Clayton Kershaw might have gone 4-0 against Tim Lincecum last year, but behind the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner comes doubt about whether the Dodgers' starting rotation matches up with the top contenders in the NL West.
It's a bit of an important topic, considering the Dodgers' starting lineup raises similar concerns behind Matt Kemp.
Hiroki Kuroda and 3.45 ERA over four seasons have left for the Bronx, and the best thing a Dodgers fan could say about that is that, at age 37, Kuroda represented a question mark on some level. Nevertheless, he leaves Los Angeles with four distinctly interrogative pieces of punctuation to fill out the rotation behind Kershaw.
Chad Billingsley is only one year removed from the 3.57 ERA he had in 2010, but his strikeout rate has declined each of the past three years, and he is making some seemingly significant mechanical adjustments that might make or break him. Ted Lilly is 36 and needed three quality starts in the final two weeks of the season just to get his ERA below 4.00 and avoid becoming the rare pitcher to allow more than 30 homers and 30 steals in a season. (Let's confine the 50-50 talk for 2012 to Kemp, shall we?)
Coming to Los Angeles from outside environs are free agents Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. Each figures to pitch adequately in front of the home crowds at Dodger Stadium, but Harang had a 4.70 ERA in away games in 2011, while Capuano, who allowed 14 home runs with a 5.08 ERA on the road last year, brings even more uncertainty about his bona fides.
While the Dodgers have reinforcements working their way up from the minors, perhaps starting with 2011 summertime starter Nathan Eovaldi, that doesn't make them unique in the NL West. Only if things break right for them do the Dodgers figure to have better than the third-best rotation in the division.
Lincecum might never forget going winless against Kershaw last year -- despite a 1.83 ERA in those games -- but he actually lowered his ERA from 3.43 in 2010 to 2.74 in 2011. The 27-year-old's strikeouts per nine innings dropped for a fourth straight year, but we should all be in such decline: a 9.1 K/9 will still get the job done.
Putting Lincecum behind you only brings another 27-year-old, Matt Cain, who had a 2.88 ERA and 7.3 K/9 last year, almost perfectly matching his 2.97 ERA and 7.2 K/9 over the past three years. Somehow, 22-year-old Madison Bumgarner, who had a 3.21 ERA and 8.4 K/9 last season, is only their No. 3 starter -- though perhaps he'll soon be No. 2b.
The questions for the Giants come in the back of their rotation, where Ryan Vogelsong needs to prove his 2.71 ERA and 7.0 K/9 at age 33 -- after going into 2011 with a 5.86 career ERA -- wasn't a fluke. And now that Jonathan Sanchez has been traded to Kansas City for Melky Cabrera, the final slot could go to 24-year-old lefty Eric Surkamp, who had a 2.02 ERA and 10.4 K/9 in 142 1/3 Double-A innings last season.
Placeholding for Surkamp if he needs any more minor league seasoning is Barry Zito, 34 in May and coming off a 5.87 ERA last year and 4.55 ERA in five seasons as a Giant. And just for the fun of it, we'll mention that Ramon Ortiz received a non-roster invitation to spring training from San Francisco.
Ultimately, San Francisco's front three appear to have the drop on the Dodgers, and while there's a scenario for trouble with Nos. 4 and 5, it's not appreciably greater than the potential pitfalls of the Dodgers' counterparts.
San Francisco doesn't have the NL West's only pitching to be reckoned with. Arizona has built up a rotation, all 30 or under, that might be its best since the days of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling -- or at least since the days when Brandon Webb was dominant.
You start with Ian Kennedy, who had a 2.88 ERA -- 2.11 after the All-Star break -- and 8.0 K/9. Meanwhile, Daniel Hudson started his second half with a complete-game win over the Dodgers and ended 2011 with a 3.49 ERA and 6.9 K/9, while rookie Josh Collmenter had a 3.59 ERA in 24 starts, though with only 5.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
Those mediocre strikeout rates are the red flag for the Diamondbacks that could potentially wave the Dodgers into the pennant race. Trevor Cahill, who arrived from Oakland in a December trade, brings with him both promise and another reality check. In 2010, he was a 22-year-old All-Star with a 2.97 ERA, then slipped to a 4.16 ERA last season. Like Collmenter, his low strikeout totals (5.5 K/9 in his career) serve as a warning sign for how reliable he'll be going forward.
But should the youngsters or grizzled 30-year-old Joe Saunders (3.69 ERA, 4.6 K/9) falter, waiting to step in is the No. 3 overall pick in baseball's amateur draft last year, Trevor Bauer from UCLA. Bauer will likely start the season tuning up in the minors, but few expect the 21-year-old who struck out 43 in 25 2/3 minor-league innings last year after the draft to remain on the farm for long. A stretch-run rotation led by Kennedy, Hudson and Bauer is nothing to scoff at. (That's not to mention Tyler Skaggs, a 20-year-old lefty from Santa Monica High School who also has star-caliber strikeout potential.)
By some estimates, the rebuilding Padres boast the best collection of minor league prospects in baseball, but they won't intimidate on the mound this season, especially after trading Mat Latos (3.47 ERA, 8.6 K/9) to Cincinnati and declining Harang's option.
Edinson Volquez, who came in the package from the Reds, has struggled since posting a 3.21 ERA and 206 strikeouts in 2008 -- in three years since, he has a 5.01 ERA in 221 innings. However, he still strikes out batters like mad and will try to take advantage of Petco Park's friendly boundaries.
The bulk of the Padres' rotation shapes up as Tim Stauffer (3.73 ERA), Clayton Richard (3.88 before being injured in the second half), Dustin Moseley (3.30) and Cory Luebke (3.31 with 111 strikeouts in 100 2/3 innings as a starter) -- all capable of keeping the score down in home games, but none sure bets to outpitch the average NL West starter. According to Fangraphs, only Luebke had a fielding-independent ERA below 3.99 in 2011; Billingsley, by comparison, was at 3.83.
Reinforcements from the farm will come for the Padres, perhaps too late to make them a contender in the division but not too late to make them a spoiler.
Colorado's rotation has undergone the most turnover and is the hardest to peg in the division, though you could say it doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
Jeremy Guthrie, the 33-year-old acquired from Baltimore, had a 4.33 ERA and 5.6 K/9 last year -- and might be the Rockies' No. 2 pitcher behind 24-year-old Jhoulys Chacin (3.62, 7.0). Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, acquired from Cleveland in the Rockies' trade of Ubaldo Jimenez, have great promise but only 14 career major league starts between them.
Beyond that, who knows? Any of a trio of 2011 AL West pitchers, Tyler Chatwood (from the Angels) and Josh Outman and Gullermo Moscoso (from the A's) might make it into the rotation. Amid all the possibilities, don't count out 49-year-old Jamie Moyer, working on a minor league contract as he comes back from Tommy John surgery, though Moyer brings a major league record 511 career home runs allowed to Denver.
Two other recovering pitchers might be more likely to make a difference for the Rockies. Jorge De La Rosa (8.8 K/9 in 495 2/3 career innings with Colorado) is working his way back from his own Tommy John surgery and might boost the rotation in summertime, while Juan Nicasio, coming back from a fractured vertebra after entering the show last year with 58 strikeouts and a 4.14 ERA in 71 2/3 innings, might make a rather incredible comeback even sooner.
A look at Colorado makes one appreciate the apparent stability of the Dodgers' starting rotation. Of course, as we've all learned through the years, any predictions about pitching are the first to go by the wayside in a baseball season.