Top 10 rotations: Deep, talented Nationals rank on top
Pitching can put Tigers into another Series, while Reds' starting five could be dominant
With Spring Training on the horizon, we're taking an admittedly subjective look each day this week at baseball's top 10s: lineups, rotations, bullpens, defenses and overall rosters.
Today it's the top 10 starting fives, which sure beats trying to rank the top five starting 10s.
10. Braves: The Braves have finished in the top 10 among Major League teams in starters' ERA in 19 of the past 22 years. That's called a trend. Theirs is a staff that continues to evolve behind veteran ace Tim Hudson. Kris Medlen's rise to prominence gives Hudson good company, and Paul Maholm is on board for a full season. The Braves are also encouraged by Mike Minor's development, and they should get Brandon Beachy back from Tommy John surgery in time for the stretch run. Sure, their new outfield arrangement is exciting, but the pitching staff is still where the Braves' bread is buttered.
9. A's: Brandon McCarthy walked away via free agency, and who knows what to expect when Bartolo Colon returns from his performance-enhancing drug suspension in early April. But Oakland's inordinately young and deep staff seems poised to again keep this club in contention in a tough division. A full, healthy season from Brett Anderson, who posted a 2.57 ERA in six regular-season starts and was excellent in the playoffs, will go a long way. The A's need him to step into the ace role (the lack of an established ace is all that's keeping the A's from being higher on this list). It's going to be fun to watch what strides 13-game winners Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker make in their sophomore seasons. The depth is such that A.J. Griffin (7-1, 3.06 ERA in 15 starts) and Dan Straily (2-1, 3.89 in seven starts) might have to duke it out for a spot on the big club.
8. Blue Jays: Remember the All-Star break last season, when Jose Bautista told reporters the Blue Jays needed to add three starters if they were going to have any shot in the American League East? That was, of course, a response to the ridiculous run of injuries Toronto endured last year. But over the winter, Bautista's crazy wish came true. R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle combined for 627 innings last season, and they give the Blue Jays a huge jolt of experience. This might be a unit that looks better on paper than in reality, but if those guys are healthy, the Blue Jays are in great shape. Brandon Morrow has come a long way in his development, and you have to like the chances for a bounceback year by Ricky Romero.
7. Rays: After finishing first in the Majors in starters' ERA (3.34) last season, the Rays shipped James Shields to Kansas City. Adding Wil Myers was a necessary amplification of the offense, but the Rays are going to have to account for Shields' absence somehow. Fortunately, ace and reigning Cy Young winner David Price remains in tow, and he's followed by an impressive assortment of young arms, from Jeremy Hellickson (whose 3.10 ERA was sixth-best among AL starters last season) to Matt Moore (3.01 second-half ERA) to Alex Cobb (3.40 second-half ERA). The loss of Shields is a blow to the Rays' spot on this list, but this is an organization known for churning out the depth of arms it takes to survive in the AL East.
6. Reds: This staff ranked fifth in the Majors in starters' ERA last season and probably didn't get enough credit for how excellent it was. The Reds used just six starters in 2012, with Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake accounting for all but one of the regular-season starts. Do you count on that incredible durability in 2013? Probably not. But the strides made by Bailey in the second half (3.21 ERA and a no-hitter) were legit, and Cueto and Latos are a terrific 1-2. The big X-factor is Aroldis Chapman, making the transition from commanding closer to starting project. It's a risky move by the Reds, and Chapman's innings (and, therefore, his impact) will be limited. But if the conversion is successful, look out. It would take this already robust rotation to another level.
5. Phillies: The "Greatest Rotation Ever Assembled" buzz from two years ago has died down, and that talk was overly ambitious. But these guys are still pretty darned good. Over the past five seasons, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels each rank in the top five among starters in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Halladay's durability is a question mark after his injury woes of 2012. There are many miles on his 35-year-old shoulder, and Lee's age (34) also leaves him susceptible to decline. But if they're healthy (and the law of averages does dictate more run support for Lee this season), this top three is simply as good as it gets. Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan give the Phils a serviceable back end.
4. Giants: I wish I could get in writing that Tim Lincecum's 2012 was an aberration. But there has long been concern over how well Lincecum's body would hold up to the weight of all those accumulated innings, so who knows? The Giants might be in line for an October hangover. Matt Cain has thrown 715 2/3 innings between the regular and postseasons over the past three years, the most of anyone in the National League. And while veterans Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito came up clutch in the postseason, the young Madison Bumgarner had fatigue and control issues. So, yes, there are some worries here. But the Giants didn't post a 0.98 ERA over their last seven postseason games by accident. Concerns aside, it still feels safe to chalk the Giants' rotation up as one of the best in the business.
3. Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw has the lowest ERA (2.56) and average against (.210) of any starter in the bigs over the past three years. His presence assures Zack Greinke and Josh Beckett won't feel the burden of the No. 1 tag. Though $159 million smells like an overpay for Greinke, he should thrive at Dodger Stadium, and the shift to the NL proved good for what was ailing Beckett in Boston. Chad Billingsley is a big question mark after electing for plasma injections over Tommy John surgery on his torn elbow ligament, but the Dodgers have an array of arms (Hyun-Jin Ryu, Aaron Harang, Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano) for the back end. All in all, a staff that had the third-best starters' ERA in the game last year could be even better in 2013.
2. Tigers: Over the last three seasons, the American League's lowest ERA (2.79), most strikeouts (708), most victories (59), highest win percentage (.728) and lowest Fielding Independent Pitching mark (3.01) all belong to one man -- Justin Verlander. That's a pretty good start. Then you note that Max Scherzer, a hero to the heterochromia crowd, was as good or better than Verlander in the second half last season, posting a 2.69 ERA and 110 strikeouts. Then you remember that Doug Fister should be recovered from the oblique muscle issues that plagued him in '12. And then you note that the Tigers will have a full season of Anibal Sanchez, an $88 million No. 4 guy. The Tigers also have Drew Smyly as insurance if they deal Rick Porcello. For all the talk about the imposing middle of their batting order, their rotation -- a group that compiled the highest WAR of any Major League starting staff last season -- is the reason the Tigers have every reason to be optimistic about getting back to the Fall Classic.
1. Nationals: A year ago, Davey Johnson said he'd stack his top three starters against that behemoth of a front end in Philly. Johnson, as usual, proved wise, as the Nats fielded the top rotation in the NL in terms of ERA (3.40), win percentage (6.15), average against (.240) and WAR (18.1). That rotation figures to improve if Stephen Strasburg gets into the 200-inning range, and Jordan Zimmermann should be ready to cross the 200-inning barrier now that he's three years removed from Tommy John surgery. Toss in Gio Gonzalez, and this team has three legit ace-type arms, as well as the underrated Ross Detwiler and the potential for a big bounceback season by Dan Haren in his shift back to the NL. But -- and here comes a big "but" -- Gonzalez's inclusion in documents linking him to the Biogenesis scandal is a definite concern. If an investigation leads to a suspension, that's going to leave a mark. For now, I'm putting the Nats at No. 1, just ahead of the Tigers, with Strasburg's next step forward a big factor.
Honorable mention: The Yankees lost a great deal of power from their lineup, yet they should be sturdy in the rotation, with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes. Sabathia, though, is coming off elbow surgery and has logged a ton of innings the past six years, and Kuroda and Pettitte are at the back end of their respective careers. ... Honestly, I didn't know what to do with the Cardinals. Their argument for inclusion in the top 10 is countered by the questions about Chris Carpenter's strength and Jaime Garcia's shoulder. But with depth options like Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly, the Cards should be able to put together another strong staff. ... The White Sox will get John Danks back and Chris Sale won't have the schedule quirks put in place to protect him like last year. The big question is how long can Jake Peavy's shoulder hold up? ... The D-backs added McCarthy to their stable of excellent young arms, and getting Daniel Hudson back midseason should be a big boost.