We now head to the other side of the ball, looking at the starting rotations. While I’m not a fan of assigning slots for specific pitchers, I will be ranking them by team, then comparing each “#1″ and so on.
SP #1 – WAS, PHI, ATL, NYM, MIA
Despite the Braves’ success against him so far in his career, Stephen Strasburg may very well end up the best pitcher in baseball this season. A full year removed from TJ surgery, the 24-year-old could approach 250 K while limiting walks. His flat fastball does lead to a few more homers and walks than expected, but an ERA north of 3.00 would be disappointing.
In a bit of a surprise, even to me, Cliff Lee gets the #1 status for Philadelphia. The 34-year-old almost looks like a robot, throwing strike after strike but still able to strike out one-quarter of his batters faced. His six victories last year is tremendously misleading compared to his performance. People who think he has a burden of a contract should be quieted again after this season.
Kris Medlen should be about as good as Lee this season, but I don’t see Medlen throwing as many innings, which is why the 27-year-old falls just behind Lee. The 5-10 righty throws a lot of strikes and uses his changeup to get whiffs, also relying on the comeback two-seamer for some backward K’s. I doubt the high GB rate lasts, but he’s still a quality pitcher.
Jonathon Niese had a breakout 2012 season, though it went under the radar. He doesn’t have one strength, but the 26-year-old lefty is above-average in all peripheral skills. His versatile repertoire, especially his cutter and 12-6 curveball, led to no lefty/righty splits last season.
Ricky Nolasco gets the ace slot by default, due to the mass exodus this winter in Miami. Nolasco throws lots of strikes while getting a near-average amount of Ks and GBs, but his ERA has been much worse than his FIP the past four years, an odd phenomenon. If the 30-year-old can figure out how to strand runners again, he will be an above-average pitcher.
SP #2 – PHI, WAS, ATL, NYM, MIA
Most people probably view Cole Hamels as the ace in Philly, likely due to his ace-like performance. Aside from an unlucky ’09 season, his ERA has been lower than 3.10 with at least 200 IP. The 29-year-old lefty now has his deserved hefty contract, likely to continue striking out a hitter an inning and not walking many. Homers are a bit of a problem, but solo shots usually don’t hurt too much.
Another big breakout season came from Gio Gonzalez, with a lot of his improvement coming with improved control. The 27-year-old had quite a bit of HR luck too, so regression is likely this year. However, his curveball is still one of the best in the game and his ability to get a decent amount of groundballs still puts him near the top of the list in the NL.
Tim Hudson is not getting any younger, but the 37-year-old can still get guys out. His biggest strength has always been his GB%, but that’s been decreasing the past couple seasons, mainly due to losing velocity. His control is good, and if he can regain a few more K’s, he should still be an above-average pitcher.
Soon-to-be 24-year-old Matt Harvey had a very good debut for the Mets last year, nearly striking out 30% of hitters with his power arm. His control is still a bit shaky and he allowed a high line drive rate, both areas likely to progress with young power arms. He threw 170 IP last year, so there shouldn’t be much of an innings limit on him this year.
A key piece in the Hanley trade, Nathan Eovaldi had a decent debut in Miami. The 23-year-old has a power arm, but he hasn’t been able to rack up strikeouts at the major league level. Until he develops a quality offspeed pitch, most likely his slider, he won’t be able to crack average level on the mound.
SP #3 – PHI, WAS, NYM, ATL, MIA
After four straight sub-3.00 ERA’s, Roy Halladay finally showed some weakness last year, suffering through some shoulder problems. His control, while still great, was not what it was in previous years, and his GB rate dipped due to a growing dependence on his cutter. Turning 36 in May, Halladay can still be a great pitcher if his health holds up, the best #3 in the game.
WI native Jordan Zimmermann cemented himself as a strike-thrower, despite his big arm, much like Matt Cain. His offspeed stuff is okay, but not big with whiffs. His fastball is straight and flat, resulting in a lot of line drives and an average amount of grounders. The 26-year-old should be free of innings limits, another key cog in Washington.
Coming off a shoulder scare, Dillon Gee looks to build on his improved peripherals last year. His walks went back down towards his minor league levels, while getting more whiffs with his great change and big sweeping curve. If he can keep his GB rate around 50%, he may be a nice breakout candidate in the league.
It was a tale of two seasons for Mike Minor last year. His batted ball profile and K rate remained the same, but he cut walks and homers by more than half after the All-Star Break. As a flyball pitcher, his homers will be high, but if his control is closer to his 2nd half rate, he should be an above-average starter.
At only 21 years old, Jacob Turner has shown good control in the majors, though the home run ball has been a problem. His ball has natural sink, but his offspeed stuff does not have much depth. He did not get many strikeouts in the minors, so it may take a few years for him to develop into an average pitcher.
SP #4 – WAS, NYM, ATL, MIA, PHI
Dan Haren looks to rebound from an injury-plagued 2012 season, getting a one-year deal from Washington. He throws plenty of strikes, able to get some whiffs with his hard breaking ball and splitter. He is a flyball pitcher who will see some fly out of the park, but a lot of those end up as solo shots.
How times have changed… Johan Santana shows up as the Mets #4 guy, coming off his worst season of his career. His strikeouts returned, getting huge whiff rates with his change and slider. The walks are still decent but creeping up, while his GB rate was below 35%. His FIP and xFIP were just above 4.00 last year, so he should end up having a bounceback season in ’13.
The dependable Paul Maholm will not wow you, but his above-average walk and GB rates offset his lack of punchout pitch. He did see an increase in Ks, mainly due to an increased usage of his slider, something that cannot last without arm problems. His potential is as low as anyone on this list, but his floor is fairly high.
23-year-old Henderson Alvarez had a rough season in Toronto before heading to Miami in the big trade. He gets a lot of groundballs with his power sinker and throws strikes, but he can’t miss bats, leading to a 10% K rate. With his velocity, he should be able to get a few more Ks, and the homers should go down with his 55% GB rate.
Kyle Kendrick had a decent season last year, seeing a good increase in Ks, mainly due to a better changeup and breaking ball. That being said, he still rated a bit below average in whiffs, also posting an average GB rate and throws a fair amount of strikes. If the Ks remain, he could have another average season.
SP #5 – NYM, WAS, ATL, PHI, MIA
Shaun Marcum has battled injuries throughout his career, but his lack of velocity has not stopped him from posting above-average results. His change is by far his best pitch, also able to mix in a variety of pitches to get whiffs. He does allow a fair amount of flyballs, something that won’t affect him as much in Queens.
Ross Detwiler had a good first season as a full-time starter in Washington, though some good luck was present. The lefty only allowed a .263 BABIP and had a big increase in groundballs without the pitch profile supporting GB tendencies. His Ks will also remain low throwing 80% fastballs.
This year looks like the year Julio Teheran gets a chance to get an extended chance in the majors. His down year in AAA is concerning, but the 22-year-old may be able to get comfortable again, showing why he was a top 5 prospect in the game. His fastball is flat and his offspeed isn’t developed, but they are better than what most pitchers his age show. Brandon Beachy returns around the All-Star Break, the only existing rotation injury in the division.
John Lannan rounds out the Phillies rotation, getting another chance after spending most of ’12 in AAA. The lefty gets a lot of groundballs, but he walks a lot of hitters not giving in while not missing many bats. Replacement level performance is probably all you can expect from him.
Wade LeBlanc is the front-runner for the fifth spot in Miami, the most experienced of the candidates. He’s a finesse lefty who gets a lot of flyballs, throws a decent amount of strikes, but doesn’t get many whiffs. The Marlins will be lucky to get replacement level production from LeBlanc and the rest of the group.