Going into the 2012 season, the Red Sox’s biggest perceived weakness is their starting pitching. While they have a formidable front three, the back of the rotation gives much anxiety to those running, following, and writing about the club. The Yankees have made improvements, the Rays have incredible depth, and the Blue Jays have a solid top who match up well against anyone else’s top two in the division. To help get a handle on what we’re up against, I’ve decided to take an early look at each of the starting rotations in the AL East.
It wasn’t all that long ago that baseball insiders and prospect experts were raving about the Orioles boatload of starting pitching prospects that would hopefully restore the once proud franchise to glory. Along the way, there have been more than a few bumps. Brian Matusz had a promising start to his career, and really looked like he was taking the next step toward acehood when he went on an impressive run in August and September of 2010. That all changed last season when he produced a forgettable 7.66 FIP and -1.0 fWAR. Now, his future’s very much in question. Much was expected from Chris Tillman when he was acquired for Erik Bedard a few years back. While he’s experienced considerable success in the minors, it hasn’t translated to the majors. He’s struggled with control issues and homer prone tendencies, and he’s running out of chances to make good on his potential. Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter are decent back-of-the-rotation starters, but that’s really it. Expecting anything more than 3 fWAR combined (and that might be generous) out of them is probably asking too much. Zach Britton has some real talent. He’s probably not going to be an ace, but he could be a very solid number two if he can improve his strikeout and walk numbers a bit. If Matusz can bounce back or Tillman finally breaks out, they could create an interesting 1-2 dynamic at the top of the rotation. That’s a big if though. Finally, the loss of Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies will be tough. Guthrie wasn’t a great pitcher, and he was woefully miscast in the number one slot. Still, he was a consistent innings eater capable of providing 2.0-2.5 fWAR per season. Those aren’t spectacular numbers, but ever team needs one of those guys. The Orioles will certainly miss his presence this season.
Conclusion: The Orioles easily have the worst rotation in the division. Unless their young pitchers make huge, unexpected strides this year, 90-100 losses is in their future.
Boston Red Sox
We’ve talked about this ad nauseum for most of the winter. Clearly, the Red Sox have a potentially dominant top three in Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz. After that, the rotation is like a mine field of question marks. Lester is one of the best lefties in the game, capable of dominating hitters with his cutter, curve, and change-up. At 28, there’s no reason to expect him to deviate from his current track record. Beckett put together a spectacular season last year before injuries slowed him down in September. Despite producing the lowest ERA of his career, there are some causes for concern: he posted his lowest groundball rate (40.1%) since 2002; his strand rate (80%) was significantly higher than the league average; and his .245 BABIP was well below his expected rate and career norms. Chances of his performance regressing are high, but he still should be a very effective pitcher. After putting together an outstanding (albeit unsustainable) season in 2010, Buchholz was expected to make some adjustments and take the next step. Unfortunately, he struggled with injuries for most of the season, which pretty much negated any progress he might have made. Before he got hurt, he did put up an impressive stretch in May and June where he put together a 43/13 K/BB ratio in 49 innings. If he can replicate that, while staying healthy, he should be an excellent number three in the rotation. The last two spots will be filled by some combination of Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, Carlos Silva, and perhaps a mystery candidate to be named later. Bard looks like all but a lock for one of those spots. With his plus-fastball and plus-slider, he should be able to put together a 2-2.5 fWAR season in 150-160 innings. The last slot is a big time question mark. They’ll really need to get around 170-180 innings of 2 fWAR production out of that slot, and I’m not sure any of those guys can do it. Then again, that’s what I said about Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon with the Yankees last year, and they combined for 5.1 fWAR. I guess anything is possible. As crazy as it may seem right now, the Red Sox will definitely miss the 300-400 innings they would have gotten out of John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Conclusion: If healthy, the top three pitchers in the Red Sox rotation have the potential to dominant. Ultimately, the Red Sox will only go as far as Daniel Bard and whomever fills the fifth slot in the rotation will take them. At this point, I’d rank their rotation as the third best in the division with an outside shot of being the best if everything breaks just right.
New York Yankees
The Yankee front office really stepped up this winter, and beefed up a rotation that was widely considered to be weak in 2011. Fresh off one of the best seasons of his career, C.C. Sabathia returns to front the rotation. Only 31 years old, he’s the closest to a “sure thing” as any team can possibly get. He’s incredibly durable, induces ground balls, strikes batters out, limits walks, and has a great repertoire. He’s an ace in every sense of the word. Michael Pineda, recently acquired from the Mariners for Jesus Montero, will probably fill in the number two spot in the rotation. He’s only 23, has plus-velocity with his fastball, and has a dominant slider. If he can add a consistent third pitch (cutter or change?) he could end up becoming the second ace in their rotation. He probably will feel some growing pains this year, moving away from the friendly confines of Safeco Field. Still, he’s a dynamite young pitcher that should be very successful pitching in New York. Former Dodger hurler Hiroki Kuroda will fill the number three spot in the rotation. He’s not spectacular, but he’s the steadying type of presence that every rotation needs. His performance will probably see some regression due to his usually high strand rate (79%), and switching leagues. Even so, he’ll be a great innings eating middle of the rotation guy. Coming off of a solid rookie season, Ivan Nova will return to the rotation as the number four starter. He’ll never strike a lot of batters out and his control isn’t that great; but he generates a lot of ground balls. That has to account for something, right? The fifth spot will be filled by either Freddy Garcia, A.J. Burnett, or Phil Hughes. That’s some pretty great depth. Garcia seems to be the safest bet, but Hughes has the most upside given his age and repertoire. Burnett is simply in the mix due to his salary, but he still may have something left to contribute.
Conclusion: The Yankees have rebuilt the top of their rotation, and have packed tremendous depth at the back end. With seven legitimate starters at their disposal, they should be able to withstand pretty much any injury that hits their starting pitching staff. I’m ranking their rotation as the division’s best for the moment.
Tampa Bay Rays
Everyone’s been talking about how great the Rays’ rotation could end up being in 2012. They’re right. They have a great young stable of pitchers that can all hold their own against the American League’s biggest titans. That said, I can’t help but notice a ton of potential areas where they could regress. For starters, ace starting pitcher James Shields, had an unusually low BABIP (.258) and an unusually high strand rate (79.6%). Both numbers are likely to regress back toward the mean in the upcoming season, which will probably cause his ERA to rise. No, he won’t turn into the pitcher with a 5.18 ERA like he was in 2010, but he’s also not the pitcher that posted a 2.89 ERA last year either. In all likelihood, he’ll post an ERA closer to last season’s 3.42 FIP. David Price, contrary to what his primary statistics say, took a step forward last season. He made great strides in improving his walk rate last year, which went nicely with his solid strikeout and ground ball rates. If he can improve his whiff rate up to his 2010 levels, he could take that next big step forward toward acehood. Jeremy Hellickson had what most thought to be an All-Star caliber season in 2011. Upon closer look at his peripherals, we find that they don’t properly align with hi 2.95 ERA. For 2012, he’ll be in a similar situation to what Buchholz and Trevor Cahill were last season. He’ll need to either improve (which his whiff rates suggest he’ll improve his strikeout levels), or face a heavy dose of regression this season. Super prospect Matt Moore will get his rightful place in the rotation this season, provided he doesn’t struggle or get hurt. While much is anticipated of him, but I don’t think we should expect him to be Tim Lincecum reincarnated right off of the bat. Despite appearing to be dominant in September and October, the sample involved is incredibly small. He’ll undoubtedly experience some period of adjustment this season; particularly, when it comes to the increased workload. The fifth slot will be held down by either Jeff Neimann or Wade Davis. Both pitchers have been mentioned in trade rumors this offseason, but none of them have come to fruition. I’m betting both are kept on the staff through the July trading deadline when one of them is flipped for a bat.
Conclusion: The upside of Tampa’s rotation is absolutely tremendous. The problem is that I see too many chances for regression to comfortably name their rotation number one in the division. For the time being, I’m placing them at two, but I won’t be surprised if they pass the Yankees by later this season.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays have a potentially formidable 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation if everything goes to plan. Ricky Romero returns as the de facto ace, and Brandon Morrow will pitch out of the number two slot. Romero posted solid primary numbers last year with his 15-11 record and 2.92 ERA. While he posted solid groundball, strikeout, and walk numbers; good fortune on balls in play (.242 BABIP) seems to have helped his cause considerably. As a result, he’ll probably see his ERA regress to the 4.00-mark this season, unless he drastically improves his peripherals. Morrow is one of the great mysteries in baseball. He puts together great peripherals (26.1% K%, 8.9% BB%), but always seems to underperform his FIP by a full run. If he could finally put it all together, he’d be one of the best pitchers in baseball. Instead, he’s just the newest verision of Javier Vazquez–supremely talent and incredibly frustrating. The rest of the rotation is pretty lackluster. Brett Cecil is a pitcher with mediocre peripherals and a below average contact rate. In most rotations he’d be a four or preferrably a five. With the Blue Jays, he’s a number three starter. Rounding out the final two spots will be the oft-injured Dustin McGowan and rookie Henderson Alvarez. Late last season, McGowan made his first appearance on a major league mound since 2008. After multiple injuries and setbacks to his pitching arm, he’s motivated and poised to make a comeback. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if there’s a ton left in his arm. He exhibited good velocity and whiff inducing stuff during his limited 21 inning stint, but I’m not sure he can stay healthy enough to provide 150 innings this year. Alvarez shot up through the Blue Jay farm system pretty quickly due to some impressive looking results. That said, his minor league peripherals really aren’t there, and I have a tough time liking a pitcher that doesn’t have a healthy minor league strikeout rate. He should be a decent back of the rotation starter, but they already have two of those guys already. Kyle Drabek is another possibility for later in the season, but he struggled so mightily in 2011 (both in Toronto and AAA), that they’ll probably take things very slowly with him going forward. Look for the Blue Jays to make a move either at the July 31st deadline (if they’re in contention) or in next year’s free agent pool.
Conclusion: The Blue Jays have a strong top two, but their 3-4-5 starters have a chance to be replacement level. Yikes! Many people are predicting that the Jays could be a surprise team in 2012. Barring any unforeseen developments with their pitching, I can’t envision them overtaking either the Sox, Rays, or Yanks. Now, 2013 is an entirely different story.