Chris Sale, LHP, Boston Red Sox
In five years as a starting pitcher for the White Sox, Sale never finished lower than sixth in the AL Cy Young voting. With better defense behind him and increased run support in his first year in Boston, he should have his best season yet and finally finish on top.
Danny Duffy, LHP, Kansas City Royals
The late-blooming 28-year-old southpaw began last year in the bullpen but had a 15-start mid-summer stretch in which he went 10–1 with a 2.38 ERA, a sub-1.00 WHIP and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly five to one. He’ll still have a fastball that sits at 95 mph, but now he’ll benefit from a full year in the rotation and even more comfort with his changeup.
Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers
The return of Darvish—and all seven of his pitches—reminded us that the AL’s most breathtaking pitcher resides in Texas. There are always the lingering injury concerns for a pitcher who missed all of 2015 and most of the first half of last season, but the most telling number for Darvish, who piled up 182 strikeouts in 144 innings, was his 93.3 mph average on his fastball, his best yet in the majors.
Corey Kluber, RHP, Indians
Kluber threw 215 regular-season innings last year and another 34 1/3 in the postseason and didn’t run out of gas until his third start of the World Series. He led the league in adjusted ERA+ and struck out more than a batter per inning. He’s not slowing down.
Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers
A new grip on his slider and a slight return of his velocity helped him put together his best season since 2012 last year, and he very nearly won his second Cy Young, falling five points shy of Porcello (much to the chagrin of his fiancee). This time around, he'll get it.
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, New York Yankees
As quietly as one can while pitching in the country's biggest market for its most popular team, Tanaka has turned himself into an award-worthy threat. In 2016, he finished seventh in the voting following a year in which he ranked in the league's top 10 in almost every category. Most importantly, he made 31 starts and finished one out shy of 200 innings pitched, both career highs, and at age 28 and with three years in the bigs under his belt, he should be primed for his long-awaited dominant season.
Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Like Tanaka, Sanchez had an excellent 2016 season that went mostly unnoticed, as his his 3.00 ERA led the AL. That built on a very good but injury-abbreviated 2015. While he still doesn’t strike out a ton of batters, he did raise his rate last year (while lowering his walk rate), and his ground-ball rate was among the AL’s top five.
Chris Sale, LHP, Boston Red Sox
Freed from the constraints of a mediocre White Sox team that more or less wasted the last five years of his career, Sale will now get to pitch in exactly the kind of high-intensity atmosphere he craves, and do so for a World Series contender. Boston will be counting heavily on him to be the ace it paid for when it gave up two top prospects (plus two more minor leaguers) to get him during the off-season, and David Price’s elbow injury doubles that pressure for Sale to be a lockdown No. 1. He should be able to meet that lofty challenge.