What team has the best rotation in baseball? That used to be an easy question. For the better part of 10 years, the Braves were the simple answer, but it's not an easy question now. There are six or seven good rotations, but no dominant ones, as was proven last season, only the second year in baseball history that no team's starting rotation had an ERA less than 4.00.
The team we've chosen has as many questions -- six -- as it has starting pitchers: a rookie from Japan, a guy with a 5.01 ERA last year, a 40-year-old who only recently decided that 2007 won't be his last season, a closer turned starter, a lefty with cancer in remission and a 40-year-old knuckleballer. But, if everything falls right, the Red Sox could have the best rotation in baseball with Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield. And there's a chance that Roger Clemens could pitch for the Red Sox this summer.
"The Red Sox's rotation has everything you want to see,'' said Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "The question is whether they can stay healthy, which is the same question every team has. But I can't fault that [choice]. The Red Sox's rotation is very good.''
It begins with Matsuzaka, 26, for whom the Red Sox spent $103.1 million. How good is he? "If he was pitching [in] a vacuum, he would be as good as there is,'' said Bobby Valentine, who managed against Matsuzaka in Japan. "But Boston is not a vacuum. MLB is not a vacuum, so his surroundings will affect him like they affect everyone. The most important thing will be his relationship with his catcher. Pitchers don't shake off very much in Japan. They rely on pregame preparation, then execute in the game. If the catcher and pitching coach make him comfortable with pitch and location, he'll be real good.''
That's because his stuff is real good. "He throws five breaking balls,'' Valentine said. "His changeup is like Mike Marshall's screwball, and that was one of only two pitches Mike threw. [Matsuzaka] will leave his fastball up. He will overthrow his fastball. He throws four fastballs for every six breaking balls. If he keeps that ratio, he'll be OK. But if they make him throw too many fastballs, who knows? But he understands what it takes to be successful.''
Beckett, 26, won 16 games last season, but had a 5.01 ERA, had the fifth most walks (74) in the league and allowed the second most home runs (36). Last year, he got somewhat of a pass in his first season adjusting to Boston, and to a new league. This is a big year for him. "He should stop trying to be like Schilling, being a thinking man's pitcher,'' said one AL pitching coach. "That's not him. Just rear back and throw it. That's when he's at his best.''
Schilling won 15 games last year, and had another typically brilliant walk-to-strikeout ratio (28-183), but he gave up 220 hits in 204 innings. He was in better shape last season than in 2005 (he was slow recovering from right ankle surgery) and should win at least 15 this year. Schilling is well aware of his numbers and his place in history, and he knows that the Hall of Fame is a possibility with 15 to 20 more wins. Two more good years would really help his chances.
Papelbon is the fourth potential ace, at least eventually. He was a dominant closer (35 saves, 0.92 ERA) for the Red Sox last year, but his shoulder tired down the stretch, ending his season a month early. The Red Sox say that with a regular four-days rest, and a strength and conditioning program, the weakness in the shoulder likely won't return (the Braves said the same thing about John Smoltz, and basically were right). Papelbon would be happy starting or closing, but there's nothing to suggest he can't be a very good starter (there is an outside chance that he'll have to close again if the Red Sox can't find a closer).
Wakefield is the fifth starter for now. The Red Sox have been diligent the past two years about trying to define Wakefield's role (he pitches much better when he knows his job) rather than shifting him constantly between the bullpen and the rotation. Wakefield can be fragile, and can get down on himself, but even at 40, his knuckleball remains very hard to hit.
The Red Sox say that Lester will go to spring training with no physical restrictions now that his illness -- non-Hodgkin's lymphoma -- is in remission. Still, it seems logical that with five other starters ahead of him, starting the season in extended spring training won't be a bad idea. But he's the only left-hander on the team, so once he's ready to go, he will pitch.
The rest of the best five rotations
Tigers: They had the lowest starter's ERA (4.00) in the game last year. Justin Verlander is only going to get better, as will Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson. It's hard to imagine Kenny Rogers going 17-8 again, but it was hard to imagine him ever pitching in the big leagues when he went to his first spring training nearly 20 years ago, and didn't even know how to pitch from the stretch. Mike Maroth, who won 14 games two years ago, likely will be the fifth starter. Any slip by Boston's five, and the Tigers will have the game's top rotation.
Angels: They have five quality major league starting pitchers if Bartolo Colon rebounds from rotator cuff surgery. The Angels starters' 4.16 ERA was second best in the AL last year, and now they'll have Jered Weaver for a full season. They didn't trade Ervin Santana for a reason; he has a chance to be really good.
Dodgers: They have too much starting pitching, which could mean a trade involving Brad Penny, Mark Hendrickson or Brett Tomko (Penny would bring the most in return; the Dodgers could use a right-handed hitting outfielder). If they traded all three of them, which is highly unlikely, L.A. still would have a rotation of Jason Schmidt, Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, Randy Wolf and Hong-Chih Kuo. Schmidt, a fly ball pitcher, should do well in Dodger Stadium (a big park), Billingsley has a chance to be terrific and no one, especially left-handed hitters, wants any part of Kuo.
Yankees: Like the Red Sox, this rotation has great potential. Chien-Ming Wang is a stud, Mike Mussina should have another good year left in him and Andy Pettitte will be an excellent replacement for Randy Johnson. Kei Igawa, signed this offseason out of Japan, is no Matsuzaka, but he should be a solid major league starter. The Yankees say Carl Pavano is primed for a comeback; time will tell about that. And like the Red Sox, the Yankees hope to add Clemens to their rotation.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.