Top 10 rotations: Nats, Dodgers lead the pack
Addition of Fister to already strong starting unit gives DC edge over LA, Detroit
From the big game to the best game, the attention of the general sporting populace can now shift. Baseball's on deck, folks, and what better way to recover from your Super Bowl-induced bout with bloating and indigestion than to focus on that fact?
Allow me to assist by kick-starting the annual Top 10 series, a known source of analysis and instigation. Today we're ranking the best 10 rotations in baseball, followed by the top 10 lineups on Tuesday, top 10 defenses on Wednesday, top 10 bullpens on Thursday and top 10 overall teams -- sort of an early "power rankings" -- on Friday.
Ultimately, this is subjective analysis informed by mathematical leanings and the good ol' gut, clearly subject to some change, as we still have a few free agents twisting in the wind. As always, I encourage you to offer your take and your top 10 in the comments section.
Away we go …
They would have fared a bit better on this list before the Derek Holland knee injury, which will sideline him for several months. That injury underscores the overall health concerns surrounding the Rangers, who have a lot riding on a successful return of Matt Harrison, who missed virtually all of last season after back surgery, and would benefit from a strong comeback from Colby Lewis, who signed a Minor League deal.
But Yu Darvish (2.83 ERA and 277 strikeouts in 2013) has ascended into the ranks of the elite, and Martin Perez turned in a 3.62 ERA in 20 starts in his age-22 season. If Darvish, Harrison and Alexi Ogando can stay healthy and Holland returns when expected, the Rangers will continue to overcome the hitter-friendly factors of their home park.
Pulling Bartolo Colon, whose 2.65 ERA last season was second-best in the American League, out of the picture is bound to impact the bottom line. And the sheer number of trainer's visits to the mound during Scott Kazmir's starts last season is cause for concern.
But I like the potential for Sonny Gray (2.85 ERA in 10 starts last season) to develop into a top-tier starter, especially given the way he opened eyes in the postseason, and Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin made some necessary second-year adjustments while venturing toward 200-inning territory. Dan Straily and Tommy Milone have also shown flashes at the big league level.
All right, I don't exactly love the fact that Freddy Garcia started a Division Series game for these guys, and the Braves will have to account for the losses of Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm. But there are worse bets in life than one that says the Braves will piece together a strong rotation. That's just what they do in Atlanta, and I like the odds of Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy and Alex Wood continuing the trend.
It's a young unit, and it lacks a qualified ace, but the development of Teheran's secondary pitches, the potential for a full season from Beachy after his 2012 Tommy John elbow surgery, the promise shown by Wood in 11 starts and the overall poise of Minor and Medlen give me reason to believe the Braves deserve a spot in the top 10.
7. RED SOX
It's all about the depth here, and in Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront, Ryan Dempster and Brandon Workman, the Red Sox seemingly have enough to withstand all the blows that come with a 162-game season and life in the AL East.
As usual, Buchholz will be a question mark from a health standpoint, but it's hard to forget how well he pitched when he was healthy, as he had a 1.74 ERA in 108 1/3 innings. With Lester in a contract year and Lackey back from the dead, we can suspect success from the top end, and young arms like Workman, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster can pitch in if Peavy gets hurt or Doubront doesn't stick or Dempster continues to regress.
The likely free-agent loss of Bronson Arroyo, a seeming lock for 200 innings of slightly above league average output, is a blow. But a full season from Tony Cingrani, who made a fantastic first impression last season (2.92 ERA, 1.099 WHIP in 104 2/3 innings), figures to significantly soften that blow, and Mike Leake looks ready to take on a slightly larger role after posting a 3.37 ERA in 31 starts last season.
The biggest key is health for Johnny Cueto, whose multiple trips to the disabled list last season (he never made more than three starts in succession) were a major reason for the Reds' disappointing finish. In Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, the Reds have two underrated arms atop a rotation that has ranked in the top five in ERA each of the past two seasons. Though we won't get to see what Aroldis Chapman would look like in the rotation, we can reasonably assume Cincinnati will have a stout starting five.
Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn started Games 3 and 4 of the World Series, respectively. Yet they'll be competing for a rotation spot. That's how deep this Cardinals staff has become, given the presence of ace Adam Wainwright, the emergence of October hero Michael Wacha, the upside of October absentee (but nonetheless noteworthy) Shelby Miller and the possibility that the electric Carlos Martinez might be worth slotting into a starting spot.
Toss in Jaime Garcia, who is still owed $17 million over the next two seasons, and the Cards have the enviable problem of too many cooks in the kitchen. No telling what they get from Garcia. One way or another, though, it's a fair bet that they'll sort it out and come out with a top 10-worthy unit, and it will be exciting to see what Wacha, in particular, accomplishes over a full season.
A David Price trade went from a foregone conclusion to a pure possibility to an unlikely avenue for the Rays this winter. His return is reason enough to believe Tampa Bay could be the favorite in the loaded AL East.
Though there are certainly concerns about the slight velocity dip and the DL visit he made last year, Price had a 2.53 ERA and .591 OPS against from July 2 through season's end, and he was nails in Game 163 (don't bring up his Division Series start against the Red Sox). He's a safe bet to have a strong season, and he's flanked by three youngsters - Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer -- who appear to have only scratched the surface of their ample potential. For all the upheaval they endured with the trade of James Shields to Kansas City and the injuries to Price and Moore, the Rays still had the 10th-best rotation ERA in the Major Leagues last season, and I expect them to take a collective step forward in 2014.
Yes, they dealt away Doug Fister, arguably one of the top 15 starters in the game over the past three years. But the Tigers were dealing from a position of strength, given the strides made by Rick Porcello and the left-handed presence Drew Smyly is ready to add to the picture. And with an improved defensive alignment around him, Porcello, who had the third-highest ground-ball percentage among qualified starters last season, has some upside.
Max Scherzer is entering a contract year after an transcendent Cy Young season, and Anibal Sanchez actually bested Scherzer with the fourth-best ERA (2.57) in the Majors. Obviously, the Tigers need a speedy, healthy and rousing return by Justin Verlander following offseason core muscle surgery and what was, for him, a subpar season. It's a good bet they get it.
Deep enough to dabble only half-heartedly in the Masahiro Tanaka market, the Dodgers have an honest shot, both in terms of park and personnel, to post the best starters' statistics in the game this season.
You start with Clayton Kershaw, whose average salary of $30.7 million on his new contract is crazy -- not just because he'll get it but because he might very well earn it. Entering his age-26 season on the heels of two Cy Youngs and a runner-up finish in a three-year span, he is at the peak of his powers. He's followed by Zack Greinke, who had a 1.85 ERA and 4.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who put up a 3.00 ERA and 192 innings in his first stateside season. Dan Haren is an appealing pickup for the fourth or fifth slot, especially given his 3.52 ERA after the All-Stark break with the Nats, and there back-end possibilities in Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley and Stephen Fife.
In addition, there have been reports that the Dodgers are interested in Arroyo.
I put them in this spot a year ago, and I'm sticking with it. Don't pin 2013's frustrations on the rotation, which again was one of the best in baseball despite being backed by an erratic bullpen and stifled offense.
There will forever be concerns about Stephen Strasburg's ability to avoid injury, especially after the elbow discomfort that necessitated surgery to remove loose bodies in the fall. But while Strasburg did not become the 200-inning beast he hoped to be in 2013, he still had a strong season, posting a 3.00 ERA, 1.049 WHIP and .588 OPS against. Adding Fister to a mix that includes Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez gives the Nats four guys who have ranked in the top 20 in ballpark-adjusted ERA (as calculated by Baseball Reference) over the past three seasons.
Toss in Ross Detwiler and on-the-horizon types in Tanner Roark and Nate Karns, and you have a deep unit with a ton of upside if Strasburg takes that next, prescribed step into Cy Young territory.
Honorable mention: The Mariners might still land another starter to slide in behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and the sky is the limit for Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. So Seattle is right on the fringe. … Keep an eye on the Marlins, who have a strong crop brewing behind the sensational Jose Fernandez. … I do believe the Giants will bounce back from last year's disaster. Just not ready to put them in the top 10. … Love what the Pirates accomplished last season, and Gerrit Cole is a stud. But will A.J. Burnett return? And what are the realistic odds that Edinson Volquez is Liriano v. 2.0? … Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels alone do not a top 10 rotation make. Sorry, Phillies. … I can't, in good conscience, put the Yankees in the top 10 purely on the basis of the Tanaka hype. We don't yet know if he's more Hiroki Kuroda than Kei Igawa, and CC Sabathia is coming off a career-worst showing.