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Ranking the Division’s Starters

In preparation of pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Traning, we thought we’d rank the AL East’s starting rotations.

Unsurprisingly, the division has a great cache of starting pitchers, as most hurlers rate average or better when compared to the American League average.

After putting all the pieces together, the Rays narrowly edged the Sox for the top slot. Though the Sox trumped Tampa with superior talent, Josh Beckett’s injury concerns dropped the staff enough to fall to No. 2. The Blue Jays followed closely in the third spot as Brandon Morrow looks to rise into the upper tier this season. The Yankees, with one of their worst rotations in years, take the fourth spot while Baltimore finds itself far in the rear.

Here’s the breakdown:

Boston Red Sox


Proj. ERA Grade

1 Josh Beckett 4.02 B
2 Jon Lester 3.29 A+
3 John Lackey 4.25 B-
4 Clay Buchholz 3.75 A-
5 Daisuke Matsuzaka 4.66 D+

Wildcards can be good or bad. In Beckett’s case, it’s bad since he doesn’t have that “pleasant surprise” aspect that a Drabek or Morrow have. He can still be the Beckett of old, but he’s damaged goods until he proves otherwise.

Lester is as good as it gets. He’s among the best in the MLB and, until Price repeats his 2010 season, he’s the cream of the crop in the AL East. Nothing more to see here.

One of the team’s “big free agent splashes” in the ’09 offseason, Lackey’s splash was a bellyflop. He’s been trending down for years and 2010 was the season where it all caught up with him. We see it continuing, albeit slightly improved from last season.

Is Clay Buchholz the class of the American League? Some say unequivocally yes, some say unequivocally no. It’s really a lot more complicated than that. His peripherals weren’t any better than Matusz or Lackey, but his plate discipline indicators and ground ball rates put him in Romero territory. We think this is the year he “really” puts it together — and have ranked him as such.

At this point, Daisuke is who he is — a pitcher with good talent who can’t stay healthy. Without health problems he’s probably a C+, but he’s earned this grade until he proves he can stay on the field.

New York Yankees

1 C.C. Sabathia 3.62 A
2 A.J. Burnett 4.40 C
3 Phil Hughes 4.08 B
4 Ivan Nova 4.11 B-
5 Sergio Mitre 4.88 F

Sabathia is the undisputed number one in the Yankees’ rotation, but he’s not quite in Lester’s territory since he doesn’t possess elite peripherals. In terms of likely production in the upcoming season, we like Price better, but Sabathia grades out as equal since he’s been doing it for years.

Burnett had an awful season last year, posting a 5.26 ERA. Up until then, he was an excellent #3 or solid #2. Now, that’s all up in the air. He probably should have been close to a run better in 2010, but we aren’t ready to say he’s set for a full recovery. Key to a rebound will be a bounceback in command. Until then, he’s suspect.

If Phil Hughes had even an average groundball rate, the Yankees would have the best 1-2 punch in the division. Instead, Hughes is more of a solid #2 or very good #3. He’s got the pedigree to add a little more, but in terms of production, the only difference between Hughes and Brett Cecil are the pinstripes.

Nova has a chance to rival Hughes for the #3 role this season — a chance. However, he needs to repeat his performance to win over skeptics, so he’s been graded as such.

Mitre would be better suited to minor league depth or long relief, but the Yankees might have to roll him out there every fifth day. He has the talent to be an MLB average or below average hurler, but he earns the lowest rank in the division because he can’t stay healthy. A liability, pure and simple.

Baltimore Orioles

1 Jeremy Guthrie 4.72 D+
2 Brian Matusz 4.31 B-
3 Jake Arrieta 4.41 C+
4 Brad Bergesen 4.59 C-
5 Chris Tillman 4.81 D

The Orioles enter 2011 leaning heavily on a number of young arms. Though Jeremy Guthrie is the nominal “number one,” he’ll have to finally yield to the youngsters this season. Brian Matusz looks poised to take over that top spot, though his runaway fly ball percentage (45.5 percent, career) will cap his ceiling.

Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta both have good potential, but need work hitting the strike zone and missing bats. Tillman had the uglier ERA (5.87 to Arrieta’s 4.66) but both were equally underwhelming. Arrieta should be solidly average this season. Tillman’s more of a work in progress. Brad Bergesen has always been the awkward, freckled stepchild of the bunch — never getting the respect or notoriety he deserves — but he has a chance to emerge as the club’s second best starter this upcoming year. Ground balls and no walks is always a recipe for success and Bergesen has just that. He’ll improve on an ugly 4.98 ERA this coming season.

Toronto Blue Jays

1 Ricky Romero 3.73 A-
2 Brandon Morrow 3.92 B+
3 Brett Cecil 4.11 B
4 Kyle Drabek 4.28 B-
5 Jesse Litsch 4.71 D+

In a league where the ground ball is king, Romero is one of the leading contenders for the throne. Bringing at 26.5 percent ground ball rate to the mound every night has its benefits. Without a lower Z-Contact rate, it may be difficult for him to walk among the AL elite, but he sits comfortably among the league’s second tier of starters.

Morrow will be a great duke to Romero’s king, but he needs to rein in his BABIP (.342 in 2010) and wildness. Regardless, he has the most room to grow of nearly anyone in the division and with some improvement in command could rival Romero for the number one spot. We like him as a solid #2 right now, with room to improve.

Cecil is very good as number three starters go, as his low-4s ERA is well above average for AL starters. His biggest challenge will be maintaining an excellent 32.8 O-Swing percentage. If he proves unable, he’ll fall a bit but should still be above average.

Kyle Drabek is difficult to pin down, as his three starts and 17.0 innings don’t lend themselves to comparison. He could be good or he could struggle like most rookies. He’s got great stuff though, which should help him make a mark this season. We like him to post a low-4s ERA and just a shade below Cecil.

The Blue Jays round out the rotation with Jesse Litsch at number five. The minor league standout had a breakthrough 2008, but has been poor since. We see the talent to be league average this season, but uncertainty drops him down a notch. His performance will be held together with a good groundball rate and recovery in his zone percentage, but you can do a lot worse at #5.

Devil Rays

1 David Price 3.31 A
2 James Shields 4.38 C+
3 Jeff Niemann 3.99 B+
4 Wade Davis 4.54 C
5 Jeremy Hellickson 3.89 B+

In 2010, Price took a giant leap toward the top of the AL pecking order. Though he didn’t quite pitch up to the level of his 2.72 ERA, he was still among the top in the MLB. Expect that trend to continue in 2011 as he becomes a perennial Cy Young contender. We see a low-3s ERA (3.31 to be exact) — one of the best in the league.

James Shields slides back in at number 2, but he lacks consistency. Though he has the stuff and the peripherals to be a prototypical #2, he gives up too many home runs to be reliable there. We see a slightly above average hurler who could step up a grade if he can avoid the monthly 10-run outings he delivered in 2010.

Jeff Niemann was only slightly above average last season but we see him to be a borderline 4.00 ERA hurler. His K/9 and BB/9 should both improve going into next season and he could emerge as the #2 in front of Shields next year.

Wade Davis had a great season in 2010, but outperformed his peripherals by about half a run. We don’t see that changing a whole lot and should be a shade above league average this year.

Hellickson has a chance to be sensational, as he showed last year in 30+ innings. He’ll be entering his first full season this year and is in a great situation in Tampa. He should have some ups and downs, but, overall, we expect a lot — think high 3.00s ERA.

AL East Sleepers: Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ricky Romero throws a pitch against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in New York

Well folks, this one’s about to get ugly. Not just this season, mind you, but for a few years – though, if Anthopoulos is as good as advertised, there might just be a way out of this mess. It’s too bad, really, as the makeup of this pitching staff makes this team one of the most interesting clubs in all of baseball. Too bad they exist in the gauntlet of the AL East.

There’s no mistaking it – Toronto is clearly the runt of the AL East litter for the forseeable future. While they have a few good full-timers and a number of interesting arms in the rotation, there’s just not a lot to build on here, barring the awakening of a number of sleepers on this team – a number of sleepers.

Either way, this team is in serious trouble for 2010 and beyond. Then again, when third place is all you can ever look forward to, does the disappointment really matter?

Looking Up

MLB: MAY 14 Red Sox at AngelsWhen the Toronto Blue Jays came to town with a 3.5 game lead over the Boston Red Sox, it would be fair to characterize the first meeting of the two teams this season as surprisingly critical. One team was going to make a statement and thus far, it has been the Red Sox speaking the loudest.

In light of David Ortiz’ home run last night, I thought it was a good opportunity to look at the collection of things working in the Red Sox favor since returning East and get a pulse from “all you FireBrandamaniacs” out there.

Know Thine Enemy 2009: Toronto Blue Jays

It wasn’t long ago that the Toronto Blue Jays were expected to be in the position now occupied by the Tampa Bay Rays as the third wheel atop the American League East. While there is some strong young talent in Toronto, J.P. Riccardi’s five year plan is looking more like a two term presidential rebuilding plan in action. It’s hard to believe that this team is anything resembling “on the road to competing” in the most vaunted division in baseball.

Last year was a mess for the Blue Jays. Between injuries, slumps, manager changes, and overall bad luck, the Jays still found themselves dreaming of a run at the Wild Card late in the Summer. While an 86-win season was respectable and would have put you in the playoffs in the NL West, it yielded another season leaving Jays fans frustrated with what could have been if there were any semblance of an offense behind one of the best rotations in baseball.

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