|Tuesday, December 31
For starters, Yankees have the best rotation
By Keith Scherer
Special to ESPN.com
Communism's demise has been, in a word, ironic. "It was my duty to protect my beloved left leg,'' Fidel Castro recently wrote to his countrymen. ''It had never betrayed me. I couldn't betray it now.'' As Fidel convalesced with his patriotic extremity, the most profitable product of his revolution was signing a contract with the Yankees -- on Christmas Eve.
After beating out the Red Sox for Jose Contreras and in bringing back Roger Clemens, the Yankees have seven championship-caliber starting pitchers, four more than any other team. Every team in baseball would love to have that kind of depth.
But when it comes to pure dominance, no team can match the 1-2 blitzkrieg of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, and if the Diamondbacks make the playoffs their two aces are just as capable of winning it for them as they were in 2001.
A deep rotation isn't necessarily essential to bring home a ring -- it can be done with only a devastating front end. But it's pretty unlikely that any team's going to make a serious run without having either a nasty 1-2 punch, or depth throughout the rotation.
Is it better to have depth or dominance?
For a decade the Atlanta Braves had both, but their rotation is no longer among the game's best. And so with pitchers and catchers due to report in six weeks, here's a preview of the top 10 rotations for 2003.
1. New York Yankees
They have at least two pitchers on the wrong side of 40 (Clemens is 40 while Wells will turn 40 in May). He might not be 40, but no one believes Hernandez is 33, and Contreras is becoming known as the man who "claims to be 31." Mussina is 34. And yet there is no indication that the staff's skills are declining, so if they're going to fail, they'll have to get old overnight. Mussina's 2002 ERA (4.05) was dragged down by an unlucky first half. After the All-Star break he was himself, and Clemens' expected ERA was a half run better than the 4.35 he posted. Wells was the same as ever, while Hernandez, Weaver, and Pettitte had their best seasons. No, you don't need seven good starters for the playoffs, but any three of them could be enough to win back the title.
2. Oakland Athletics
Hudson, Mulder and Zito will keep leading the A's to 100 wins for a while, but they won't grow up to dominate like Johnson or Pedro Martinez. Hudson's 2002 wasn't quite as good as it looked and his strikeout rate has declined each of the last two years. Zito won 23 games, but his Support Neutral Won-Loss record last year was 17-8, the same as his actual record in 2001. Last year, Lilly's performance caught up to his skills. If he can cut down on the gopherballs he'll be right there with the better three. Harang was brutalized as the AL got a more extended look at him, but he has the stuff to perhaps be the league's best No. 5, and should Harang falter, phenom Rich Harden could be ready by June.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
Spahn and Sain and pray for rain. The Diamondbacks have two Hall of Fame thoroughbreds and a troika of plow horses behind them. Getting to October isn't a given when you reserve 90 starts for Dessens, Batista, and Patterson.
Dessens' 3.03 ERA last season was phony. Expect him, Bautista, and Patterson to have ERAs in the mid-4.00s. Patterson's a strong breakout candidate whose ratios indicate that he's almost back, but the Diamondbacks will need to keep him under 150 innings to be effective. The rest of his innings could go to Armando Reynoso, who missed last year rehabilitating from a neck injury.
4. Chicago Cubs
A rotation with Wood and Prior has to be in the top 10. They have the potential to dominate a seven game series all by themselves. For the second year in a row the Cubs' rotation was one of baseball's best. And unluckiest: they were 22 wins below what would be expected based on their individual performances. Clement had his anticipated breakout year, and Zambrano showed enough at age 21 to keep him projected for stardom. Estes has been reunited with Dusty Baker, the man who oversaw his best seasons. The Cubs will challenge for the division title. If they win it, Wood and Prior give them a puncher's chance to play through October.
5. Boston Red Sox
This is the high risk, high reward rotation. Lowe's workload jumped 240 percent last year, so an injury in '03 wouldn't be a surprise. His strikeout rate was was down nearly three punchouts from the previous year. Martinez can still go through opposing lineups like Michael Jackson goes through PR flacks, but he has to be used judiciously -- has to be used discriminately. He's still the game's best pitcher, but he can't go 250 innings anymore, and he's visited the disabled list four times since 1999.
At the rate he's improving, Wakefield could be Pedro-like in 2003, but an approximation of his 2001 is more likely. Fossum might be the second-best pitcher on this staff by summer. Burkett is harmless filler. If Lowe was a sure bet to repeat his 2002 performance, the rotation would rank higher. The Sox's success depends dangerously -- a precarious level of dependence -- on the continued health of Lowe and Martinez, and Wakefield's ability to maintain control of his knuckler. And until these variables prove out, we have to hedge.
6. Minnesota Twins
Minnesota had a good rotation last year, but not one of the top 10. In 2003 with Radke and Mays healthy, Reed avoiding three-run homers, and Milton having the talent to win the Cy Young (although at some point, don't we have to actually see great results?) they are now. Lohse had a solid year, but he needs to learn an out-pitch for lefties, who tarred him with a .908 OPS against. If he flops or Mays keeps declining, Santana will take up a rotation slot and become recognized as the league's next great pitcher.
Santana and Milton would be right behind Mulder and Zito as the best lefty tandem in the league. That's not as tall of a claim as it sounds, since there aren't many quality lefty tandems in the majors. Milton hasn't had his breakout season, but he will soon. He's been a full-time starter for five years, but he's still only 27, and his K/BB rate (121/30) has improved significantly. His expected ERA last season was under 4.00 and his strikeout and strikeout-to-walk ratios are indicative of stardom. The one thing keeping him from the All-Star team is gopheritis, but his home run rate has improved three years in a row. Santana came out of the bullpen to fill in for injured starters last year and posted a 2.99 ERA while striking out 11.4 per nine innings. He's only 24 and has improved dramatically each of the three years he's been in the majors. If Radke stays healthy, this has the potential to be a top five rotation.
7. Houston Astros
Oswalt is one of the league's top five starters. Miller came back better from his pinched nerve and went 11-1 after the All-Star break, with a 2.00 ERA. Redding was 2001's hottest prospect, and last year it was Saarloos. They soaked themselves in flopsweat, but then slowed down when they got to the majors.
Munro improved, earning a spot by throwing strikes and avoiding home runs. Saarloos doesn't have the stuff to back up his minor-league numbers from last year, but his peripherals in the minors were excellent. Redding's ratios weren't nearly as bad as his 5.40 ERA would lead you to believe. Carlos Hernandez is the weakest pitcher of the litter and his shoulder injuries -- or Saarloos' continued struggles -- could open the door for Redding to prove himself. If Reynolds can't hack a full season, it won't hurt the Astros enough to cost them the division.
8. Montreal Expos
Their projected rotation posted an adjusted ERA of 3.95 in 2002, fifth-best on this list, and at .563 they have the sixth-best Support Neutral winning percentage. Colon's 20-win season drove up his price, but over the last two years he has lost four strikeouts per nine innings. Vazquez has worked a lot of innings and his rough second half is a warning that like Colon he's wearing down. If Armas develops a pitch to get lefties out he could be another Jon Lieber. If not, he's a solid No. 3. Kim and Ohka are decent, but not as good as they looked last year.
9. Seattle Mariners
Moyer has been churning out excellent, nearly identical seasons for years and at age 40 has been incautiously rewarded with a three-year contract. Garcia's workload is catching up to him, as his 5.66 second half ERA shows. He's overvalued because of his win totals, which are a product of run support that could diminish. Pineiro is the genuine ace, and he'll prove it this year. The top three have the potential to carry the Mariners to the playoffs, but Seattle has nothing at the back of their rotation unless Ryan Anderson proves he has survived two stays on the butcher's block.
10. Anaheim Angels
This slot could have been taken by Philadelphia or St Louis, but Anaheim gets a measure of deference for being the World Champs. Their projected rotation had the list's fourth-best Support Neutral record in 2002. Washburn has been steady for years, and Lackey's postseason performance wasn't a fluke. Expect Ortiz to regress. Appier has settled into a late-career revival that should last one more year. Schoeneweis will head back into the rotation, where his ERA is two runs higher than when he comes out of the bullpen.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.