This is the week teams officially filter into their Spring Training camps in Florida and Arizona, which means the 2016 season is just around the corner. It also means it's time for some rankings.
Most years, I lead off with the top 10 starting rotations, followed by a separate list of the top 10 bullpens, lineups and defenses. But the way the game is played and evaluated today demands a different sort of analysis.
Now more than ever, I'd argue, the starting and bullpen units are blended together so seamlessly that it seems somewhat silly to separate them. Did you know that we had more than 2,000 instances last season in which a starter didn't even go six innings? That was the most in history, accounting for more than 40 percent of all team games, and I expect that percentage to rise in 2016. As evidenced by the more than 15,000 pitching changes made (also the most ever, as you might have guessed), managers are playing the matchup game earlier and more often.
And defense matters more than it ever did, as evidenced by that mammoth contract the Cubs gave to Jason Heyward or the ever-increasing embrace of total tabulations such as Wins Above Replacement, which seek to summarize a player's contributions on both sides of the ball. So why not look at lineups the same way and evaluate them in total -- which lineups are the best at producing and preventing runs?
Finally, there's another area of team analysis that I think is too often ignored -- the one pertaining to depth and flexibility. It's the key reason the Mets, Blue Jays and Rangers, in particular, were able to adjust in the summer swap market and nail down divisions few picked them to win.
So here's the plan …
Today: Top 10 pitching staffs
Tuesday: Top 10 lineups
Wednesday: Top 10 most flexible teams
And then we'll take all of the above into account and come up with an overall Top 10 -- an early power rankings -- on Thursday.
Let's get started with the pitching staffs.
The obvious difficulty with making this a ranking of total pitching staffs vs. just rotations or just bullpens is properly weighing each element. The Royals and Yankees probably have the two best bullpens in the game going into 2016, but they are also both loaded with "ifs" in their rotations.
What separates the Yankees here is that they actually ranked fourth in all of baseball in expected Fielding Independent Pitching in 2015 -- meaning that, based on the things a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, ground-ball rates and a normalized home run rate), they woulda/shoulda/coulda been one of the strongest staffs in the game. And the addition of Aroldis Chapman to the Andrew Miller-Dellin Betances arrangement stabilizes the Yanks' lockdown late-inning setup (note that I said "stabilizes" and not "creates," because Justin Wilson, who was traded to the Tigers, was pretty darned good).
The key question, of course, is health, as the durability issues for Masahiro Tanaka (who will be a bit behind in camp following surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow), Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia are well-established. Brian Cashman did not land the young, controllable (and healthy) arm he wanted for his rotation, so he "settled" for the best (on-paper) setup-closing situation in the bigs. But a full season from Luis Severino offsets some of that uncertainty.
FanGraphs projects the Yankees pitching staff to have the fifth-highest WAR in the Majors in '16.
9. Red Sox
A pitching staff that starts with David Price and ends with Craig Kimbrel is in good position to crack a list such as this. Boston went from notoriously ace-less to possessing an ace among aces in Price, who, among his many other accomplishments, has a 1.95 ERA in 11 career appearances at Fenway Park. And though 2015 was a down year for Kimbrel, he was still overpowering enough to strike out 87 batters in 59 1/3 innings.
Whether everything in between those two studs is worthy of this spot on this list is admittedly up for debate. Clay Buchholz is maddeningly inconsistent from both a health and performance standpoint, Rick Porcello did not come as advertised in his debut season in Boston, and though Joe Kelly was lights-out in the season's last two months, he was lit up for much of the first half, so the jury's still out on him. But the soon-to-be-23-year-old Eduardo Rodriguez has legitimate stud potential, and he could benefit all the more from pitching alongside Price, a fellow lefty with similar stuff. And though I didn't love the decision to trade the underrated Wade Miley, the Red Sox do have discernible depth in Henry Owens, Roenis Elias, Brian Johnson and others.
The benefit of trading Miley was the addition of setup man Carson Smith -- the rare sinkerballer/strikeout guy. His pairing with Kimbrel gives the Red Sox one of the better setup-closing combinations in baseball and allows Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa to slide into lower-profile roles. In Robbie Ross, Elias and Tommy Layne, the Red Sox should be well-situated from the left-hand side.
The lone criticism of Dave Dombrowski's Tigers tenure was that he struggled to piece together an effective 'pen. If nothing else, this one looks good on paper. And with a true ace and a relief ace in tow, the Red Sox have a strong staff.
The loss of Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister undoubtedly hurts the depth here, but the Nats are still fairly well-positioned. Their staff is led by Max Scherzer, whose two no-hitters last season aided a 2.79 ERA in 228 2/3 innings, and Stephen Strasburg, who pitched through some non-arm-related injury issues last year but has the NL's best strikeout rate (10.3 per nine) and eighth-best FIP (2.96) since his 2012 return from Tommy John. He's pitching in a contract year, so look out.
Beyond that, the rotation remains deep. Gio Gonzalez is a quality No. 3 and Tanner Roark gets his shot after a breakout '14 earned him only a swingman role (because of the Scherzer signing). Joe Ross, who performed well (111 ERA+) after getting the call from Double-A, is also in the mix, though the Nats will have to watch his innings closely. A.J. Cole, Taylor Jordan and Taylor Hill are depth options in the system, but the most attractive option of all is hard-throwing right-hander Lucas Giolito, MLBPipeline.com's No. 3 prospect in baseball.
The bullpen? Hmm. It was a mess last year, and that was only made worse by the chemistry issues that arrived with Jonathan Papelbon. As a result, Mike Rizzo almost totally overhauled the unit. Out are Drew Storen, Casey Janssen, David Carpenter and Matt Thornton. In are Trevor Gott, Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit. Hard to know what to expect from that group, Papelbon included, but the new complexion and the solid starting staff merit the Nats being included in this top 10.
Thanks in large part to AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, Houston had the eighth-highest rotation fWAR in baseball last year. And thanks to some wily moves by Jeff Luhnow and Co., the Astros had the second-highest relief fWAR.
Of course, the 'pen famously withered down the stretch, and it lacked an overpowering presence. So Luhnow cashed in some notable trade chips, including 23-year-old right-hander Vincent Velasquez and former No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel, to land the flame-throwing Ken Giles, the classic good closer on a bad team who is now, well, a good closer on a good team. This allows Luke Gregerson to return to the setup role he's so well-suited for, and Houston also brings back Pat Neshek, Will Harris, Josh Fields and the left-handed Tony Sipp -- all important pieces of that terrific '15 'pen.
Losing Velasquez and Appel undoubtedly hurts the rotation depth, as did the free-agent departure of Scott Kazmir. But the Astros' on-the-cheap addition of Doug Fister was a good, proactive move that could allow them to be careful with 22-year-old Lance McCullers' innings in the early going. As it stands, Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman enter camp competing for the last rotation spot behind Fister and Collin McHugh, and Dan Straily, Brad Peacock and Asher Wojciechowski provide quality depth in what is a stout staff.
They've lost some big pieces -- A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria and Antonio Bastardo. But the time-tested ability of this coaching staff to identify and address mechanical flaws and eke the most out of external acquisitions leads to a lot of hope for Jon Niese (a ground-ball guy who will benefit from the Pirates' defensive positioning skills) and perhaps Ryan Vogelsong in the rotation and Neftali Feliz in the bullpen.
Furthermore, Gerrit Cole's trajectory is still pointed north after his first 200-inning season, in which he logged a 2.60 ERA and 148 ERA+, and Francisco Liriano has been consistently excellent in his three years in the 'Burgh. Despite many personnel changes along the way, the Buccos have ranked in the top 10 in relief ERA each of the last four seasons and in the top three in two of those years (they were No. 1 in 2015). With Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes all returning, there's reason to suspect that trend will continue. And of course, the Pirates' home park helps them maximize their overall pitching potential.
Another reason for optimism in Pittsburgh is the farm system, which could graduate Tyler Glasnow and/or Jameson Taillon to the big leagues this year. Glasnow is the Pirates' No. 1 prospect, and Taillon has recovered from Tommy John.
No telling how Jake Arrieta's arm responds to the workload he took on in 2015, but he was otherworldly in the season's second half and through the NL Wild Card Game. Jon Lester settled in nicely after some initial instability with his new team, and though he'll likely never totally solve his issue throwing to bases, it was less of a factor down the stretch. John Lackey will have trouble repeating his incredible season with the Cardinals (his 143 ERA+ was his best since 2007), but he's a bulldog with consistency in his stuff. And don't overlook the addition of Adam Warren, who figures to be an important swingman for the Cubbies.
Though Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel are solid back-end options, the Cubs have shown interest in adding a young stud to their starting setup via the trade route, and maybe something will transpire along those lines in-season. For now, they're situated pretty well both in the rotation and the bullpen, where Warren, Trevor Cahill (who also wants an opportunity to start), Travis Wood, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez and Rex Brothers give Joe Maddon a wealth of possibilities in the lead-up to Hector Rondon, who had a 1.67 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 30 saves last season.
While this is not an evaluation of the biggest bargains in baseball, it's nonetheless worth noting that the Indians are going to pay 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar less than $10 million total this year to front a starting staff that led the Majors in strikeouts and the AL in batting average against last season. That's a pretty good start. From there, some questions arise, as we don't yet know if the deeply analytical Trevor Bauer will ever put it all together at the big league level or if the 2015 showings of Cody Anderson (3.05 ERA in 15 starts) and Josh Tomlin (3.02 ERA in 10 starts after shoulder surgery) are repeatable over a larger sample. But their front three is so overpoweringly good that the Indians are near the top of a lot of rotation rankings right now.
What gets overlooked is how stable this club has been in the bullpen, where the Tribe's relief ERA was the fourth-best in baseball last season. Cody Allen is an underrated closer, having accumulated the highest fWAR and Fielding Independent Pitching mark of any qualified reliever last year. Bryan Shaw, with 215 1/3 innings over the last three seasons, has been a reliable workhorse, failed starter Zach McAllister (11 K's per nine last year) is developing into a potential relief stud, newly signed Tommy Hunter should help once healthy, and the Indians have an interesting pool of non-roster invitees (Craig Stammen, Tom Gorzelanny, Ross Detwiler, Joba Chamberlain and others) to sort through this spring.
With a drastically improved defense and Terry Francona showing his usual sense of urgency with his switches, the Indians should possess one of the better pitching staffs in the AL this year.
I know, I know. You lost Zack Greinke. And maybe you had your heart set on Aroldis Chapman, too. Stop whining, Dodgers Fan. Your club's going to be OK.
It's going to be OK not just because the Dodgers still have the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw but because they've given themselves a wealth of options and opportunity to account for the unexpected. They are certainly better-situated than they were a year ago, when their fate was too flimsy beyond their terrific top two.
After a litany of injuries, Scott Kazmir and Brett Anderson have both rescued their careers from the brink, and, because Kazmir has an opt-out after the first year of his three-year contract and Anderson accepted the Dodgers' qualifying offer, they'll both be motivated to capitalize on next winter's weak free-agent market. Evaluators believe Kenta Maeda can be/should be a suitable back-end option, and his unusual eight-year contract currently rates as team-friendly. Hyun-Jin Ryu is progressing from labrum surgery and could be an Opening Day option, or the Dodgers can continue to see what they have in Alex Wood. His unusual mechanics and diminished velocity scare some people, but Wood has delivered a respectable 112 ERA+ in his big league career. At worst, he's a bullpen option. Brandon McCarthy looms as a midseason option once he's recovered from Tommy John. Brandon Beachy is in their possession, in a pinch. Perhaps more importantly, highly regarded prospects Julio Urias, Jose De Leon and the newly acquired Frankie Montas are all 2016 possibilities.
Finally, as far as the 'pen is concerned, though the Dodgers didn't marry Kenley Jansen and Chapman in the late innings, as initially planned, they did add Joe Blanton, who proved effective in a relief role with the Pirates last year. Combine Jansen and Blanton with Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia, Chris Hatcher and J.P. Howell, and you have a unit that combined for a 28.6 percent strikeout rate and 5.5 percent walk rate in 2015.
For whatever it's worth, FanGraphs gives the Dodgers its highest projected WAR rating for a pitching staff in '16. Depth is the prime reason why.
Well, of course they have the most highly regarded starting staff in Major League Baseball -- the only real question being what effects, if any, the wear and tear of the October run will have on Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. But with Bartolo Colon back for what I'm sure will be another mesmerizing campaign and Zack Wheeler waiting in the wings in the final months of his Tommy John recovery, there's a lot to like about the Mets, even if one of their principal figures regresses.
As is often the case, the bigger uncertainty resides in the bullpen. Until an unfortunate quick pitch to Alex Gordon, Jeurys Familia established himself as an ace closer last year, and the Mets have seemingly addressed their deficiencies in the left-handed setup department with the signing of Antonio Bastardo, the re-signing of Jerry Blevins after a lost 2015 (a line drive fractured his arm in April and essentially ended his season) and the pending return of Josh Edgin from Tommy John. From the right-hand side, Addison Reed was a strong in-season acquisition, and it remains to be seen what the Mets have in Hansel Robles and Erik Goeddel in their sophomore season. With little depth on the 40-man beyond those guys, you can understand why some want/wanted to see the Mets sign another veteran right-handed reliever.
On the whole, the dynamic starting staff earns the Mets a prominent spot on this list, though perhaps not the top overall spot their fans might expect.
You don't win 100 games in this era by accident. The Cards had the lowest overall ERA (2.94) in the big leagues by nearly one-third of a point. In fact, it was the lowest team ERA since the 1988 Mets' 2.91 mark.
Now, obviously, that's going to be tough to repeat. And it's all the more difficult given the departure of John Lackey and the full-season absence of Lance Lynn.
But returning staff ace Adam Wainwright (who has a 145 ERA+ since the start of '13) to the rotation and adding the young and durable Mike Leake in free agency patched those holes quite well, I'd say -- even if the Cards did come up short in their bid to land Price. And don't forget: Michael Wacha (117 ERA+) and Carlos Martinez (132) delivered strong-to-stellar 2015 campaigns at the age of 23. They can take another step forward in '16.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, while it has seen the departures of Steve Cishek, Matt Belisle, Randy Choate and Carlos Villanueva, its main guys -- closer Trevor Rosenthal and setup men Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness -- remain. Additionally, the Cardinals re-signed Jonathan Broxton, should have Jordan Walden healthy (he was the other guy acquired in the Jason Heyward trade, but he missed the vast majority of 2015 with a biceps injury) and took a flyer on Korean right-hander Seung Hwan Oh, who, if nothing else, arrives with an awesome nickname ("The Final Boss").
Pitching is going to have to remain the strength of the Cards, because they haven't done anything substantial to improve their power production. I don't expect another sub-3.00 ERA, and I would venture to guess somebody supplants them atop that leaderboard. But it would only be a guess for now. St. Louis deserves this top spot until proven otherwise.
Honorable mentions: The Blue Jays have a strong bullpen, all the more now with Drew Storen in the fold, and, even without Price, their rotation could be better than advertised with a full season of Marcus Stroman. … Back-end rotation and bullpen questions undermine some of the optimism surrounding the additions of Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller to the D-backs. … The Rays might have the best starting staff in the AL East, but their bullpen was a weakness last year -- and now it is without Jake McGee. … Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija are obviously huge wild cards behind Madison Bumgarner on the Giants' staff. … If Carlos Rodon develops as hoped and Mat Latos bounces back, the White Sox staff could be among the best in the game. … A Taijuan Walker and James Paxton breakout would elevate the Mariners. … The Rangers could be deserving, depending on how many innings and how much impact they get out of Yu Darvish. I love the addition to Tom Wilhelmsen to what became a terrific bullpen late last year.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and an MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.