With Clay Buchholz returning to the Boston Red Sox's rotation with his first start since June 8 and resembling the pitcher who had started off 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA, it's a good time to examine the potential playoff rotations of the teams already locked into playoff spots. (Well, close to locking up playoff spots at least.)
Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, a guy who has allowed one run or no runs in nearly half his starts (14 out of 30). If there's one pitcher most likely to go on a dominant playoff run, he's the guy, the only issues being a pretty heavy workload this year (he's fifth in the majors in total pitches) and the fact that he has never been asked to make those five or six postseason starts necessary for an ace to lead his team into the World Series.
It's the next three starters, however, that give the Dodgers the best-on-paper rotation. Greinke has arguably been better than Kershaw of late, with a 1.58 ERA over his past 12 starts. Some still question Greinke's mental toughness but I'll take talent over some nebulous characterization of a player's ability. Nolasco has been brilliant with the Dodgers with an 8-1 record and 2.07 ERA and strong peripherals and Ryu has been consistent all year long.
You have two lefties, two righties, and and four guys throw strikes and limit home runs. It's clearly the best foursome going right now. Some may knock the lack of postseason experience -- Kershaw has two playoff starts, Greinke has three -- and point to the 2012 Giants as an example. Fine, I'll point to the 2010 Giants and argue that postseason experience doesn't really matter.
If Buchholz is healthy and effective -- let's not declare him 100 percent just yet after one 74-pitch outing, no matter how good he looked in throwing five scoreless innings to beat the Rays on Tuesday -- I love this top four. Lester is pitching his best baseball since going into the downward spiral at the end of the 2011 season, Peavy has been solid since coming over to Boston and Lackey has been consistent all season (ignore the 9-12 record; he has received poor run support).
The issue here is that unless Buchholz is close to what he was in April and May, they lack a clear ace in the Kershaw/Greinke mold, but I like the depth and all four guys have the ability to dominate on any given day and pitch deep into a game.
I'm not too concerned by Scherzer having two bad outings in his past three starts. He's still the likely Game 1 starter for the Tigers based on his body of excellent work throughout the season. The bigger issue is the inconsistency of Verlander and Fister, both of whom have been much more hittable than the previous two seasons, and how Leyland lines up the rotation: Verlander ahead of Scherzer seems unlikely but do you start Verlander ahead of Sanchez? It's not that big of a factor, especially since only the Game 1 starter is likely to start twice in a five-game series, but it does potentially affect who starts the first game of the American League Championship Series.
This is a very underrated group putting up solid numbers in a tough park to pitch in. Dusty Baker's dilemma: If the Reds end up in the wild-card game, do you start Latos or Bailey? It could depend on who the Reds play. If it's St. Louis, it should be Latos, whose fastball/slider combo is a better matchup against the right-handed-heavy St. Louis lineup (opponents are hitting .176 against Latos' slider). If it's the Pirates, Bailey may be the better matchup. Of course, that's assuming the remaining schedule lines up for that decision to be made. If the Reds are still battling for the division title, it could just fall to whoever is due up in the rotation.
Minor and Teheran have been excellent all season and have the luxury of handing the ball over to what has arguably been the game's best bullpen. (Interesting postseason decision: Will Fredi Gonzalez have Craig Kimbrel get four or five outs if the situation warrants it?) Anyway, Medlen has been on a roll lately so I could see him bumped ahead of the rookie Teheran in the postseason, even if Teheran has better season numbers. Maholm is a bit of a question mark as the No. 4 starter; in four starts since missing a month, he has a 4.03 and 14/11 SO/BB ratio.
2. A.J. Burnett
3. Gerrit Cole
Liriano allowed one run in six innings in Pittsburgh's 5-4 win over Texas on Tuesday, improving to 16-7 with a 2.92 ERA -- that despite a couple recent poor outings. It's that inconsistency of late that could lead to Clint Hurdle giving the ball to Burnett in a possible wild-card or Game 1 of the division series. Again, it could depend on matchups: Liriano against the Reds in a wild-card game (to counteract lefty-swinging Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce) or Burnett against the Cardinals. Cole and Morton wouldn't be expected to go deep into games, but to provide six solid innings and turn the game over to the Pirates' bullpen.
7. Oakland A's
Parker has probably surpassed All-Star Colon as the team's No. 1. He had a no-decision on Tuesday, running his string of starts without a loss to 19. He has allowed more than three runs in a game just once since May 6. When he gets to two strikes, that changeup becomes one of the best pitches in the game: Batters are hitting .158 off it with 68 strikeouts in 158 at-bats. Gray has to slot ahead of Griffin or Straily, both of whom are homer-prone, with his excellent performance in six starts.
Those are the four I would go with right now, considering Lance Lynn has allowed four-plus runs in each of his past five starts and also struggled last postseason. That's a rotation with one stellar veteran, two rookies and one second-year guy. As I said, I don't put a lot of weight on postseason experience, but you do have to worry about how much Miller and Wacha may have left in October. It's also an all-righty foursome, and in a perfect world you may want a lefty in there to help create some balance or better matchups.
What do you think?