Ranking the NLC Starting Staffs: Reds Reign Supreme

Whenever it comes to something like ranking the best of something, there is a certain degree of subjectivity involved; however, in observing what has evolved in the starting rotations of teams in the NL Central, the basis of 2012 performance combined with any perceived additions and subtractions comes into play.

In past years, I would have had a harder time making an argument that the Cincinnati Reds had the best rotation in their division, but 2012 performance couldn’t have made the decision any easier heading into 2013.  The primary division rival St. Louis Cardinals have often boasted a rotation at or near the top of the division, but losing Chris Carpenter to injury and Kyle Lohse to free agency (and still unsigned, even now) looks to be a major impact, leaving some uncertainty. Milwaukee also has a shell of what they used to have through trades, free agency, and release (minus Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Randy Wolf, respectively, to list the notable three).  The staffs for the Cubs and Pirates look to be somewhere in the middle, where Chicago may have a slight edge and showing some renewed strength.

1 – Cincinnati Reds [Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Aroldis Chapman, Bronson Arroyo, (Mike Leake)]

Johnny Cueto (Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports)

No pitcher raised his stock more than Johnny Cueto (19-9, 2.78 ERA, 1.17 WHIP) did during the regular season last year in establishing himself as a staff ace. Unless you take into account that Mat Latos (14-4, 3.48, 1.16) did the same thing, getting stronger as the season progressed. And, oh by the way, one of the most dominant closers (Chapman) is now joining the rotation, where he was planned to start last season. Homer Bailey (13-10, 3.68, 1.24) solidified himself as what fans had expected to see from the former first-round draft pick, being downright dominant in the closing months of the season if not putting it all together for the whole season. Funny to think that, with the exception of questions around Chapman’s transition and abilities as a regular starter, Bronson Arroyo (12-10, 3.74, 1.21) would be relegated essentially into a fourth or fifth starter, things aren’t going all that badly for a very solid rotation top to bottom.  Should things falter with Aroldis Chapman as a starter, Mike Leake (4.58, 4.58, 1.35) is still a decent (if not perfect) fallback position.

The starting five in 2012 combined for 161 starts (not missing any, except for second game of a single doubleheader where they couldn’t) achieving 66 wins, 43 losses, in 1,018 2/3 innings pitched with a 3.64 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP with a strong 6.80 K/9.

Questions: Aroldis Chapman being a successful starter. How many innings he will possibly see. The continued health of the other starters (including how Johnny Cueto returns from the playoff injury to end last year).

2 – St. Louis Cardinals [Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller / Joe Kelly]

Adam Wainwright (Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Wainwright is a bona fide ace, even though his W-L (14-13) last season didn’t indicate his capability coming back from Tommy John in 2012. All signs would point to him being stronger in 2013.  Garcia is already starting the season as a question mark, having lingering shoulder issues that already appeared last season.  With the known loss of Carpenter already, the Cardinals can ill afford to have another top starter go down.  Westbrook is easily one of the weaker #3 starters you’ll find (and Lance Lynn‘s numbers last year were clearly better), and his walks are too high relative to his fairly low strikeout totals.  Lynn was the breakout star of the rotation (unexpectedly) in 2012 in getting a gaudy 17-5 record, although his 3.67 ERA and 1.30 WHIP didn’t quite warrant it (thank the run support). Still, he was bested only by one starter (Lohse) who isn’t returning to anyone’s knowledge.  The true wildcard in this mix is Shelby Miller, who most in the know have heard of the young fireballer. Miller could be poised to hit it big in this rotation in 2013 but will likely have some rookie trials to face in the process. His maturation will be huge in the ultimate success or failure of this team.  Joe Kelly is highly likely to be the fill-in for Garcia (as he also had to do last season) and is capable of respectable results.

Questions: Wainwright’s return to form. Garcia’s shoulder. Lynn success carrying over. Westbrook being passable. Miller excelling as a rookie.

3 – Chicago Cubs [Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, Travis Wood / Carlos Villanueva, (Scott Baker)]

Matt Garza (Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

No more Ryan Dempster (traded), and no more Paul Maholm (traded). 2012 W-L records may not do much justice in assessing a staff that is overhauled from last season.  Garza anchors the staff, seeing limited time last season after sustaining elbow injury, in hoping to reclaim past glory, especially as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays.  Samardzija delivered the most innings (174 2/3) and wins (9) of any starter still on the roster and should be able to build from his 3.81 / 1.22 performance.  Edwin Jackson is perhaps the biggest wildcard in “which pitcher are the Cubs getting”. Will he build from some strength he showed in 2011 into some of 2012 (with the Cardinals and Nationals) or regress to some previous seasons in Tampa or with the south side White Sox.  His high-water mark came for the Tigers in 2009.  Feldman spent his entire playing career as a Texas Ranger and comes as a veteran back-end starter.  He’s never posted any spectacular numbers (career 4.81 ERA / 1.42 WHIP) but may benefit slightly from a National League transition.  The fifth spot is still up for grabs, particularly between Wood or Villanueva. Baker won’t be in the picture until late April at the earliest (returning from Tommy John surgery that caused 2012 to be a wash), but the Cubs have to hope he returns to the form he displayed from 2008-2010 for the Twins in being a control specialist (yielding few walks and solid K/BB ratios).

Questions: Return to strength for Garza. Development of Samardzija. Steadiness of Jackson. Back-end shakiness

4 – Pittsburgh Pirates [A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens, (Charlie Morton)]

A.J. Burnett (Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

On name recognition alone with past performance as some guide, I initially wanted to rank the Pittsburgh staff higher. Ultimately, Burnett is the only starter who justifies being an ace right now – returning to past strength with 2012 acting as a comeback year. Whether he sustains that or not will go a long way to dictating if the success will continue.  Rodriguez was probably viewed as the ace of the Astros – although that’s not saying much in hindsight.  His limited results post-trade as a Pirate were average at best.  He started showing a big dropoff in K rate already prior to last season, leaving many to wonder if his best days were behind him.  McDonald was a very pleasant first-half surprise last year (9-3, 2.37 ERA at the break and people widely talking him as an All-Star snub) until reality set in with the team skidding towards the finish and his own 3-5 record and 5+ ERA to go with it. The reality was McDonald regressing to his own mean versus establishing a breakout season from his own past.  Liriano already starts the season on a peculiar note, having broken his non-throwing arm in December at home. Any hopes that he shows flashes of brilliance (which he occasionally has) are tempered with knowledge that his control is far too erratic and his walk rate abysmal.  Karstens ranks as not much better than a mop-up type back-end starter, who likely won’t overly impress but probably can keep the team in games, too.  He’s pitched on so many bad teams it’s hard to judge if any potential has been untapped.

Questions: Will Burnett continue his performance. Which Wandy will they get. Can McDonald achieve much better than .500. Does Liriano have anything in the tank.

5 – Milwaukee Brewers [Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers, (Chris Narveson)]

Yovani Gallardo (Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)

This initially looks like Gallardo … and everybody else.  If not for having watched Estrada and Fiers multiple times each, I would discount them, too.  With his 16-9 record in 2012, Gallardo is clearly the cream of this limited crop.  Peralta had limited start data in 2012 (only 5) but posted a 2.25 / 1.14 indicating some potential to surprise.  The K rates of both Estrada and Fiers are most impressive at 9+ K/9, and the same went for Rogers with limited data as well.  This is a staff that may very well live by the strikeout.  The risk in doing so is limiting innings, though, as the stats would bear Gallardo was the only starter at 200 innings while nobody else could reach greater than 130 (somewhat due to a fluctuating staff but with the limits of longer starts).  Ultimately, the biggest questions around this staff as a collective are unproven commodity. They may overachieve simply by virtue of a low threshold.

Questions: Numerous – fundamentally, how will the staff perform with full seasons under their belts.

Continue the conversation with me on Twitter @jdrentz

Topics: MLB, NL Central, Spring Training

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