Sunday, February 17, 2008

NL West breakdown: Starting Rotation

With Spring Training upon us, it’s time to start taking a tour around the National League West, position by position. Let’s kick it off by looking at the heart of each team, the starting rotation. The teams appear in the order in which I feel are the strongest.

1. Arizona Diamondbacks

RH – Brandon Webb (18-10, 3.01 ERA, 1.19 WHIP)
RH – Dan Haren (15-9, 3.07, 1.21)
LH – Randy Johnson (4-3, 3.81, 1.15)
RH – Micah Owings (8-8, 4.30, 1.28)
LH – Doug Davis (13-12, 4.25, 1.59)

The addition of Haren has obviously made a strong team just that much better heading into this season. Look at the first 2 guys of the rotation. Ok now look at what the 3rd guy has done in the past. Scary. If they can get just decent seasons again from Owings and Davis, then it’s easy to see why the DBacks are on top of many people’s lists for winning the division.

After receiving 3 losses in 4 starts (with 1 no-decision wedged in between) in early July, Webb went on a tear to end the year, going 10-2. He lowered his ERA from 3.38 to 3.01 during that time. He has leaped into the upper echelon of starters in the league. If Webb is #1, then Haren is #1A. In 3 full years of starting, he’s won at least 14 games. I think it’s safe to say that the Cardinals regret trading him away.

Uncertainty still remains for Johnson. He only made 10 starts last year, with his season ending after his start on June 28 vs. the Dodgers. But, if he’s anywhere close to healthy, he already was showing signs of improvement from his Yankee days. In fact, he’s being rumored to be the #2 starter, so they can go right-left-right, which is not a bad idea.

Owings and Davis did what you would expect, which is pitch around .500 ball. With the 3 guys in front of them, that’s all they really need to do to win a lot of games. If Owings can get past 6 innings, it’s a good sign. It’s those days in which he gets bombed from the start where he gets in trouble. Davis is entering his 10th year. He had a great month of August along with 2 decent starts in the playoffs.

2. San Diego Padres

RH – Jake Peavy (19-6, 2.54, 1.06)
RH – Chris Young (9-8, 3.12, 1.10)
RH – Greg Maddux (14-11, 4.14, 1.24)
LH – Randy Wolf (9-6, 4.73, 1.45)
RH – Justin Germano (7-10, 4.46, 1.30)

Much like Arizona, the first 2 pitchers are so good, it’s scary. Not only is the rotation deep, but they play in the perfect ballpark to help them succeed. Let’s not forget that Mark Prior is waiting in the wings for sometime during the season. I would think he would get a chance to start, but perhaps not right away. Still, not a bad guy to have in your back pocket if necessary.

Peavy is the reigning Cy Young Award winner and All-Star Game starter. The only team in the West to beat him last year was Arizona (2 times). He came off a 2006 in which his ERA went north of 4.00, but he turned that around quickly to be an ace again. Ya, he’s awesome. Young deserved much more than just 9 wins last year. He was every bit as good as Peavy until he got an injury late in the year. From the start of the year to the end of July, he gave up 3 or more earned runs only 4 times. From August until the end, it was 8 in 10 starts. Who knows if he rushed back too soon to try and help with the playoff push, which is only natural. But, there’s no disputing that without the injury, he would have had an ERA under 3 and more than 9 wins.

Maddux was a nice addition who won 14 games. He had some strong starts in August and September, which shows that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank. In that ballpark, he can still succeed, as evidenced by his ERA being a full run lower at home than on the road. Wolf got off to a great start with the Dodgers last year, but arm problems once again sidelined him. When he’s feeling good, he can rack up the K’s. But, it’ll be another case of watching his every start to make sure nothing is wrong. Germano is coming off his first full season as a starter, and he had mixed success. He’s capable of going 5 or 6 innings. He was yanked out of the rotation and made a few appearances out of the bullpen at the end of the season, but I would think he’ll be the #5 guy this time around. If he doesn’t do as well, look for Prior to fill his spot.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

RH – Brad Penny (16-4, 3.03, 1.31)
RH – Derek Lowe (12-14, 3.88, 1.27)
RH – Chad Billingsley (12-5, 3.31, 1.33)
RH – Hiroki Kuroda (pitched in Japan)
RH – Jason Schmidt (1-4, 6.31, 1.79)

While there’s no lefties, it’s still a potentially deep rotation. While Penny and Lowe have shown they can be highly successful, the rest of the rotation could go either way. If Billingsley can continue his growth, Kuroda can pitch in the majors, and Schmidt can regain his health, this everything should be fine. If even a couple of those factors don’t pan out, it could be like last year where the bottom of rotation can’t pull their weight.

Penny has turned into one of the better pitchers the last couple of years. It’s amazing how he was being shopped just 1 year ago. My how that has changed. He’s turned his career around by relying more on pitching, and less on trying to blow everybody away with his fastball. He’s more than capable of leading the staff. Lowe had pretty good numbers, but too many loses, which were not always his fault. He was banged up late in the year, but continued to get 6 or 7 innings a start. If he’s locating well, he’s hard to hit. Then there’s the games in which he looks like he’s throwing batting practice where everything falls apart. He’ll still have those starts every now and then, but needs to limit them for the Dodgers to get further this year.

Billingsley is a possible future ace. I’ve read plenty of baseball reports praise him for his gifted talent. After starting the year in the bullpen, injuries pushed him to be a starter, and he got much better as the year wore on. If he can get over his wildness, he can be great. Kuroda is the big free agent signing from Japan. He’s shown the ability to pitch deep into games, and is reportedly a good pitcher in the clutch. Time will tell. Schmidt is the ace of the past whose career took a hard fall last year. Quite simply put, he did absolutely nothing. The good thing was that he was shut down in mid-June, so all of that time off will hopefully do him good. If he doesn’t work out, Esteban Loaiza waits in the wings.

4. San Francisco Giants

LH – Barry Zito (11-13, 4.53, 1.35)
RH – Matt Cain (7-16, 3.75, 1.26)
RH – Tim Lincecum (7-5, 4.00, 1.28)
LH – Noah Lowry (14-8, 3.92, 1.55)
RH – Kevin Correia (4-7, 3.45, 1.32)

While the Giants will face many long nights struggling to score (seriously… Bengie Molina is their cleanup hitter!), they do have some impressive young pitchers that are more than capable of breaking out. And they still have that Barry Zito guy, who signed a monstrous contract last year just to basically do nothing.

Zito will still anchor the staff, but my God was he bad last year. His first 2 starts he got bombed, then he settled in a bit, then got bombed again, then had a couple of good starts… You starting to see a pattern here? The only thing consistent was his inconsistency. He’s really only had 1 other bad year, in 2004, out of 8 seasons, so a comeback wouldn’t be out of the question.

Cain’s record last year was bad, but he fell victim to some horrendous run support. Just look at his last 4 starts of the year: at least 6 IP, 2 or less ER each game, 0 wins. There’s not much he could do about that. He kept his ERA in the mid-high 3’s all year, so if you ignore the won-loss record, he did pretty well. Lincecum is the newest young stud who racked up more than a strikeout per inning (150/146.1). Obviously he throws very hard, but he must have good stamina because in his last 15 starts, only twice did he not get into the 7th. Not bad.

Lowry has one of the strangest lines I’ve seen yet. The positives are the 14 wins and sub-4.00 ERA. The negative is the bloated 1.55 WHIP. Unlike Cain, he had great run support, which makes his season look better than it really was. He also had the same amount of walks as K’s (87), which is bad. He can’t expect to be that wild and still get wins like last year. Correia is the number #5 right now, but he will face competition from Jonathan Sanchez. He was 3-1 in 8 starts at the end of last year, and gave up 2 or less runs in 7 of those starts. It should be his spot to lose with numbers like that.

5. Colorado Rockies

LH – Jeff Francis (17-9, 4.22, 1.38)
RH – Aaron Cook (8-7, 4.12, 1.34)
RH – Ubaldo Jimenez (4-4, 4.28, 1.30)
RH – Kip Wells (7-17, 5.70, 1.62)
LH – Franklin Morales (3-2, 3.45, 1.22)

It’s hard to imagine that the defending National League champions rank last in their own division in pitching, but that’s the case here. We all know the ballpark they play in balloons their ERA’s. But, they showed last year that even with bad numbers, they can still pitch effectively enough for their awesome offense to take over and win games.

Francis anchors the rotation, and he was huge down the stretch and in the NL playoffs to get the Rockies to the World Series. His ERA remained in the low-4’s in the last 3 months of the season, and has shown the ability to rack up 7-8 K’s in any given game. Cook suffered a strained right oblique that sidelined up in early August all the way up the final game of the World Series, where he pitched 6 solid innings vs. the Red Sox, yet it still wasn’t enough. He’s good for about 6 innings a night.

Jimenez should slide up into the #3 spot. He was a late-season call up that showed signs of being a good pitcher. If he takes care of some control problems, he will be pretty good. I really have no idea why they signed Wells because he is plain awful. Those numbers are sad… really, really sad. Do I even have to analyze them? Putting him in Coors Field is like putting Michael Vick in charge of the Westminster Dog Show – you’re just asking for trouble.

Morales is currently the frontrunner to win the 5th spot, and his numbers are pretty decent. Granted, he only had 8 starts at the end of the year, but he gave up 0 runs in 3 straight. I can safely say that he’ll do better than Wells. My slow pitch softball numbers are better than that guy.

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