Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ranking MLB Rotations: American League

By Mike Round

Also see: Ranking MLB Rotations: National League

1. Cleveland Indians.

The Indians had the Red Sox on the ropes at 3-1 in the ALCS, but couldn't close out the series. GM Mark Shapiro stayed pat in the offseason, confident in the knowledge that he has the personnel to at least return to another ALCS. That conviction is built on the foundation of a young and strong rotation.

LHP C.C. Sabathia is fresh off a Cy Young year where he went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA. He was dreadful in the play offs and has started this year in the same vein. He pitched over 250 innings last year — by far a career high — and has over 1400 innings in the bank already in the big leagues. He's not in the best physical condition and there is a body of opinion that thinks he has burnout potential, but he has never logged a prolonged spell on the DL. Sabathia has a history of successfully battling through tough periods. This is a contract year for the big lefty, so he's motivated for another big year. It's too early to write him off as another Pat Hentgen.

RHP Fausto Carmona has a completely different style to Sabathia, relying on a heavy sinker that is almost impossible to hit out the infield. He logged 215 IP last season, his first as a starter after beginning as a rookie in the bullpen, and went 19-8 with a spectacular 3.06 ERA. His BABIP was a fairly low .282, so it's likely his ERA could see a small rise this season, but he can still return a sub-3.50 figure.

LHP Cliff Lee and RHP Jake Westbrook have long threatened to break out as quality starters and this could be the year. Both have got off to strong starts this year, though neither has ever shown any consistency for long periods. Neither Lee nor Westbrook have overwhelming stuff, but both keep the ball down in the zone when their game is on. They could be the best 3-4 combination in the American League.
Veteran Paul Byrd RHP will fill the fifth starter position.

2. Boston Red Sox

It's hardly surprising that Theo Epstein balked at trading away elite prospects for Johan Santana when he already had the strongest rotation in the American League.

Josh Beckett RHP headlines after an excellent 2007 where he almost picked up a Cy Young. The difference between Beckett 2006 and Beckett 2007 was the big reduction in home runs allowed (36 down to 17) and walks (74 down to 40). His slow start this year isn't indicative of anything other than the after effects of a DL stint due to a minor back strain. Expect a season with an ERA around 3.30, 20 wins, and a run at 200 Ks.

For many, Daisuke Matsuzaka RHP was a disappointment in 2007. The plus points were the 15 wins (not that a pitcher has much control over wins) 200 Ks, and 204 IP. The bad was 25 HRs, 80 walks, and an ERA of 4.40.

Matsuzaka likes to play the edges of the strike zone and isn't prepared to give in to batters by throwing over the heart of the plate if he's behind, so the walks are likely to always be high. He isn't easy to get a hit off (a .165 BAA so far this year) and he's tough to rattle. He makes an ideal number two starter.

With Curt Schilling done, aging knuckleballer Tim Wakefield RHP and youngsters Jon Lester LHP and Clay Buchholz RHP fill out the rotation. Wakefield hasn't been anything more than mediocre for five seasons, but Francona trusts him and he can work out of the bullpen when required.

Lester has started the season poorly, but he's well regarded in the organization. Buchholz has much better stuff, but is less experienced. The team is looking at him as the future third starter.

In an absolute emergency, veteran Julian Tavarez RHP will step in.

With October baseball an almost a certainty, a 1-2-3 of Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Buchholz looks an intimidating sight to opposition batters. Only Cleveland matches up with the Red Sox in terms of starters.

3. Toronto Blue Jays

GM J.P. Ricciardi has steadily put together a nice rotation in Toronto, mixing consistent veterans like Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett with promising youngsters Jesse Litsch, Shaun Marcum, and Dustin McGowan.

The key to success in a difficult division will be keeping Halladay and Burnett on the mound. Burnett has only pitched 200 innings twice in nine seasons, the last time being in 2005. If he can stay healthy, he's good for an ERA around 3.50, which will give him a shot at over 15 wins with decent run support.

Halladay struggled with injuries in 2004 and 2005, but since then, he's stayed on the mound and pitched 220+ innings. He's never been a pure strikeout pitcher, but what he does do is keep the ball on the ground and in the park. Plus, he hardly ever walks anybody (BB/9 2005: 1.39, 2006: 1.92).

After the two veterans, manager John Gibbons can call on three young pitchers that are more promise than substance.

Dustin McGowan has been a touted prospect ever since being a supplemental pick as an 18-year-old high schooler. He showed what he's capable of last year after coming up in May, posting a 4.08 ERA and a BAA of .230 in 169.2 innings. The team is very high on his long-term future, but is looking for better control to go with his mid-90s fastball. He's started 2008 very encouragingly.

Shaun Marcum has been a nice surprise as a starter as Ricciardi thought he only had a bullpen guy on his hands at one point. In his first season as a starter, the only concern is the high number of home runs (27 in 159 IP in 2007) he surrenders. If he can raise his GO/AO ratio above the current 1.01 number, he'll reduce his ERA to below 4.00 in a full season.

Jesse Litsch, a 24th round draft pick in 2004, is the fifth starter and completes a rotation of all right-handers. J.P. Ricciardi would love to pick up a lefty to throw into the mix.

4. Los Angeles Angels

This is potentially the best rotation in the league, but is in a state of flux with injuries and loss of form.

Number one starter and franchise horse John Lackey RHP has been out for the last month with right triceps strain and last year's 18-game winner, RHP Kelvim Escobar, is struggling to recover from a torn right labrum. Lackey has the better prognosis and should be healthy and on a rehab assignment by the end of the month. Escobar has had a setback already in his recovery and faces an uncertain season.

With Lackey good for around 200 IP and an ERA of 3.50 or less as ever, the rotation is still in good shape without Escobar. Jered Weaver RHP can be boom-or-bust, but will post a sub-4.00 ERA and give his team a chance to win, especially on his home mound. His career GO/AO ratio of 0.66 means he'll always give up his share of home runs, but he doesn't give out easy free passes and battles through a crisis, unlike the older Weaver. The only worry with him is that his K-rate has declined each year he's been in the league.

Jon Garland RHP came across from Chicago in a trade in the offseason. The thinking was that his style would be better suited to a more spacious park rather than hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular. There may be some logic to that in time, but the trouble with Garland is that he's nothing better than a 4.50 ERA pitcher who can't call on a strong arm to bail him out of trouble.

Lefty Joe Saunders has been used on-and-off in the rotation for the past two years and is currently in the shake up again with Lackey and Escobar out. He isn't a blow-them-away type, preferring to pick around the edges and induce ground outs. If he could cut out the walks (over 3.00/9 in his career) and utilize his control, Saunders has the make-up to be a solid major league pitcher. But he may struggle to make the rotation when everyone is healthy and could be useful trade bait.

RHP Ervin Santana has much better stuff than Saunders, but is less consistent. He went into an inexplicable funk last season, struggling mightily on the road, in particular. This year, he has hit back with four consecutive QS and a sub-3.00 ERA. If he can maintain it over the course of a season, the Angels are in great shape starting pitching-wise.

RHP Dustin Moseley fills out the rotation when needed.

A rotation of Lackey, Escobar, Weaver, Garland, and Santana is as deep a starting pitching lineup as there is in the game. The question is whether the team can keep them all healthy and/or in form for a season. History would indicate that's unlikely, but the sheer depth of available pitchers gives the team high hopes for a pennant run.

5. Detroit Tigers

This is another pitching lineup that is full of question marks, but could be one of the best in the league if everyone could stay healthy and in form. The Tigers have constructing arguably the best hitting lineup in the game, but no team wants to solely rely on batting to win a championship, so GM Dave Dombrowski added LHP Dontrelle Willis in the offseason to bolster manager Jim Leyland's pitching options.

Willis had a poor 2007 in Florida and there is a strong body of opinion that he may have peaked after pitching over 1000 innings in his five seasons in the league. His funky, whirling arms and legs action and intensity on the mound has many wondering whether he can have a prolonged career without regular stints on the DL.

My worry with Willis is his seriously declining peripheral stats following the big year he had in 2005:

	K/BB 	BB/9 	K/9 	H/9
2005 	3.09 	2.09 	6.47 	8.11
2006 	1.93 	3.34 	6.45 	9.43
2007 	1.68 	3.81 	6.40 	10.46

With the exception of his K/9 figure, which has barely changed, there are some worrying tendencies in that data and it's hardly surprising that Willis saw his ERA jump to a career-high 5.17 last year.

If pitching coach Chuck Hernandez can find the key to revitalizing Willis to something approaching his first four seasons in the majors, his presence will be a major boost to a rotation full of ifs and buts.

Justin Verlander RHP is the undoubted number one starter, but he's got off to a horrible start in 2008. His K/BB ratio is 14:12 and that's going to get you in a heap of trouble. The big worry with Verlander is the 5 mph he seems to have lost off his fastball. If that's an indication of a health issue, then the rotation is in trouble because coming into the season he was the only starter without a question mark against his name.

There are some extenuating circumstances for his poor start. Firstly, three of his four starts have come against the White Sox and Cleveland, teams in which he historically pitches poorly against (ERAs of 6.14 and 7.03, respectively, with 10 starts against each team). Secondly, the bullpen has allowed 4 inherited runners to score after he's left the game, one of Jim Leyland's major problems so far this season. Thirdly, Verlander always pitches better when the weather warms up, with a 2.87 ERA in May and 3.44 in June. Expect him to rebound sooner rather than later.

Jeremy Bonderman RHP has threatened to break out for years, but he seems to be going backwards. Last season, he was poor after a promising 2006 when he had a career low 4.08 ERA. He seemed to lose his concentration on the mound on a regular basis and gave up a whopping 23 homers in just 174.1 IP. The only good news is that his walk rate was down to 2.48 per 9, but the walks were replaced by hits as his H/9 went up to 9.96, the highest since his rookie year.

There's some in the Detroit front office that feel Bonderman will never learn enough to become a front-line starter. He's signed through 2010 at $12.5 million per year, so trading him might not be an easy task unless he shows something this season.

Veteran lefty Kenny Rogers hasn't got off to his usual strong start, walking an astronomical 12 batters in just 21.1 innings. At 43, he could finally be cooked. Fellow lefty Nate Robertson has never amounted to anything better than a fifth starter. Andres Galarraga (RHP) has jumped into the fifth starter position in the absence of Willis and has done a good job. The team is waiting on hard-throwing RHP Rick Porcello, a first-round draft pick in 2007, to join the rotation next season.

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