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Thursday, January 19, 2012
Ranking the five best starting rotations

By David Schoenfield

Lee, Sabathia, Kennedy
Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Ian Kennedy headline three of baseball's best rotations.
Now that Yu Darvish has signed with the Texas Rangers for enough money to buy an oil well, let's rank the top five rotations.

Sleepers

Miami Marlins: Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, Carlos Zambrano. If everything breaks right, it could be a terrific group, but they have a range of question marks, from Johnson's health to Nolasco's consistency to Zambrano's head.

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang. The upside is big, but Strasburg's innings will be held in check, we don't know if Zimmermann can handle a 200-inning workload and Gonzalez will to have succeed outside the pitcher-friendly confines of Oakland.

I don't really hate the Midwest

Milwaukee Brewers: Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, Chris Narverson. As good as this group was last season, it ranked just sixth in the National League in rotation ERA. The main issue is that Gallardo's 3.52 ERA was the best on the staff, and he had just the 39th-best ERA among starters with at least 162 innings. Gallardo and Greinke may improve, but it's also possible Marcum and Wolf will regress.

St. Louis Cardinals: Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook. Wainwright has to bounce back from Tommy John surgery and Kyle Lohse will be hard-pressed to match the best season of his career.

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Jacob Turner. Sure, if Fister can post a 1.79 ERA over 33 starts like he did after coming over from the Mariners, then he raises this rotation to another level. But Scherzer remains inconsistent (4.43 ERA, 29 home runs), Porcello remains mediocre and Turner is an unproven rookie.

Too many injury concerns

Atlanta Braves: Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor/Julio Teheran/Randall Delgado. I wouldn't be surprised if this rotation cracks the top five, but for now I have to raise a red flag until we know if Hanson and Jurrjens are 100 percent.

I can't believe I'm leaving these guys off

Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Wade Davis/Jeff Niemann. The Rays led the AL with a 3.53 rotation ERA in 2011 and will be adding über-prospect Moore this year. That said, keep in mind: (A.) The Rays play in a pitcher-friendly ballpark; (B.) They have one of the best defenses in the majors to help out; (C.) Hellickson lived off an impossible-to-repeat BABIP of .224, the lowest average a starter has allowed since 1988; (D.) Shields was awesome with a 2.82 ERA, but he's also one season removed from leading the AL in hits and home runs allowed.

San Francisco Giants: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito. Yes, the Giants had the second-best rotation ERA in the majors last season, but I'm not sure I believe in Vogelsong, I definitely don't believe in Zito, and soft-tosser Eric Surkamp is the only insurance depth.

OK, the top five rotations

5. Arizona Diamondbacks: Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Trevor Cahill, Joe Saunders, Josh Collmenter. The D-backs' rotation ERA in 2011 was 3.84, but as I pointed out yesterday, that included 31 starts from scrubs at the bottom of the rotation who combined for a 6.07 ERA. As is, thanks to the durability of Kennedy, Hudson and Saunders, who all topped 200 innings, Arizona still ranked second in the NL in starters' innings. They've replaced those bottom feeders with Cahill and I also like that they have depth in the wings with prospects Trevor Bauer and Wade Miley. Nobody survives with just five starters, and it's that depth that I think gives Arizona the slight edge over division rival San Francisco.

4. New York Yankees: CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett/Phil Hughes/Freddy Garcia. While it's true that Brian Cashman improved the rotation last week with the acquisitions of Kuroda and Pineda, keep in mind that the Yankee rotation was actually pretty good last season, and that was with Burnett and Hughes combining for a 5.36 ERA over 46 starts. The main reason this group doesn't rank higher: Pineda and Nova haven't proven they can handle a 200-inning workload, as Pineda threw 171 innings and Nova 165 as rookies.

3. Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz. Let's be clear here: Lewis may have been tabbed as the Opening Day starter, but Darvish is expected to be the ace of this team. The Rangers didn't shell out more than $100 million for a No. 3 starter. The Texas rotation was vastly underrated last season, as it posted a 3.65 ERA (third in the AL), despite pitching in the best hitting park in the AL. The concerns are that Feliz is moving from the bullpen and remains a bit of wild card, both in production and durability; remember, Alexi Ogando made the same move in 2011 and was fatigued by the end of the season. Harrison also threw over 200 innings between the regular season and playoffs, so we'll have to see how he rebounds from the heaviest workload of his career. But having depth with Ogando and Feldman helps alleviate some of those concerns.

2. Los Angeles Angels: Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson, Ervin Santana, Jerome Williams. Weaver, Haren and Santana averaged 234 innings in 2011 and now they've add Wilson to the mix. He threw 223 innings for the Rangers. The last team with four starters to pitch 220 innings? The 1997 Atlanta Braves. That team won 101 games. Wilson could have a monster season -- after all, he posted a 2.31 ERA on the road last year and allowed just six home runs in 18 starts. Pitching behind Weaver and Haren should take away some of the pressure of the big contract. Yes, Williams is a bit of a question mark in the five-hole, but while they traded away Tyler Chatwood the Angels still have power arm Garrett Richards as depth.

1. Philadelphia Phillies: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, Joe Blanton/Kyle Kendrick. Still the best rotation, especially with Worley providing numbers in the fourth position. There isn't anything in his statistical line that screams "fluke" about his 3.01 ERA, so I expect a solid sophomore season. Like the Angels, the final spot is shaky, but when you have three aces, you can survive just fine with Blanton or Kendrick.