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Talking NL Central Starting Rotations


Yesterday, our friends over at “Reviewing the Brew” here on Fansided, ranked the National League Central in terms of starting pitching from the Milwaukee Brewers perspective.  Today, we analyze it from the Reds side of things.

Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

5. Chicago Cubs

LHP Travis Wood

RHP Jeff Samardzija

RHP Jason Hammel

RHP Edwin Jackson

LHP Chris Rusin/RHP Jake Arrieta

By no means is the Cubs rotation one to be scoffed at, like in years past. 

Travis Wood is coming off an All-Star season that is very much making Reds fans everywhere weary of the deal that sent him to the Windy City in exchange for left-handed reliever, Sean Marshall.  It is not a stretch to believe that Wood may in fact be one of the game’s premier left-handed starters.  Clayton Kershaw has a class all to his own, but the second tier of C.C. Sabathia, David Price, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and Chris Sale has to include one of baseball’s fastest rising young gems in Wood.

After much speculation surrounding the former two-sport star Jeff Samardzija during this offseason, it seems the Cubs are committed to keeping him around.  Possessing one of the game’s hardest fastballs and most difficult to hit sinkers, the long-flowing locks of Samardzija provide some heat to a rotation primarily dependent on location and changing speeds. 

By adding Jason Hammel on a one-year, six million dollar deal, the Cubs add an experienced arm to their rotation.  The signing is beneficial in multiple facets.  Should the Cubs fall out of the race around the All-Star break, Hammel can be swapped for a prospect, as his arm should be fresh and loosened up enough to help a contender down the stretch.  On the reverse, should the Cubs catch lightning in a bottle, they have Hammel all to themselves for the season.  These are the type of moves that a team in the position of the Cubs has to make in order to be able to generate wins, and more importantly, interest from the fan base.

With the excessive sum of payroll locked up in Edwin Jackson, it makes sense for the Cubs to run him out to the hill to see if he can contribute back in some portion of his deal.  Having played with six different clubs in six consecutive seasons, maybe the stability will do Jackson some good, especially after he led the National League in losses last season (18) and watched his ERA balloon to just under 5. 

The final spot in the rotation will seemingly be a toss-up between young left-hander Chris Rusin, and right-hander Jake Arrieta.  In thirteen starts last season for the Cubs, Rusin compiled an ERA that was just south of 4, and displayed a better than average Major League changeup to keep hitters off balance.  Much of the same holds true for Arrieta who had a slightly slimmer ERA in just nine starts, but has a much more proven record of accomplishment at the Major League level when he was a member of the Baltimore Orioles.

The wildcard in all of this is the fact that there is still a bevy of free agent starting pitchers available on the market.  As recent as the other day, the Cubs were “kicking the tires” on former Reds’ starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, asking him to come down in years to agree to a deal.  Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Jake Westbrook remain as options, with the first two commanding a high price tag.  With all the additional revenue being brought in this upcoming year, and Theo Epstein having the freedom to hand out money as he may, it would not be a shock to see the Cubs stretch for one of the starters mentioned above to try and round out their rotation.

Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

LHP – Francisco Liriano

RHP – Gerrit Cole

LHP – Wandy Rodriguez

RHP – Charlie Morton

LHP – Jeff Locke

Maybe a surprise that they are ranked this low, but with the loss of A.J. Burnett and the obvious regression to the mean that baseball provides, it may be near impossible for the rotation to repeat the success of last season.

The National League’s Comeback Player of the Year in Francisco Liriano was undoubtedly great last season.  One does not need to remind Reds fans of this fact, as 2013 went down in a burning flame of Liriano heat and the gusts of wind created by his swing-and-miss, wipeout slider.  This unfortunate roller coaster ride of gigantic peaks and valleys has been the story of Liriano’s professional career.  In his seven attempts at parts of a season in his Major League odyssey, his ERA has been over 5 three times now.  When Liriano is on his game, and especially at home, he can be a game changer; his ninth place finish in the National League Cy Young Voting from this past season proves that.  When his arm angle drops and his slider does not rotate…he is a costly investment for a mid-market team like the Pirates.

The list of superlatives to describe the young Gerrit Cole are endless.  A former UCLA Bruin ace, Cole crash-landed on the scene last year in meteoric fashion, making an impact from day one.  The former number one overall pick from just three seasons ago is already the number two man in the Pirates rotation, and with his nearly triple digit fastball and knee-buckling curve, he may be the Opening Day starter sooner, rather than later. 

Over the course of his career, Wandy Rodriguez has been a menace to the Reds, specifically to right fielder, Jay Bruce.  Three-for-35 in his career against Rodriguez with 16 strikeouts is the Reds All-Star cornerstone.  Arm trouble derailed his 2013 campaign, but with his a full recovery, the left-hander adds a steady element of durability and tenacity to a rotation looking to light a flame where A.J. Burnett once stood.

Just by viewing the Pirates rotation, Reds hitters must already be cringing at the thought of having to battle them for the 2014 National Central Division crown.  Yet another pitcher with an extreme amount of success against the Redlegs is a pitcher who has modeled himself after the great Roy Halladay, Charlie Morton.  After last season, it seems like Morton may finally be able to piece together some semblance of a stout career after countless arm and shoulder injuries that have caused him to drastically change his motion.  Armed with the knowledge that it worked for Roy Halladay, Morton has recreated his motion, and partially his repertoire, to mirror that of the borderline Hall of Famer.

Even the #5 starter in the Pirates rotation has found success against the Redlegs.  Young Jeff Locke turned heads last season when he had an outstanding first half that saw him earn an All-Star bid, and even cause a few Pirates fans to chirp that he deserved the start in the All-Star Game.  While his first half last year may not have been a flash in the pan, Locke seemingly lost his ability to locate in the second half, not a beneficial formula for a pitcher who so severely relies on control to be successful.  Locke ultimately led the league in walks last year, but looks to bounce back with a lot less pressure from the #5 slot in the rotation.

With starters James McDonald and A.J. Burnett falling by the wayside, the Buccos have barely batted an eyelash at the loss of 40 percent of their pitching staff from just a few seasons ago.  All in the rotation this season are equipped with big league talent, and that’s not even to mention the cavalry that is on the way with Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. 

Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

3. Milwaukee Brewers

RHP – Yovani Gallardo

RHP – Kyle Lohse

RHP – Matt Garza

RHP – Marco Estrada

RHP – Wily Peralta

With the signing of just one, high-priced, fiery free agent, the Brewers managed to hurdle the Pirates, and possibly even the Cubs.  Their young arms are not as intimidating as those in the Steel City are, but their proven veterans should provide a stable base for the young guns to lean on.

Having proven himself as a mere mortal against the Reds, Gallardo has either been hit or miss within his own division.  Against the Reds, he is a pedestrian .500 pitcher with an ERA slightly above 4; when facing the Cardinals, his arm turns into a mound of gelatin that cannot seem to accurately locate the ball.  His career numbers?  1-11 with a 6.46 ERA in 17 career starts.  Most of that unquestionably has to do with the fact that the Cardinals have been running out sluggers at the top of their game, such as; Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Jim Edmonds and Allen Craig in Gallardo’s tenure with the Brewers, but with the Cardinals being the arch nemesis within the division, losing the ability to throw your ace can be crippling.  On the converse, he is shut down against the Pirates and the Cubs, two teams that have historically not been known for crushing the ball.  To describe Gallardo’s career briefly: he beats the teams he should, and loses to the teams he should.  Now, whether that is ace material, is something that the Brewers front office must decide.  His contract expires at the end of this season with a team option for 2015, and then beyond that, he is certainly going to command the big bucks.  With so much money already tied up in maligned slugger Ryan Braun, it is difficult to see how the Brewers can bring back such an average pitcher, at such an extraordinary price tag.

The Brewers have ultimately bought themselves a substantial middle of the rotation.  The first of the two players acquired was Kyle Lohse, who was a late addition to the staff right before the season last year.  No longer under the magical spell of pitching guru Dave Duncan, Lohse saw a minor dip in his numbers, even with 2012 being a career year.  If the name sounds familiar to Reds fans, it is more than just the fact that he has been baffling Reds batters since 2008 inside the National League Central.  Lohse made 11 starts in 2006, and 21 starts in 2007 as a member of the Reds before being shipped out as quick as possibly, following his inability to pitch in a ballpark that did not represent a cave. 

The other hit man for hire is walking into town with his brand new, gleaming four-year/$52-million deal, Matt Garza.  After years of being poked and prodded by countless organizations as a possible deadline acquisition, the Brewers were finally the first team to pull the trigger and give him a long-term, guaranteed deal.  Garza has been a rock solid pitcher his entire Major League career with a devastating curveball, and an explosive personality that resembles that of Carlos Zambrano.  His run-ins with the Reds are well documented after last season when Dusty Baker said that Garza and Cueto should just duke it out in a room somewhere and sees who comes out.  No doubt, Garza’s stuff is nasty, but the Brewers just dropped half of 100 million dollars on a pitcher who is more interested in head hunting than unfurling a championship banner.

As the x-factor for the Brewers this season, Marco Estrada may ultimately prove to be a decisive piece in the extent of success Milwaukee will have this year.  With a quirky motion that can throw off a hitters timing, Estrada relies on his balance and durability to win him ballgames.  Staying healthy and getting consist time in the rotation has been key for the young, Mexican born right-hander who will be sure to get it at the back end of the Brewers rotation.

Coming off a rocky rookie season, a lot of Wily Peralta’s future seems to hang in the balance in 2014.  With young guns such as Tyler Thornburg sitting in waiting, the leash may be tighter than many expect.  When faced with the possibility of swapping Thornburg for New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis, the team balked, electing to hold onto yet another vital pitching prospect should Peralta not pan out. 

Milwaukee is going to be an interesting player in the NL Central race this upcoming year, and their pitching staff has a lot to do with it.  The three veterans at the top in Gallardo, Lohse and Garza provide a staff capable of sweeping any team in the league when right, but the other two spots are going to need to produce at a better than average level in order for the Brewers to succeed.

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2. Cincinnati Reds

RHP – Johnny Cueto

RHP – Mat Latos

RHP – Homer Bailey

LHP – Tony Cingrani

RHP – Mike Leake

A really tough call for that number one spot, but ultimately, the Cardinals young arms were too enticing to look past.  Still, the Reds bolster one of the league’s top rotations, regardless of losing their most durable starter for the better part of the last decade.

Reds fans remember how the story goes.  Playing an incredibly ordinary Giants team in the 2012 NLDS, Johnny Cueto grabs for his right triceps not two outs into the game.  After miraculous efforts all around, the Reds were outmanned and ultimately, beaten on their home field three consecutive times with their ace never once taking the hill.  It is not a stretch to believe that the Reds possessed the most complete roster in baseball that season, and to quote Oakland General Manager Billy Beane about the playoffs, “once you get there, it’s a crapshoot.”  Cueto’s health will be the number one topic of concern for the club heading into the season and figuring out how to see him make 30+ starts again, as he did back in 2012 when he was among the game’s elite.  If Cueto’s health were guaranteed the entire season, it would be difficult to bet against the Reds for the division crown.

This season is a crucial one for the tall, blond haired right-hander, Mat Latos.  On a majority of other teams, Latos would be the clear ace of the staff, as his numbers are that of an ace.  Also on the table, is the fact that he expects to be paid like one.  His health and durability have never come into play, as Latos has made at least 30 starts in all four of his full big league seasons, and his innings have increased at an incremental level.  He turned 26 this past December, a period where a pitcher can finally let his arm be free, and seems poised to have his best season yet.

Much has been made about Homer Bailey and how he fits in as a member of the Reds beyond this season.  There often is much more trade discussion between organizations than a majority of the public will ever know, so much is not to be made about his name possibly being “shopped” around during these past winter meetings.  When on top of his game, Bailey is unquestionably worthy of being paid ace-like money.  The question becomes, can the Reds afford to keep him around at that price?  He has thrown a no-hitter in each of his last two seasons here, and has matured beyond words from the time he stepped on the mound as a 21-year-old.  Homer will turn 28 this year, and similarly to Latos, seems to be poised for his best season yet.

The newest member of the Reds rotation features a fireballing left-hander from Rice University in Tony Cingrani.  In just over a hundred innings last year, he whiffed 120 batters.  The biggest issue with Cingrani this season will almost certainly be tempering the expectations from not only the media, but also within himself.  After much success both in the rotation and out of the bullpen last year, the proverbial book is now out on Cingrani.  If he wants to be able to succeed as a starter, the development of his additional pitches is crucial.  Replacing Bronson Arroyo is no small task, but with Cingrani’s grit and ass-kicking attitude, Reds fans may have a new favorite left-handed flamethrower.

Straight from the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, to the Major League mound in Cincinnati, Ohio, was Mike Leake when he made his big league debut back in 2010.  After years of monitoring his innings and making sure that the former #8 overall pick’s golden arm wasn’t going to fail him, the training wheels were taken off last season, and what a treat it was.  With Leake’s masterful control and bulldog attitude, it adds another element to the pitching staff that most teams cannot produce.  Leake is never going to overpower hitters, but with his stuff working, he can do something even more effective; frustrate them.  Losing the curls worked for him last season, now let’s find out if he can become an efficient starter for the second year in a row.

In a situation where all five starters stay healthy and pitch the majority of games (a la the 2012 Reds), there is no question that this staff is not only the best in the National League Central, but maybe the best in the whole league.  They are going to be a matchup nightmare no matter when you face them, especially when the Postseason arrives, if they can get to a series.  Amazingly, with Arroyo on the first train out of town, the team has barely managed to bat an eyelash, and with Bryan Price, former pitching coach at the helm this season, the sky is the limit for this staff.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

RHP – Adam Wainwright

RHP – Michael Wacha

RHP – Lance Lynn

RHP – Joe Kelly

RHP – Shelby Miller

Ultimately, there were just too many power arms to ignore.  The loss of Chris Carpenter a season ago seemed to benefit the club in some sadistic way, as they managed to get better, while losing one of the game’s premier starting pitchers. 

When you talk St. Louis Cardinals, you talk Adam Wainwright.  He clinched the 2006 National League Championship Series with a devastating curveball, and then did the same thing in the World Series to forever cement his place in Cardinals lore.  Then, he switched to the rotation.  Wainwright has come painfully close to winning the Cy Young Award 3 out of the last four years, placing in the Top-3 three times; but when matching up with the likes of Clayton Kershaw, breaking through the glass ceiling can be difficult.  Regardless of his odd inability to record outs against the Reds at the conclusion of last season, we are no doubt on a collision course to March 31 when Wainwright will once again be the Cardinals ace, taking the ball on Opening Day.

An old school thinker may believe that after Wainwright, nobody in the Cardinals rotation is proven, to which, they would be right.  If there is any solace for fans of other teams across the spectrum, it is exactly that.  Unfortunately, for everyone not located in Missouri, they have to matchup with the best collection of young arms ever assembled on one roster.  It all begins with Texas A&M standout, Michael Wacha.  In what was virtually a swap for Albert Pujols, the Cardinals are laughing their way to the bank with the obscene savings and increased revenue from having maybe the game’s top young pitcher.  Whereas Stephen Strasburg once captivated the nation, he has been lost in translation for a guy with a catchy name, and an unhittable curveball.  In case hitters wanted to sit on the breaking stuff, they should be forewarned he throws triple digits with ease and never seems to tire out.  Wainwright may be the ace in theory, but Wacha will be the ace in statistics.

Maybe the biggest question mark throughout the rotation will be what the burly right-hander Lance Lynn can give the Cardinals.  He, like everyone else, is a power arm with a wipeout breaking pitch.  Yet, where Lynn has a fault is in his walks, and sometimes his inability to locate.  The true question mark of the rotation is Lynn, as he has managed to give them over 375 innings the last two years combined, but the question will be whether the Cardinals allow him to reach such a number again.

Weighing in at 175 pounds is Rick Vaughn’s alter-ego from the movie Major League, Joe Kelly.  Not quite possessing the “Wild Thing” routine, what Kelly lacks in that department, he makes up for with his black rimmed goggles/glasses and his blazing fastball.  As to my knowledge, he does not refer to it as “The Terminator” or any other endearing term, but it does not seem that he needs to, as just plain ole’ fastball certainly works for the young Cardinal.

Finishing third in last years crowded Rookie of the Year class was Cardinal starter, Shelby Miller.  By all accounts, had Miller chosen a year not dominated by young international stars Yasiel Puig and Jose Fernandez; he almost certainly would have been awarded the honor.  Instead, he had to settle for third, and ultimately demotion when it came to October last year.  Similarly to Jeff Locke of the Pirates, Miller had a brilliant first half before fading towards the end of the year and ultimately, becoming unreliable when the calendar flipped to October.  Miller will have to get off to a quick start again this season with so many young arms just waiting to make the move up to the bigs.

All this discussion of young arms leaves out the fact that the Cardinals still have proven left-hander Jaime Garcia at their disposal.  He is currently recovering from shoulder surgery that should have him ready by the beginning of the 2014 campaign, so the debate over who gets into the rotation and who misses out is certainly just beginning.

 

With pitchers and catchers reporting for all NL Central clubs just over a week away, remember to use this as your guide to all things when it comes to starters within the division. 

They always say, hitting puts asses in the seats, but pitching, that wins championships.

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  • Josh Bresser

    I think you underrate Pittsburgh a little bit. The Pirates were the third best team in the game in run prevention last season. Losing Burnett hurts them a bit- but a full season of Cole, Rodriguez, and a healthy Charlie Morton could supplement that. Liriano is a legit ace. Plus, nobody in their rotation seems prone to regression- as maybe Cingrani and definitely Leake are.

    • Jesse Borek

      They were definitely very close to being swapped for Milwaukee with me. Agree with the regression for Cingrani and Leake, but I would take my chances with them over Wandy and Morton.