With a blockbuster trade sending Corbin Burnes from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Baltimore Orioles, the names taking the mound within the American League East just keep getting more star-studded. But is Burnes now the best pitcher in the AL East? That’s a question worth asking as we creep ever closer to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training.
While this article dissected the 10 best position players in the AL East, my focus here is on the top 10 pitchers (both starters and relievers) in the division. The choices were plentiful and the ranking was by no means easy, but these are who I believe to be the best pitchers from the five teams that make up the AL East.
The list below, by the way, took into account not only past performance but 2024 projections … and some gut feelings as well.
10. Pete Fairbanks
As our own Leo Morgenstern wrote when breaking down the ZiPS projections for the Tampa Bay Rays, “Fairbanks has the fifth-lowest projected ERA (Félix Bautista excluded) and the third-lowest projected FIP among relief pitchers. Somehow, he still doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the best relievers in the game.”
He also perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for giving honest straightforward quotes when things don’t go his way (and the fans let him know exactly what they think of his performance as well).
In his five seasons in Tampa, Fairbanks has combined for a 2.86 ERA/2.48 FIP/1.192 WHIP in 151.0 innings over 160 appearances. His 25 saves last season were by far a career-high, and projections from FanGraphs have him topping that this season by notching 30 saves.
9. Yennier Cano
The second (and final) reliever to make an appearance on our list, Cano’s success in 2024 could determine just how far the Orioles go.
There will be pressure on a player to perform big in 2024 after not even being on Baltimore’s Opening Day roster to start the 2023 campaign.
With Felix Bautista needing Tommy John surgery in August, Cano morphed from strictly setup man to part of a closer by committee role. This season, depending on the success of new addition Craig Kimbrel, Cano could slide into the closer role for the Orioles, something he held during most of Baltimore’s ninth-inning opportunities down the stretch in 2023 (on his way to an ERA+ of 196). He was tested by fire then, and that could prove valuable for the Orioles in 2024.
Cano’s ERA jumped after the All-Star break (1.48 to 3.00) but the Orioles seem to be confident in the right-hander being a big part of their late-inning/closer plans this season.
8. Marcus Stroman
The New York Yankees are banking on the Stroman from the first half of 2023 (2.28 ERA and opponent OPS of .536 through his first 16 starts with the Chicago Cubs) being a part of the resurgence in the Bronx. During that stretch, Stroman showed once again what he can bring to the mound and how he can help a team contend.
However, after last season’s All-Star break, an injury and inconsistency on the mound plagued Stroman as he registered just 24.0 innings in eight games (six starts) and surrendered 36 hits on his way to logging a 1.958 WHIP and 8.63 ERA.
A new start in New York, however, has plenty on the line for Stroman, who will reportedly have a third-year option for $18 million vest if he pitches 140.0 innings in 2025. That, however, is next year.
In 2024, Stroman will be out to prove he is not only healthy, but also was a smart choice for the Yankees, who reportedly pivoted to the veteran right-hander after Blake Snell’s price tag was deemed too high.
The key to Stroman’s success? Keeping the ball on the ground, something he has done consistently. He currently has the second-highest ground ball rate (56.7 percent) among pitchers with 1,000 innings or more since entering the league with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014.
7. José Berríos
In the middle of a seven-year, $131 million deal, Berrios enters his fourth season in Toronto coming off a season that was much more in line with career numbers than in 2022, when his ERA skyrocketed to 5.23 and he led the American League in hits allowed (199) and earned runs (100).
Those numbers shrunk in 2023 as his 3.65 ERA and 3.99 FIP were both under his career averages in those categories. The 29-year-old right-hander finished off the campaign by allowing three hits and one run over 3.0 innings in his AL Wild Card Game 2 road start against the Minnesota Twins before being pulled in a move that is still being questioned in Toronto.
Outside of 2022 and the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, Berrios has posted a sub-4.00 ERA in each of his other six MLB seasons. He has also been the model of durability on the mound, making exactly 32 starts in every full season since 2018.
6. Chris Bassitt
Heading into this season, Bassitt has once again stated that he has two goals. One is to win a World Series and the other is to pitch 200 or more innings, a statistic that he believes will give Toronto the best chance to win the Fall Classic.
While FanGraphs projections don’t have Bassitt hitting 200 innings this season, they do peg him at 194.0, which would place him in the top 10 among all MLB pitchers. That would put him just behind last season’s 200.0 mark (becoming the first Toronto pitcher since Stroman in 2017 to hit that milestone) as part of a campaign where he tied for the AL lead in wins with 16 and starts in 33.
His ERA+ of 118 marked the fourth time in his seven seasons when he finished at 110 or higher in that category. Heading into his age-35 season, Bassitt’s durability and effectiveness will be a key to just how far Toronto can go in 2024.
5. Kyle Bradish
Last season was Baltimore’s coming out party, and there were a number of players who took a step up to make that happen. Among the leaders of those elevated performances was Bradish, who shined in his second big league season, posting a 2.83 ERA/3.27 FIP/1.043 WHIP in 30 starts over 168.2 innings.
Heading into the offseason, Bradish was expected to be Baltimore’s de facto ace in 2024. However, with the arrival of Corbin Burnes, Bradish can be a part of a potent one-two punch at the top of the rotation instead of facing all the pressure to perform as he did in 2023.
While a slight step back for Bradish is expected this season (ZiPS has him at a 110 ERA+ in 2024 compared to last season’s 146), Baltimore has taken some of the pressure off with the arrival of Burnes to ensure that potentially higher numbers from Bradish can be offset.
4. Zach Eflin
In his first season with the Tampa Bay Rays, Eflin tied for the AL lead in wins with 16 while making 31 starts and posting a 3.50 ERA/3.01 FIP/1.024 WHIP in 177.2 innings. He finished in sixth place in the AL Cy Young voting, one of four AL East pitchers (along with Cole, Gausman and Baltimore’s Kyle Bradish) to finish in the top six.
With Shane McClanahan out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and Tyler Glasnow now a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, there will be pressure on Eflin to step up as a leader for the Tampa Bay rotation in 2024. In the middle of a three-year, $40 million deal, the right-hander will be a key to the Rays competing to appear in their sixth consecutive postseason.
3. Corbin Burnes
Burnes has finished in the NL Cy Young voting’s top eight in four consecutive seasons, including a magical 2021 where he paced all MLB pitchers in ERA (2.43), FIP (1.63), and strikeouts per nine innings (12.6). Last season was the first time this decade when Burnes’ ERA crept above 3 (at 3.39) and FIP went above 3.5 (3.89), and perhaps those numbers were understandable after a spring where an arbitration hearing seemed to begin to unravel his relationship with Milwaukee’s front office.
Now in a new location (and in a contract year as he’s set to be a free agent after this season), expect Burnes to take the mound with a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove as he takes over as Baltimore’s ace and impacts both the rotation and bullpen in Charm City.
Interestingly, Burnes and Gerrit Cole are ranked second and third, respectively, by Enos Sarris in his fantasy baseball rankings that are powered by Stuff+. The duo are ranked almost identical by Sarris so don’t be surprised if there are plenty of intersections between Burnes and Cole as the season goes along, especially as awards time draws near.
2. Kevin Gausman
Entering his third season with the Toronto Blue Jays, Gausman has been everything the Blue Jays could have wanted since signing him to a five-year, $110 million deal before the 2022 season.
During his time with the Toronto, Gausman has logged a 3.25 ERA/2.68 FIP/1.207 WHIP in 359.2 innings over 62 starts. While he has struggled in both postseason starts (2022 against Seattle and 2023 against Minnesota, combining for a 6.52 ERA in 9.2 innings), there is no doubt Gausman has put the Blue Jays in a position to reach the postseason with his strong showings in the regular season.
Will he finally earn his first Opening Day start with the Blue Jays this season?
1. Gerrit Cole
While Burnes may be the new kid in the division, it was impossible to rank him ahead of the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.
Cole is coming off a season where he posted an AL-leading ERA+ of 165 while leading all MLB starters with a 0.981 WHIP for the New York Yankees. Last season’s Cy Young win continued a streak of six consecutive seasons where he has finished in the top 10 in the AL voting in that category, and five of those campaigns have seen him end up in the top five.
Take away the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and Cole has made 30 or more starts in seven of the last eight seasons (including six consecutive). Not only is the right-hander durable, but he is dominant as well, leading all AL pitchers in ERA twice in the last five years (2019 and 2023) while also pacing all MLB pitchers in strikeouts twice during that same time span (2019 and 2022).
Honorable mention: A trio that just missed the list
Romano is coming off his second consecutive All-Star season where he posted 36 saves. While his numbers were higher (2.90 ERA/3.46 FIP/1.220 WHIP) in 2023 than in 2022 (2.11 ERA/2.82 FIP/1.016 WHIP), there is little cause for concern with Romano and how the right-hander will be the go-to guy again late in the game in 2024.
While there are stretches where it looks anything but easy for Romano to finish out the game, he “has the strangest knack for dancing out of trouble.” That is a key attribute for any reliever to have, especially one that will be a big factor late in games for a Blue Jays that is desperate to show it not only can reach October, but can also play deep into the month as well.
While strictly using ERA+ to look at a reliever’s effectiveness can be a dicey proposition, it is hard to overlook the 434 ERA+ that Martin delivered last season in Boston.
In his first season with the Red Sox, Martin posted a 1.05 ERA/2.44 FIP/1.032 WHIP in 51.1 innings over 55 games. After posting similar numbers in roughly half the games with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2022, Martin showed that he can be effective in a number of roles in Boston.
Martin also showed that he can quickly adapt to the quirks of Fenway Park, surrendering just one earned run in 25.2 innings at home last year (0.35 ERA). Martin was also particularly effective after the All-Star break in 2023, allowing one earned run overall in 22.2 innings (0.40 ERA).
Holmes, who posted a career-high 24 saves in 2023, picked up saves in six of his last seven appearances of the season, part of 12 games in September when he pieced together a 0.75 ERA in 12.0 innings. The strong finish was needed after an August when he allowed 16 hits and nine earned runs in 10.1 innings.
That strong finish likely solidified the Yankees enough on Holmes’ future as the closer of the team. While some thought the Yankees may chase Josh Hader or other late-inning options, the money in the Bronx went toward Juan Soto’s record arbitration figures ($31.5 million) and Marcus Stroman’s addition to the rotation (two years, $37 million).
Were it not for injuries to pitchers like Bautista and McClanahan, this list certainly might have a different feel to it. The same could be said for down years from pitchers like Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes or those working their way back from injuries like John Means.
However, even with plenty of question marks and absences, the AL East has some of the best arms in the business as a part of its collective talent pool. And that’s not even mentioning Grayson Rodriguez, who is coming off an uneven rookie season, but has as much upside as any pitcher in this division.
Our top 10 breakdown of AL East pitchers was led by Baltimore and Toronto each having three pitchers listed, while New York and Tampa Bay each earned two spots apiece.
Outside of honorable mentions, the Red Sox were left with no pitcher ranked, although Brayan Bello does have the potential to breakout this season and change that narrative.
Perhaps that is just a sign of things to come this season, with Baltimore expected to be the favorite to win the division and Boston the pick to finish in the cellar. What happens in the middle is anyone’s guess.
With Toronto opening the season at Tropicana Field against the Rays, we could see a Gausman versus Eflin meeting to kick off the 2024 campaign. That will be just one of many potential marquee matchups on the mound within the AL East this season.