If you want to start a fight the day after Christmas, just ask this question: What are the best rotations in the majors?
I asked that question on Twitter this morning, and given the passion built into the answers, you would've thought the question was about Democrats and Republicans, or the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
With just about all the best starting pitchers off the board -- Edwin Jackson is still out there, like the best thing on the shelf at the mall the day after Christmas -- we can make a fair assessment about how the Nationals' acquisition of Gio Gonzalez changes Washington, or how C.J. Wilson could augment the Angels. So here they are, the 10 best rotations in baseball:
The Phillies lived up to the hype in 2011, leading the majors in starters' ERA by a little less than half a run. Roy Halladay is going to the Hall of Fame regardless of whether he throws another pitch, Cliff Lee was intermittently the most dominant pitcher in the majors during parts of the 2011 season, and Cole Hamels is exceptional and will be on a mission next season, as he prepares for free agency. When Roy Oswalt had back trouble, Vance Worley stepped in and held opponents to a .666 OPS (as a starting pitcher).
The Rays could have traded James Shields -- and it's still possible that they will -- but he is such a hugely important part of the staff's emotional core that Tampa Bay clung to him, knowing what this group could accomplish together. The Rays ranked first in the AL in rotation ERA in 2011, which is pretty incredible given the relative strength of the AL East's offenses. (Three AL East teams ranked in MLB's top six in runs scored.) Shields had a tremendous bounce-back season, finishing third in the AL in ERA. David Price is among the most dominant lefties in the majors -- CC Sabathia was the only southpaw with more strikeouts -- and Jeremy Hellickson was merely the AL Rookie of the Year. Now Matt Moore slides into this group, after frightening AL hitters in '11; it's a small sample, but Moore whiffed 15 in 9.1 innings with his easy power stuff.
The Rays are expected to trade either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann sometime before the start of the 2012 season, but no matter who stays or who goes, it figures that Tampa Bay will have one of the most durable rotations in the AL next season. One hundred forty-eight of Tampa Bay's 162 starts in 2011 were made by the five guys projected to be in their rotation at the start of the season, a performance which is in keeping with the Rays' recent history. Whether it's because of age or the Rays' maintenance program or their scouting, Tampa Bay's starters take the ball.
There were times in 2011 when C.J. Wilson hoisted the Rangers' staff onto his back, especially during the blistering days of August and early September, but he will not have to do that with the Angels, who have extraordinary depth and experience. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana will probably slot in around Wilson at Nos. 1, 2 and 4 -- three starters who are capable of dominance on a given day. Santana seemed to grow as a pitcher in the second half of the season, as he refined the use of his breaking ball, and his 2.78 ERA after the All-Star break ranked fifth in the AL. It'll be interesting to see how No. 5 Jerome Williams fares after his nice showing late in the 2011 season; he's just 30 years old.
The Giants finished second to the Phillies in rotation ERA, with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain and All-Star Ryan Vogelsong leading the way; Madison Bumgarner appears ready to climb into the next level of starters, based on his month-by-month ERA:
With Jonathan Sanchez gone, Eric Surkamp figures to battle Barry Zito for the No. 5 spot in the rotation; Zito is down to the final two years of his seven-year, $126 million contract.
It's a deep group that thrived in 2011 despite working in a park generally viewed as a hitters' haven. Ian Kennedy finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting this year, as he learned to use his fastball. And Daniel Hudson demonstrated great command, walking only 50 in 222 innings -- and now the Diamondbacks have added ground-ball machine Trevor Cahill in a trade with the Oakland Athletics. Scouts say that Cahill seemed to lose some sink on his fastball in 2011, along with his mechanical consistency, and there is optimism in the Arizona organization that Cahill will work well with pitching coach Charles Nagy. Josh Collmenter is lined up as Arizona's No. 4, with the No. 5 starter still to be determined, but part of what should make this rotation great is the strength around it -- the Diamondbacks have an excellent pipeline of talent on the way, and a deep bullpen, as well.
C.J. Wilson's contributions to the Texas rotation were very underrated, but so too are the pitchers who will now make the starts. Derek Holland
, long seen as a talented and erratic lefty, appeared to grow before our eyes in October, his confidence exploding as he threw well against the Cardinals. Colby Lewis
is the plow horse of the group, slow and steady, while Neftali Feliz
faces an adjustment period as he goes back to starting and again utilizes all of his pitches. Matt Harrison
had a 3.39 ERA and made 30 starts, and Alexi Ogando
had dominant stuff. To this mix, the Rangers are adding Yu Darvish, who is projected to be anywhere from a No. 2 starter to, at worst, a No. 4 type of innings eater, because of the natural sink on his fastball. By the way: It's not a done deal that the Rangers will trade one of their six starters, because they know as well as anyone that teams almost never get through a season with just five guys.
Justin Verlander is the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player, yet he didn't even post the best ERA on his own team in the second half of the season. That belonged to Doug Fister, who thrived with Detroit after a midseason trade from Seattle; he had a 2.47 ERA after the All-Star break. Max Scherzer was better than his ERA indicated -- his bad starts were awful, and he had a lot of great starts -- and like Derek Holland, Rick Porcello appeared to learn some stuff about himself in the postseason; remember, Porcello doesn't turn 23 until Tuesday.
In Jordan Zimmermann's first full season after Tommy John surgery, he threw 161.1 innings, and that's the kind of workload the Nationals envision for Stephen Strasburg in 2012, as Strasburg continues to progress from his elbow reconstruction. Given that dynamic, you aren't going to see a bunch of eight-inning outings from Zimmermann and Strasburg -- but they figure to be overpowering whenever they pitch. Zimmermann allowed just 31 walks, for a 4.00 K/BB ratio, and in Strasburg's 92 innings in the majors, he has 116 strikeouts and 19 walks, for a 6.11 K/BB ratio. And now the Nationals have Gio Gonzalez, who has emerged as one of the best young lefties in the game. It's possible that a year from now, we will view the front three of the Washington rotation as the best in the majors.
Scouts thought Felix Hernandez was a little bored in 2011, as if the frustration he managed to fend off during his Cy Young season of 2010 finally got to him in the Mariners' run-less 2011 season. For example, the opposing stolen bases against him doubled in '11, after Hernandez had worked to cut down on those numbers in the past. But King Felix is still regarded as one of the best in the game, at age 25, and he leads a rotation that has Michael Pineda.
There are a whole lot of questions about the Atlanta rotation, and those start with Tommy Hanson, who was hampered by shoulder problems down the stretch. Were those just minor problems that will disappear or, as rival scouts fear, the first manifestation of Hanson's unusual delivery? Second question: What is Jair Jurrjens? Is he a solid front-of-the-rotation starter, or is he destined to battle injury problems -- and if he is really good, rival executives ask, why are the Braves willing to move him, in the same winter they've already unloaded Derek Lowe? But no matter how their rotation shakes out, they should be good, with Tim Hudson at the front and Brandon Beachy in the middle and a whole lot of talent ascending from the minors.
Oh, sure, some of it's the park, and some of it's the division, and a whole lot of it is Clayton Kershaw
, but the Dodgers ranked third in the majors in rotation ERA in 2011
. Kershaw is probably the most coveted pitcher in the majors right now, given that he doesn't turn 24 until March and he already has had a season in which he posted baseball's lowest ERA. In the second half of the season, he went 12-1 with a 1.31 ERA, and that's a pretty good guy to have as an anchor to a rotation. Chad Billingsley
and Ted Lilly
are the No. 2 and No. 3 starters for the Dodgers; Hiroki Kuroda
will be missed.
The Cardinals could jump into this group, depending on how quickly Adam Wainwright rebounds, and the Brewers -- who had solid work out of their rotation in 2011 -- could, as well, depending on what Zack Greinke gives them.