With Masahiro Tanaka safely squared away in New York and the other remaining big-name pitchers expected to quickly follow suit, we can finally start looking at teams as something close to finished products -- which means, of course, that it's time to start ranking them and their various constituent parts from best to worst based on arbitrary criteria informed by insidious bias. Truly, it is the most wonderful time of the year.
A note before we begin: these rankings and their associated explanations take into account the Tanaka signings, but do not speculate on where Matt Garza, Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez will end up. (Garza reportedly has agreed to terms with Milwaukee, but as of Thursday evening the team had not confirmed the signing.) As far as I'm concerned, there's only one team in the league who would manage to leapfrog into the top five by signing one of those gentlemen, and I'll mention them at the end of the piece.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers weren't able to sign Tanaka, but then, the Dodgers didn't really need to sign Tanaka. Even without him, they've already got arguably the best rotation in baseball, especially at the top end. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are the best one-two punch in baseball, with Kershaw putting up the kind of pitching seasons that Los Angeles hasn't seen since Sandy Koufax burned out and Greinke recapturing the form he had as the ace of the Royals. Behind them is Hyun-jin Ryu, who looks like one of the better signings of last offseason in retrospect -- he only turns 27 in April and put up a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings pitched in his first season playing in North America.
In the number four spot, they went out and dropped $10 million on Dan Haren, with an option for a second year if he pitches 180 innings. Haren is no longer the ace he once was in Oakland and Arizona, but then again, he doesn't need to be. He's only 33 years old and coming off a great second half; even if the same guy from the 2012 Angels and 2013 Nationals shows up for the Dodgers next year, that's still about 180 innings of around 85 to 90 ERA+ baseball, which is acceptable from a fourth or fifth starter. (Considering the contract Jason Vargas signed with the Royals a month or two back, it's potentially a steal for that production at $10 million a year.)
Behind Haren, the Dodgers will have Chad Billingsley by midseason when he's finally done recovering from Tommy John surgery, Josh Beckett and Stephen Fife ready pretty much immediately, and prospects Zach Lee and Ross Stripling looking for their first shots. A word of caution, however: last season, the prevailing narrative going into the season was all about how the Dodgers had so many starters they needed to trade a couple of them away, and then Billingsley got hurt, Greinke got his collarbone broken by Carlos Quentin, Ted Lilly and Chris Capuano couldn't stay healthy, and suddenly Matt Magill was starting games. Magill only had to pitch 27.2 innings before the proper stopgaps were found, but he put up a 6.51 ERA in the process. No amount of pitching depth is truly "safe" in baseball, but once again the Dodgers look like they have close to the best.
This was a pretty good rotation even before the Nationals traded a utilityman and a Triple-A reliever for Doug Fister (818.2 IP, 3.53 ERA, 116 ERA+ in his career), who they'll have under team control until 2016. Now, it's better than just about everyone else's except for what the Dodgers have put together. That's mainly because Kershaw is just a flat-out better pitcher than Washington ace Stephen Strasburg is right now, but also because Strasburg's health is a bit more of a constant question than it should be even in the injury-prone realm of starting pitchers. Twice last year, there were reports that he was throwing with discomfort in his right elbow, which he's already had Tommy John surgery on, and in one instance the Nationals skipped a start because of it. That doesn't mean the elbow is going to be re-injured; it does probably mean there's a higher risk for re-injury. And as good as Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez have been the past couple years, that rotation loses more than a bit of its luster if Strasburg is on the DL.
The one concrete thing the Nationals do have over the Dodgers is that their prospective rotation is already more or less locked down -- Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Fister and Ross Detwiler will feature in it, likely in that order -- and Fister is more likely to be a high-quality fourth starter than say, Haren or Billingsley is, though Haren and Billingsley both likely have more absolute upside if they return to form. For his part, Detwiler had a great first month last year, but then fell off, got hurt, and didn't see any action past the first week of July. His track record so far says he'll be a league-average pitcher in the fifth spot, which is more than most teams in baseball can say about their own fifth starters, but coming off an injury does make him a bit more of a risk.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are a close third in this discussion, and much like the Dodgers and Nationals have a comparative advantage over other squads not just in their elite ability, but in their stability and lack of turnover from last season. We already know the Boston rotation is going to feature Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy; we just don't know what specific order they're going to be in yet.
Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront are the two guys left fighting for the last spot in the rotation (due to both his contract status and the fact he's done it before, it's likely Doubront will be the one working out of the pen to start the year if everyone's healthy when camp breaks), and there's an assortment of young arms like Brandon Workman, Rubby de la Rosa, Allen Webster, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, and Anthony Ranuado hanging around that are either ready to go or likely will be at some point in 2014. I'm less enthusiastic about those guys pretty much across the board than most people who follow the team are going to be -- Red Sox prospect hype is even more pervasive than the usual prospect hype, both in the mainstream sports media and in the scouting community -- but the Sox currently have so many high-upside arms that it would be remarkable if they didn't get at least one middle-of-the-rotation starter out of the bunch.
Moreso than the Nationals and the Dodgers, the biggest concern with Boston is their consistency. Lester and Buchholz had great years last year, following pedestrian results the season before. The prevailing narrative is that the return of John Farrell (their previous pitching coach) as manager was what caused a drastic improvement in their performance; I'm sure it was a factor, but rarely is a pitching coach or manager's effect on his team so linear and trackable. In addition, Buchholz spent much of last season fighting injuries in his throwing shoulder, though he did come back pretty much the same pitcher for the playoffs.
Lackey had a great season last year as well, after he missed all of 2012 and was either unremarkable or actively terrible his previous two seasons with Boston. And Peavy hasn't been a great pitcher since his days with the Padres; since the start of the 2009 season he's thrown 684 innings of 4.00 ERA (106 ERA+) baseball. Red Sox fans would be overjoyed if 2012 Peavy showed up again (219 IP, 3.37 ERA, 126 ERA+), but there's no particular reason to believe that he will.
A regression here and an injury there, and suddenly Dempster's the third starter, Doubront's getting stretched out and the Sox are hoping that the hype machine is right about Barnes or Ranaudo. Then again, the observation "if their good pitchers start pitching poorly, their rotation will not be as good" applies to every team in baseball -- and unlike just about everybody else, including Los Angeles and Washington, the Red Sox actually have the prospect talent in the high minors to theoretically fill any holes that pop up.
I don't think I'd take Cincinnati's top pairing -- pick any two out of Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos -- over the top pairings of anyone else on this list or even over the top pairings of four to five other teams that won't be featured on it. I do think that they've been a top-five rotation in the game for the past two years, and that there's no particular reason to think that's suddenly going to change in 2014, when the only piece of that rotation departing is Bronson Arroyo.
Arroyo was actually the least successful of the Reds' six primary starters last year (Latos, Cueto, Bailey, Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake), posting a 3.79 ERA over 202 IP (101 ERA+) -- not including Arroyo, the other five pitched to a 3.24 ERA over 777.1 collective innings. Arroyo was also the oldest member of that rotation; he wasn't just the only one of them over 30 -- he was the only one of them over 28. The Reds next year return two guys who have put up top-of-the-rotation performances in the past and still have room to grow (Cueto and Latos), a guy who looks like a very comfortable middle of the rotation starter (Bailey), and two college starters who have performed very well for Cincinnati in their short time with the team (Leake and Cingrani). The biggest question mark in the group for next year is likely Cueto -- not whether he'll be able to perform, but whether he'll stay healthy. In years past, this has been the part where the writer's had to pay lip service to the idea of Aroldis Chapman returning as a starter; by now, this rotation is so good and so proven that tinkering with Chapman's role is no longer even in the conversation.
Nothing lasts forever, of course: Cueto, Latos, and Bailey will be getting very expensive in arbitration and likely leaving in free agency over the next few years, and it's unlikely the Reds have the financial resources to retain more than one of them. In fact, the Reds might not have the money to retain any of them, given what's happened to the market for starting pitching over the past few years. But for 2014, at least, there shouldn't be any question about how good the Reds rotation can be.
The Mariners have had a fairly rough offseason in the press, all things considered. Cavalierly throwing over $200 million at a second baseman over the age of 30 and then doing pretty much nothing else of note to revamp a roster that lost 91 games last year was correctly recognized by most people for what it was -- desperation tinged by necessity. That said, the Mariners already have the pieces in place to field one of the best rotations in the game, and adding Robinson Cano (who is at least for the moment an elite defensive middle infielder) should not only help the team score runs, but prevent a few as well. The question is: will that be enough to get the team into a position to make some noise in the 2014 American League West? (The answer is: no.)
Nevertheless, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are a pretty good pair of guys to stick at the top of a team's rotation. I'd take Kershaw-Greinke, Strasburg-Zimmermann, and maybe Verlander-Scherzer from Detroit and Hamels-Lee from Philadelphia over them for the 2014 season, but that's about it. Iwakuma is the particular concern here, because he's actually been one of the best pitchers in the league since he came to MLB in 2012, but he's still only thrown 345 total professional innings in North America. I'd like to see him keep his stellar career 2.84 ERA and 3.36 K/BB ratio for one more season before I rank him where those rate stats say he should be ranked.
Hernandez, meanwhile, has been quietly slipping from the kind of pitcher that got him the nickname "King Felix". Over the last three seasons he's thrown 670 innings of 3.20 ERA baseball, which on the surface is precisely the same as the six seasons before that, when he threw 1154.2 innings of... 3.20 ERA baseball. However, since league offense has declined over the course of Hernandez's career, the 3.20 ERA in his first six years is good for a 132 ERA+, but over the last three years, only a 117 ERA+. Both performances are still something teams would count themselves lucky to have 200 innings of in their rotation each season. Only the former leads to the sort of job security Hernandez got from the Mariners when they signed him to a seven-year, $175 million extension last February.
So if both Iwakuma and Hernandez are question marks in their own way, how are the Mariners making this list? Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, mostly. Walker is a better prospect than any of the various Red Sox arms listed above (Paxton isn't), and the pair of them were impressive in the Pacific Coast League last year and continued to impress in a quick stint in the majors at the end of the season. Is it likely that in practice, the Mariners actually have the fifth-best rotation in baseball next year? Not especially; given Oakland and Texas's current rosters, they might not even have the best starting pitching in their own division. I do think the upside of a Hernandez/Iwakuma/Walker/Paxton rotation with the fifth starter being either Brandon Maurer (age 23) or Erasmo Ramirez (age 24) is enough to justify putting them on the list.
Teams That Almost Made the Cut, and Why They Didn't
Detroit Tigers -- If they sign Santana or Jimenez, then they go back into the top five. But if they sign Santana or Jimenez, why in the world did they trade Fister? So I'm not especially worried about that happening. I'm also not entirely sold on Anibal Sanchez being an elite starter instead of a back of the rotation guy with a history of shoulder problems, and I'm not sold on Porcello being anything more than a swingman or spot starter moving forward. Scherzer and Verlander remain a powerful combination at the top of the rotation.
St. Louis Cardinals -- Wainwright's elite, and Michael Wacha was electric in October, so this is likely to generate some controversy. But from this view, they have one elite veteran starter and several young players who have thrown fewer than 250 innings in MLB. (Along with Jaime Garcia, seemingly always working on an arm injury.) Comparitively, Seattle has two elite veteran starters and a few young pitchers ready to make the mark, so that's why the Cardinals come ever so close, but just barely miss out. (This assumes Lance Lynn returns to the bullpen or gets traded; if he starts for St. Louis next year, well, there's another reason.)
Tampa Bay Rays -- Tampa's sort of the oppposite of the Reds in that they throw a bunch of guys out there who always seem to do well, but they'll usually have nine or ten different starters in any given season and it's not particularly common for any of them to break 200 innings pitched. The only Rays pitchers to do so since 2008 are James Shields, Matt Garza, and David Price -- two of whom are no longer Rays and one of whom will be gone soon. For now, Price remains, and this could be an elite staff if he returns to previous form and two of Alex Cobb/Chris Archer/Matt Moore repeat or improve upon their 2013 performances.
New York Yankees -- Tanaka is still a mystery even if he's now one of the highest-paid players in MLB, Sabathia needs to bounce back, and Kuroda's getting up there in years.
Pittsburgh Pirates -- Not confident that Pittsburgh's "everyone on the staff has a career year at the same time" strategy is going to work two years in a row, especially if A.J. Burnett does follow through on plans to retire.
Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants -- It's possible to have one or two really, really good starters and not be one of the top five rotations in the league.
Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Oakland Athletics -- It's also possible to be really solid from top to bottom and not be one of the top five rotations in the league.
Toronto Blue Jays -- Yeah, I'm not making that mistake again.