Friday, March 21, 2008

MLB 2008 Preview: NL's Best Rotations

By Mike Round

1. New York Mets

Pre-Johan Santana, nobody liked the look of the Mets' rotation. Now the pundits are firmly back on the bandwagon. The team will score runs, with the National League's strongest batting lineup, but how will the pitching hold-up below Santana?

Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernàndez are (as always) injury risks — if they pitch a combined 250 innings, the front office and Willie Randolph will be delighted. Behind the two graybeards, it's the hit-or-miss Oliver Pérez, promising second-year starter John Maine, and if (or more likely, when) someone hits the DL, the inexperienced Mike Pelfrey.

Oliver Pérez is unhittable at times, but he gives up too many long-balls (22 last season in 177 IP) and has always been a walk-machine (4.73 BB/9 in his career). Pérez isn't exactly and iron-man, either, having never pitched 200 innings in his career (196 IP in 2004 as a Pirate). Given a full season and barring a regression to his 2005/2006 meltdown years, Pérez could be a 15-win sub-3.50 ERA guy. He's motivated with a one-year $6.5 million contract won at arbitration and needs to add consistency to his résumé if he's going to get a big payday in 2009.

At times, John Maine carried the rotation in 2007. Predictably, he wilted late in the season, but showed enough composure on the mound and pitching smarts to battle through the tough times. He has the arsenal to post respectable third starter numbers.

The Mets can bank on Cy Young-type numbers from the ace Santana, but it won't be him that defines the season. The team will need around 30 wins from the Maine/ Pérez combination and at least 40 starts from Pedro and El Duque combined to be a four-star rotation.

2. Atlanta Braves

Assuming Mike Hampton makes it through spring training, this is going to be one hell of an aging rotation. That said, it's also going to be one of the best.

The old warhorse, Tom Glavine, is back where it all began. Unfortunately, he looked cooked in Shea last season. If Glavine can give Bobby Cox and Roger McDowell 13 wins and an ERA of 4.00, they will be ecstatic.

Want a 40-year-old-plus pitcher to grind out 200 IP with an ERA of around 3.25? Then forget Roger Clemens, John Smoltz is your man. He's still prime physical condition, can still throw heat when needed, and no pitcher uses his brain better on the mound.

Behind Smoltz is the rejuvenated Tim Hudson, who finally managed to recapture some of his old Oakland swagger after an indifferent 2006. Fit and healthy again and with a new backdoor slider to his arsenal against right-handers, Hudson is the perfect number two to compliment the power of Smoltz.

Tom Glavine returns after five seasons in New York that yielded patchy results. He's on record as saying it will be his last year and he'll want to go out on a high. The problem is that he's 42, he struggles to strike out batters, and is only throwing in the low-mid 80s. Nevertheless, he'll be an asset in the locker room for the younger pitchers and he still has enough guile to avoid looking like a slimmer David Wells.

Behind the top three is injury-hit Mike Hampton, again on the comeback trail, and third-year lefty Chuck James. If Hampton hits the DL, which is more than likely, rookie Jair Jurrjens will step in. Jo-Jo Reyes, a lefty second round draft pick in 2003 and highly rated by the organization, waits in the wings.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

As soon as Arizona moved for Dan Haren, the baseball press was quick to crown the Brandon Webb/Haren duo the best one-two punch in the National League. I'm less than convinced by Haren, not Webb.

Granted, Haren will find the NL easier than toiling against New York, Detroit, Cleveland, and Boston in the AL. However, he'll miss his old home stadium in Oakland, where he posted a useful ERA of 3.43, WHIP of 1.16, and BAA of .242 in 50 appearances. There's no doubt he's a talent, is at the prime of his career and his contract is in no way a Barry Zito-esque millstone. Yet he's still a flyball-biased pitcher who relished the vast spaces of the McAfee Coliseum.

If Haren can get back to the days of 2005 when he posted a GO/AO ratio of 1.45, he'll prosper in Arizona and the team, if they can make the playoffs with their dubious offense, will be brutal opponents. If not, he could be just another decent 3.50 ERA, 14/15-win pitcher.

Haren may be the new kid in Chase Field who's attracting all the attention, but it's Brandon Webb that's the ace. Webb is simply a phenomenal groundout machine, racking up an astonishing career 3.25 GO/AO ratio. Think he can't strike-out batters? Think again — his K/9 ratio was 7.39 last season, his best record since his 2003 rookie season. If there's a better pitcher in the NL over the past two years, it's Jake Peavy, but even that is debatable.

After the top two, there's a significant drop-off. Randy Johnson looks older than John McCain and his glass back is a problem. That said, the 44-year-old has pitched over 200 innings in three of the last four seasons and he's in the light-hitting NL West. He could still be an asset and return an ERA of less than 4.00 and pitch 180 innings.

Micah Owings is a lock for the fourth spot in the rotation. The righty has some decent stuff and has a full season on his résumé where he avoided being knocked around on a regular basis. His 2-hit CG shutout in September against the Giants was the highlight. He has the ability to step up to the third spot if the Unit hits the DL.

Soft-tossing lefty Doug Davis and young reliever Yusmeiro Petit will battle for the fifth spot when it's required.

4. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs' rotation doesn't get much attention, but it'd easily the best in the NL Central. Carlos Zambrano, fresh off an up-and-down year in which he was bothered by a variety of ailments, is settled with a long-term contract and committed to staying in better shape. He looked a monster in midseason after a dreadful start, then got knocked around in late-August and early-September. He pitched 13 scoreless innings in his final two starts and finished with a sub-4.00 ERA. He'll look to do better this year and compete for a Cy Young.

Behind the ace are two lefties — veteran Ted Lilly and youngster Rich Hill. Lilly is an underrated pitcher, proving his mettle in the AL East and dropping his ERA down to 3.83 in his first year at Wrigley. He's young enough (32) to have some improvement in him and he's not got many miles on the clock (career 1,143 IP), but the FO/AO (career 0.76) ratio is still a worry in the small NL Central parks.

Hill could be an ace in time. He's progressed nicely in his three seasons in the majors, logging 195 IP last season and returning a sub-4.00 ERA. Hill started on a tear, posting a 1.77 ERA in April and still owning an impressive 2.81 ERA by mid-June. Predictably, he couldn't last a full season at that pace and wilted a little but was far from disgraced, finishing with an ERA of 3.92. His whip was a useful 1.19 so he's not letting a lot of men on-base. The only drawback is, like Lilly, he's an extreme flyball pitcher, with a career GO/AO ratio of 0.80. Both are vulnerable to the long ball.

Former closer Ryan Dempster, veteran Jon Lieber, and enigmatic righty Jason Marquis will fill out the last two spots in the rotation. Dempster hasn't started since 2003 in Cincinnati and he's never been consistently successful in the rotation wherever he's been. With the bullpen dependent on a healthy Kerry Wood, it wouldn't come as a shock to see him closing again at some point in the season.

Neither Lieber nor Marquis offer anything other than mediocrity.

5. San Diego Padres

The good news is the Padres go into 2008 with two genuine aces. Jake Peavy is the number one, but Chris Young would be the opening day starter on at least half of National League teams. Forget Webb/Haren, this is the best 1-2 punch in the NL. The bad news is the back of the rotation looks like a scene from "M*A*S*H."

Peavy had his best year yet in 2007, posting an ERA of 2.54 in over 223 IP. His WHIP was a phenomenal 1.06 and hitters managed a puny .208 against him. He can replicate these numbers with reasonable health and again challenge for a Cy Young.

Chris Young has blossomed since he moved from Texas to the west coast. He showed flashes of promise in Arlington, but his new surroundings have brought out his best qualities to such an extent he can be considered a top-quality starter in his own right. His extreme flyball tendencies (career GO/AO ratio 0.54) are negated by the vast expanses of PETCO Park.

Young hasn't yet pitched 200 innings, but he's only suffered minor ailments. The past three seasons have seen his ERA come down steadily (2005: 4.26; 2006: 3.46; 2007: 3.12) and there is potential improvement still (BB/9 a career high 3.75) that could catapult the 6'10" Young into elite status.

Behind the front two is an intriguing mix of veteran smarts, youth, and a talent on a rehab mission.

Greg Maddux isn't what he used to be by a long way. He can still hold up a spot in the rotation without embarrassing himself and if he can replicate his 2007 numbers (4.14 ERA, 198 IP, 104K), the team will be satisfied.

Mark Prior is back in Southern California on a mission to re-establish his reputation. Prior and Kerry Wood were to be the horses on which the Cubs rode to World Series glory, but with ill-luck and Dusty Baker's poor use of young arms it wasn't to be.

Prior's still only 27 and has only 657 innings on his arm. Away from the glare of Wrigley Field, he has a shot at a major contribution to the Padres challenging for the NL West. He's too talented to be written off just yet.

The final rotation spot will come down to either oft-injured Randy Wolf or inexperienced Justin Germano.

LHP Wolf hasn't pitched 200 innings since 2003 and hasn't had a really good year since 2002. He has talent, but can't stay off the DL long enough to show it. The Padres would prefer him in the rotation, health allowing, rather than Germano, but if they have to, they'll give the 25-year-old a chance to show whether he has what it takes to make it in the big leagues.

6. San Francisco Giants

Barry Zito was supposed to be the lefty who made the fans forget about Barry Bonds. Instead, he's made them yearn for Kirk Rueter.

The Giants owe Zito $116 million over the next seven years. He has full no-trade protection. They even have to provide him with a hotel suite on road trips. All that for 11-13 and a 4.53 ERA. I'd like to say it was a one-off poor season, but Zito's peripherals have been on the decline for a while.

He can't even point to ill luck. His BABIP was .267, a number he may struggle to repeat next year. With more balls beating the infield and his propensity to give up the long ball, it could be a long year for the so-called ace.

Behind Zito, things are a lot rosier. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain (both 23-years-old) are a tremendous young combination with no ceiling on their prospects. Lincecum has an unusual arm action that worries scouts, but he's throwing close to 100 mph, so nobody is too keen to tamper with it. Cain has a mid-90s fastball, but is more of a finesse pitcher and is further along with his development. Both righties are capable of less than a 3.50 ERA, but with such a poor San Francisco offense that might not translate to many wins (Matt Cain went 7-15 last year with an ERA of 3.65).

Noah Lowry, currently injured with a muscle complaint, is a quality lefty, yet he's only the fourth starter. He has trouble staying healthy, but he's perfectly capable of putting together a sub-4.00 ERA season.

The Giants would like 25-year-old Pat Misch to emerge as the fifth starter. He has a decent minor league record and has a higher upside than either Jonathon Sanchez or former reliever Kevin Correia.

If Zito could get back to anything like his best, this would be the best rotation in the NL West and one of the best in the league. As it stands, this is still an above-average rotation.

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