With Spring Training on the horizon, MLB.com columnist Anthony Castrovince is compiling his annual series of Top 10s. We began Monday with the lineups, continue now with the starting rotations, will progress Wednesday with bullpens and will have an overall power rankings on Thursday before discussing defenses on Friday.
If Major League offenses are pedestrian enough to be graded on a curve, as I wrote Monday, then starting staffs have to be evaluated on a sort of weighted GPA scale. The game's environment is such that the pitchers are the ones applying to Ivy League schools and taking Honors courses, while hitters are doing time in Mr. Vernon's Saturday detention.
Last year, the average starters' ERA was 3.82 -- the lowest it's been since 1988 (3.81). An astounding 20 of 30 teams had Fielding Independent Pitching (a stat that evaluates pitchers by what they can control -- strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs) marks below 4.00.
The good news is that the above information provides plenty of good candidates for my top 10 rotations. The bad news is that there's no way to make everybody happy here, because, inevitably, a lot of good starting staffs are going to be left out.
This must be what it feels like to be an Ivy League admissions officer.
Here are my top 10 rotations:
This is a club bound to take a significant competitive step back in 2015. We all know that. But don't blame that on the revamped rotation, which could or should maintain an organizational precedent for strong starting staffs (the Braves have finished in the top 10 in starters' ERAs in 21 of the last 24 years).
The Braves finished sixth on that list last season. Yes, they've subtracted Ervin Santana (who was rated below league average) and Aaron Harang (who experienced his expected regression as 2014 played out), but they kept the two biggest strengths of the staff -- Julio Teheran (2.89 ERA, 126 ERA+) and Alex Wood (2.78, 131) -- intact. They also added a major source of upside in Shelby Miller, who, remember, is just 24 and had a 122 ERA+ in '13, and they're counting on a bounce-back season from Mike Minor, who showed some flashes in the second half last year with a reformed repertoire.
9. White Sox
The depth here is admittedly questionable. It will be interesting to see when and what Carlos Rodon delivers on the big league stage this summer, and John Danks is trying to become the second coming of Mark Buehrle on the South Side by working on his changeup. We'll see.
In the meantime, the Sox have arguably the American League's best lefty in Chris Sale (2.17 ERA, 178 ERA+, 0.966 WHIP in 2014), a rising rotation stud entering his contract year in Jeff Samardzija (2.99 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 1.065 WHIP) and one of the game's most underrated starting assets in Jose Quintana (3.32 ERA, 2.81 FIP).
That triumvirate alone is enough to sneak the Sox onto this list, and Rodon has the arm and arsenal to elevate them all the more by year's end.
That the Cardinals at least did their due diligence on the Max Scherzer and James Shields markets is an organizational admission that some stabilization might be in order at some point in 2015, especially after dealing away a young asset in Miller to augment the offense with Jason Heyward. The Cards know as well as anybody how fragile the concept of starting depth can be, having entered last spring with an excess before attrition necessitated the arrivals of John Lackey and Justin Masterson midseason.
But Lackey remains (at a bargain rate) in a starting staff that still profiles as one of the National League's best. Adam Wainwright is an injury risk after the elbow discomfort he worked through last summer, yet he's obviously still considered an ace among aces, having finished either second or third in the Cy Young voting in four of the last five seasons. Lance Lynn went from underrated asset to undeniable strength in 2014, posting a 2.74 ERA and an adjusted ERA+ 34 points better than league average. We know what Michael Wacha can be when healthy (we just don't know if he'll be healthy, given his shoulder woes), and we've caught glimpses of what Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales can be at this level.
You'd feel better about the Cards with a guarantee that all of the above will stay healthy (and the number of risks is why I don't have them higher), but this is still a strong unit, all things considered.
This rotation is the reason I don't totally dismiss the Rays in the East, regardless of how much presence and leadership they've lost in the last seven months or so. On paper, it's the best rotation in the AL East. I don't know if that's enough to make Tampa Bay an 86-game winner, as PECOTA projects, but it could be a big difference-maker in a wide-open division.
Alex Cobb (2.87 ERA, 3.23 FIP) and Chris Archer (3.33, 3.39) both performed significantly better than league average last season. If they can each give the Rays 200-plus innings (Archer fell just short of that mark last year, while Cobb reached a new career high with 166 1/3), that's a fearsome twosome. And David Price trade acquisition Drew Smyly was magnificent (1.70 ERA, 0.755 WHIP) in seven starts after the swap before his innings were capped.
The Rays should also welcome Matt Moore (career ERA+ of 109) back from Tommy John by midseason. Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome are solid depth options, at the very least.
I'm a lifelong Clevelander. I know how this stuff works. Evaluators are raving about the strides made by this starting staff in 2014 (even though it took time to find its footing, the Tribe's rotation finished the year second only to the Nationals in FIP) and its long-term potential.
This can only mean it must be headed off the usual Cleveland sports cliff, right?
Well, until such time, I'm drinking the Kool-Aid. There's a guy on this staff who had a 1.30 ERA and .179 average against in his last 10 starts. And it wasn't reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber; it was Carlos Carrasco, who, for all we know, has finally refined his mind and stuff enough to be a 2015 Cy Young candidate. Speaking of guys with great stuff, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar have both shown flashes at the big league level. Meanwhile, an unheralded lefty named T.J. House quietly compiled 102 quality innings. And though nobody knows if new acquisition Gavin Floyd can stay healthy, we do know his stuff looked sharp upon his Tommy John return in Atlanta last season before he broke his funny bone.
This could be an overly aggressive evaluation of the Mets' starters. Or perhaps I'm selling them short. I'm not really sure. I just know I'm trying to tread the line between realistic hope and overabundant hype. But the fact of the matter is that the Mets had the Majors' 14th-best starters' ERA and 12th-best FIP last season, and now they're (presumably) getting a full season out of Matt Harvey (2.27 ERA, 2.01 FIP, 191 strikeouts in 178 1/3 innings in 2013) and reigning Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom (2.69 ERA, 2.67 FIP).
So that's pretty good.
You've also got to love the second-half strides made by Zack Wheeler, the depth of options provided by Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and Rafael Montero and the possibility that tantalizing prospect Noah Syndergaard arrives by season's end to make an impact. The Mets might not have a shortstop, but they've got a pretty nice rotation outlook.
They would have deserved a spot on this list before Monday's signing of Shields, and now that added poise, presence and durability take the San Diego starting staff to another level.
We all figure that durability will, at some point, come at a cost to Shields. But until or unless his body tells us otherwise, let's go ahead and slot him in for the usual 200 innings of above-average impact. He won't be in front of nearly as good of a defense as he enjoyed with Kansas City and Tampa Bay, but he'll be in another big ballpark.
You add that to a group in which Andrew Cashner (2.55 ERA, 3.09 FIP) and Tyson Ross (2.81, 3.24) are in their prime (each guy is entering his age-28 season) and Ian Kennedy (3.63, 3.21) is a steady stabilizing vet, and you've got a fantastic front four.
The fifth spot also has serious potential. Nobody's truly banking on Josh Johnson staying healthy, and the same goes for Brandon Morrow. But there's no denying the stuff is worth a flyer on both fronts. And Odrisamer Despaigne had a 3.36 ERA and just six homers allowed in 96 1/3 innings in 16 starts last season.
It remains to be seen if the M's lineup additions (Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano) are enough to make this a team worthy of October, but at least we know those acquisitions didn't come at the expense of what should once again be a dynamic starting staff in Seattle.
In fact, I'd venture to guess the Mariners' rotation will be better than it was in 2014, when it had the eighth-best starters' ERA (3.48) in baseball. Beyond the obvious strengths that come with Felix Hernandez (who, amazingly, might have been better than ever last year) and Hisashi Iwakuma (who might have suffered a dip in ERA but actually had a better FIP in '14 than '13), Seattle has two potential rising stars in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Paxton made 13 starts in '14 and had a 3.04 ERA with just three homers allowed in 74 innings. Walker is still just a prospect, and he'll have to fight for a rotation spot, but he's a physical specimen with plus stuff who posted a 2.61 ERA in 38 innings last season.
The M's also added J.A. Happ, who, like all of these guys, should benefit from the Safeco effect.
There's a very good chance the Dodgers' rotation looks a bit different by year's end than it does now. After all, four of its five members -- Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brett Anderson -- spent time on the disabled list last season, and the only one who didn't (Brandon McCarthy) has an extensive injury history of his own. Anderson, in particular, hasn't delivered so much as 100 innings in a single season since 2010.
So we'll see how it all holds together. But on paper, the additions of Anderson and McCarthy have given the Dodgers a better depth outlook beyond their big three of Kershaw, who will be vying for his fourth Cy Young in five seasons, Greinke and Ryu.
And of course, they have the resources to add on in-season should anything go awry with this group. There might be an argument that the Padres have more bankable depth than the Dodgers do right now. But the rotation with Kershaw at the forefront gets the obvious edge over all but one NL staff.
In doing these lists all week, this will be the easiest call and, I think, the one least likely to draw your comment-section ire. So that's something.
By most objective measures, the Nats had the best rotation in baseball last season, and they added Scherzer without any subtractions. They now possess five pitchers -- Scherzer, Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark -- who ranked in the top 30 on FanGraphs' adjusted ERA scale. And Roark doesn't even have a rotation spot. The left-handed Gio Gonzalez, who regressed last season and yet still had an adjusted ERA+ better than league average, rounds out this stellar starting setup.
We'll see if the Nats deal from this position of depth at any point between now and July 31, but for now there's no denying they go into the year at No. 1 on this list.
Honorable mention: The Giants (Madison Bumgarner), Marlins (Jose Fernandez, once healthy), Cubs (Jon Lester) and Phillies (Cole Hamels, for now) have some of the game's more noteworthy No. 1s, of course, and I feel bad leaving off the Royals, who still have the pieces to put together a strong rotation without Shields. But in terms of a full set, the rest of my top 15 is as follows: 11. Tigers (they were 21st in starters' ERA before losing Scherzer, but there's still a lot to like about a front three featuring David Price, Anibal Sanchez and a motivated Justin Verlander), 12. Angels (Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker give them a good argument for a top-10 spot), 13. Pirates (pitching coach Ray Searage always seems to work magic with that staff, and Gerrit Cole could break out in a big way this year), 14. Orioles (no ace, no problem, as they could piece it together with a big boost from Kevin Gausman), 15. Reds (possibly a curious pick after the losses of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, but Johnny Cueto-Homer Bailey is a nice 1-2 punch, Mike Leake is solid, Tony Cingrani has big stuff and keep your eye on Cuban import Raisel Iglesias).
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.