Friday, March 16, 2007

Ranking the NL Central Pitching Staffs

They say that pitching wins championships, so it makes sense to look at the pitching rotations each team in the NL Central will be trotting out come opening day. The experts are saying that four of the best rotations in the NL will be those owned by the Dodgers, Padres, D-Backs and Phillies. Another team that is routinely mentioned in the top tier of pitching staffs in the NL is the Milwaukee Brewers.

1. Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers starting five is the only group in the NL Central considered to be among the best in the league. They are led by ace Ben Sheets. Big things are expected from Sheets this year, after he missed most of the year with an injury in 2006. He’s a guy with a ton of potential, most of it unrealized.

Another strong point for the Brewers is that their closer, Francisco Cordero, may be the best closer in the NL Central. He can sometimes be erratic, which is why he lost the closer job in Texas before being traded to the Brewers. But when he’s on, as he was during his tenure with the Brewers during the second half of 2006, he’s lights out.

The Brewers full rotation includes:

1. Ben Sheets
2. Chris Capuano
3. Jeff Suppan
4. Dave Bush
5. Claudio Vargas

2. Chicago Cubs – The Cubs have the second best rotation in the NL Central, but theirs is not an elite rotation. It is probably fair to call them a second tier staff. Led by 2006 Cy Young contender Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs also sport former Toronto lefty Ted Lilly. Lilly will be the lynchpin in the Cubs rotation. Z is as close to a sure thing as you can get in baseball. If Lilly can successfully contribute to the team (meaning 15+ wins), the Cubs are in for a successful year. If not, it will be a long year for the Northsiders.

Although the Cubs bullpen is expected to be a strength for the team, their closer is a big question mark. After a great 2005, closer Ryan Dempster imploded last year. If he doesn’t rebound, look for Bob Howry or Kerry Wood to take over the closer role.

The Cubs rotation is:

1. Carlos Zambrano
2. Ted Lilly
3. Jason Marquis
4. Rich Hill
5. Wade Miller/Angel Guzman

3. Pittsburgh Pirates – The Pirates have a good (but not great) starting rotation. They are young and unproven, but they are talented. The key for the Pirates is for lefty Zach Duke to have a successful year. In 2005, his first year in the majors, Duke was 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA. That success was tempered a bit in 2006 when Duke went 10-15 with a 4.47 ERA. On a positive note, Duke pitched 215.1 innings in 2006, including two complete games.

The Buccos 2006 closer, Mike Gonzalez is now with the Braves, so the closer role falls to Salomon Torres. Torres has 17 career saves, 12 of those coming in 2006 in 15 opportunities.

The Pirates young staff includes:

1. Zach Duke
2. Ian Snell
3. Paul Maholm
4. Tom Gorzelanny
5. Tony Armas Jr./Shawn Chacon

4. Houston Astros – The Astros are a bit of a crap shoot. Ace Roy Oswalt is probably the best pitcher in the NL (at least in the top five), but the rotation falls off quite a bit after Oswalt. The Astros picked up Jason Jennings from the Rockies in the off season and are counting on him to make a big impact for them in 2007. Jennings had an impressive 3.78 ERA for the Rockies in 2006, but an unimpressive 9-13 record. In the off season, Jennings was a hot commodity, which meant the Astros had to pay a high price for him. Only time will tell if Jennings was worth the price.

If Roger Clemens returns to the Astros, their pitching staff will be much better (I have a gift for identifying the obvious), but when Clemens looks at the Astros bullpen, he may not be too thrilled about coming back. The most glaring weakness in the bullpen is closer Brad Lidge. In the second half of 2006, Lidge just fell apart. He’s been given every opportunity to work his way out of his slump, but hasn’t taken advantage of it so far. Spring Training statistics may not mean a lot, but Lidge’s ERA of over 13.00 so far this Spring does not bode well for the upcoming season.

The Astros starting rotation includes:

1. Roy Oswalt
2. Jason Jennings
3. Woody Williams
4. Wandy Rodriguez
5. Matt Albers/Francisco Nieve

5. St. Louis Cardinals – The Cards lost most of their 2006 World Series winning rotation to free agency. Gone are Jeff Suppan (Brewers), Jason Marquis (Cubs), and Jeff Weaver (Mariners). Chris Carpenter is a perennial Cy Young candidate, but the rest of the rotation is manned by four question marks. Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright showed signs of brilliance in 2006, but how will they react pitching a full season? Braden Looper has never pitched more than 84 innings in a season and will now be asked to contribute many more innings as a fifth starter. Finally, Kip Wells is being counted on as the number two guy in the rotation. Wells showed a lot of promise early in his career with Pittsburgh, but over the course of his career he is 17 games below .500 (57-74) with a career ERA of 4.46.

Pitching coach Dave Duncan is often credited with working miracles, but it appears even he may be in over his head in 2007. Duncan will also be able to do precious little with closer Jason Isringhausen who is not 100% yet after undergoing season ending hip surgery in 2006. Of course, the trio of Walt Jockety, Tony LaRussa, and Duncan always seem to find a way to get things done. But 2007 may prove to be the year that the mountain is too steep, even for the Three Amigos.

The Cardinals 2007 rotation is:

1. Chris Carpenter
2. Kip Wells
3. Anthony Reyes
4. Adam Wainwright
5. Braden Looper

6. Cincinnati Reds – I am accused of not giving the Reds starting pitchers enough credit. After all, their 2006 pitching staff kept them in the running for the division title for the majority of the year in 2006. Of course, that may have been the result of some otherwise mediocre pitchers overachieving. In 2006, the Reds were led by the former Red Sox right hander Bronson Arroyo. Arroyo pitched an impressive 240.2 innings, posting a 14-11 record with a 3.29 ERA. He will have to duplicate what was in essence a career year if the Reds are to have any hope in 2007.

The Reds have yet to identify a closer. The most likely candidates are either Dave Weathers or Mike Stanton. Weathers has 41 career saves while Stanton boasts 84 saves in his career. Neither pitcher is considered a natural closer, but the Reds have very few options to fill the vacancy.

The Reds starters are:

1. Aaron Harang
2. Bronson Arroyo
3. Eric Milton
4. Kyle Lohse
5. Matt Belisle/Elizardo Ramirez/Bobby Livingston/Kirk Saarloos


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