyway, Cueto will still be under contract next year and he has the veteran chops quasi-rebuild teams look for when selecting their Opening Day starters. Hjelle is arguably San Francisco’s top pitching prospect but there is no guarantee he will reach the big leagues in 2020. He’s very much a dark horse.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Trevor Bauer
Dark horse: Justus Sheffield

GM Jerry Dipoto and Bauer have a relationship that dates back to their time with the D-Backs — Dipoto was Arizona’s vice president of scouting and player development when they selected Bauer with the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft — and a reunion in Seattle makes some sense. The Mariners badly need pitching and Bauer is a West Coast guy looking to sign one-year contracts. It’s low risk for the team and he becomes a trade chip if they’re out of the race. Sheffield struggled last season but has upside and showed an improved changeup in spring training. A big leap forward could be coming in 2020.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Charlie Morton
Dark horse: Brendan McKay

Realistically, Blake Snell is probably the right answer. But since we have the Rays trading him to the Twins in this scenario, we’re going with Morton instead. His two-year contract includes a unique 2021 vesting option in which the salary is tied to days on the injured list. I expect Morton to lock that in and start Opening Day 2021. McKay is the top pitching prospect in Tampa’s stacked farm system and he is poised to assume a larger role in 2020 after riding the Triple-A shuttle in 2019.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Corey Kluber
Dark horse: Kolby Allard

When in doubt, go with the two-time Cy Young winner. Mike Minor is due to become a free agent after this season and I’m not entirely convinced Lance Lynn is this good, so I’ll go with Kluber, whom I expect to have a bounceback season following last year’s broken forearm and strained abdomen. Allard, a former first-round pick, did some good things during his MLB debut last season and is the best bet to come up from the farm system and have an impact in 2021. The Rangers have their new ballpark, Globe Life Field, opening this year and that could push them to spend big for a free agent starter. I think they’re more likely to re-sign Minor than anything. 

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Hyun-Jin Ryu
Dark horse: Nate Pearson

The Blue Jays did not give Ryu four years and $80 million to not start Opening Day in Year 2 of that contract. Unless he gets hurt, it’s a safe bet he’ll on the mound for the 2021 season opener. And it wouldn’t be undeserved. Ryu has always been excellent when healthy. Pearson is coming and fast though. He is one of the game’s top pitching prospects and he dropped jaws in spring training with his power arsenal (11 strikeouts in seven innings doesn’t hurt either). Pearson will be up at some point in 2020 and he’ll push Ryu for Opening Day starts very soon.

2021 projected Opening Day starter: Stephen Strasburg
Dark horse: Wil Crowe

Did you know the last Nationals’ Opening Day starter not named Strasburg or Scherzer was Livan Hernandez in 2011? True story. Next season is the final season on Max Scherzer’s contract and, with his 36th birthday coming up, there’s a decent change age-related decline will start to set in this year. It might’ve last year given his nagging physical issues in the second half. No worries, the Nationals have another bona fide ace in Strasburg, the World Series MVP. And if neither Scherzer nor Strasburg can make the Opening Day start next year, there’s Patrick Corbin. Crowe is the dark horse almost by default because Washington has few high-ceiling pitching prospects knocking on the door. No one I’d expect to bump Scherzer, Strasburg, or Corbin from Opening Day 2021, anyway. 

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