Dylan Cease was coming off a Cy Young finalist season in 2022. In 184 innings, Cease pitched to a 2.20 ERA, 3.10 FIP, and 1.11 WHIP. Cease had a phenomenal 30.1% strikeout rate, as well as a solid 0.78 HR/9. But one of the few blemishes on Cease's 2022 campaign was his 10.4% walk rate. He's never been known as a control freak, and while this was manageable, given how many batters he struck out, it was still below average.
Still, that meant there were a lot of expectations going into 2023, which Cease was unable to deliver upon. Cease still managed to start 33 games and pitched 177 innings, marking the third season in a row he has started 32 or more games, but he only had a 4.58 ERA, 3.72 FIP, and 1.42 WHIP. Cease still had a below-average 10.1% walk rate, but his strikeout rate dipped to 27.3%. His HR/9 also took a step back to 0.97. Cease also saw his exit velocity go from 86.8 MPH in '22 to 90 MPH, as well as his hard-hit rate rise from just 31.2% to 41.5%.
So, what reasons do I believe he could rebound next season? Despite his worse hard-hit rate and exit velocity, he replicated the same exact barrel rate at 6.2%, which was in the 78th percentile. Cease also had one of the worst defensive teams behind him in 2023. The White Sox had -59 defensive runs saved (2nd worst) and -16 outs above average (5th fewest), though their catchers combined for +5 framing runs. The Pirates, meanwhile, had +2 DRS, +2 OAA between all their defenders, and +25.9 framing runs from their catchers. Cease saw his batting average on balls in play go from .283 in 2021-2022 all the way to .330 in 2023.
Cease also looked like he had regained some of his form in September. Through his final 28.2 innings, Cease only allowed nine earned runs and struck out 38. Cease did allow four home runs, but the most promising aspect of this short stretch was he only allowed eight walks. Of course, it is only one month, but still promising that he ended on a high note nonetheless.
Cease also comes with two years of control remaining. I think he has the second-highest ceiling of any of the players we will talk about today, but I had to knock him down a peg because of his so-so 2023. There are some promising aspects about his season moving forward, and Cease would totally be a major grab for the Pirates.