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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

2005 Season Preview - The Best Pitching Staffs

I know I said I'd post this over the weekend, but I had a crazy Vegas trip that will be covered in a future post. Anyway, the season's underway by now, but I can still pick my top pitchers. Later this week, I'll also throw out some general predictions for the season, so stay tuned. For now, here's the best staffs in baseball.

1. New York Yankees
Money talks, and nobody spends more than George Steinbrenner. Not surprisingly, the Yanks are the only team to end up on my lists of the top pitching staffs, outfields, and infielders. Obviously the focal point of the Yankees' staff is the Big Unit, Randy Johnson. He's 41 and doesn't show any signs of slowing down. In fact, he's started at least 34 games in every season but one since he turned 34. He actually tied for the major league lead in games started last year. At age 40. Only one of the five pitchers he tied with was over 30. Oh yeah, he led the majors in strikeouts and WHIP, too. While I could go on and on about the Unit, this is about staffs as a whole. As usual, the Yankees will finish games off with Mariano Rivera, who was the only one in the majors to top 50 saves last season. Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina, and Jaret Wright back up Johnson in the rotation. Last year, Pavano won 18 games for the Marlins and finally lived up to the hype surrounding him when the Red Sox traded him for Pedro Martinez many moons ago. Mussina slipped a little last season, as his ERA ballooned to 4.59 and he worked the fewest innings since his rookie season. He's still one of the top control pitchers in the game, though. Wright won 15 games last season and found the stuff that made him a World Series Game 7 starter as a rookie in 1997.

2. Chicago Cubs
The important words about the Cubs' staff are "when healthy," as in, "When healthy, this staff is absolutely nasty on hitters." Case in point - Mark Prior, who starts the season on the DL. In 2003 he showed what he could do when healthy - 18 wins and 245 strikeouts. Prior expects to return soon. He also expected to return soon when he started last season on the DL, though. If you thought I was going to say Kerry Wood or Greg Maddux was the Cubs' second-best starter, you thought wrong. Carlos Zambrano has enormous talent to go with an enormous temper, and unless he does something crazy to earn himself several suspensions or an ass-kicking that sends him to the DL, he might improve on his 2.74 ERA from last season. Don't forget that he led the majors with 20 hit batsmen last year, also. Wood is another injury-prone fireballer who, if healthy, will rack up wins, strikeouts, and hit batsmen as well. Maddux turns 39 next week, but despite his age he's still pitching well. He won 16 games last season and maintained his legendary control, walking just 1.4 batters per nine innings. There are few athletes, if any, whom I respect more than Greg Maddux. Beyond injuries, the big question mark for the Cubs is their bullpen. LaTroy Hawkins, whom I have very little respect for, was handed the closer's job again after inheriting it from the injured Joe Borowski last season. He picked up 25 saves while blowing nine opportunities. Nothing special. He has had an ERA under 3.00 in each of the last three seasons, though, so he's capable of doing a good job. So, to sum up - when healthy, and if the patchwork bullpen holds up, the Cubs have a dope staff.

3. Boston Red Sox
To compete with the Yankees, you've gotta spend like the Yankees. The defending World Champs have a stacked rotation led by Curt Schilling, who is another star pitcher beginning the season on the DL. His famous bloody ankle is still bothering him, but he's scheduled to return soon. He went 21-6 last season and also earned himself free drinks for life in Boston. Keith Foulke, the Sox' other major acquisition before last season, saved 32 games and earned himself free drinks for life in Boston as well. Together, they earned Theo Epstein free drinks for life in Boston. New acquisition Matt Clement will similarly try to earn himself a spot in Red Sox lore this year, as he tries to improve on last year's 9-13 record. He averaged over a strikeout an inning last season, and I expect him to surpass his career high of 14 wins this year. I used to know Bronson Arroyo for being the weirdo who wore uniform number 69 when he was a Pittsburgh Pirate; now I know him for being the weirdo with blond cornrows whom Tim McCarver calls "Brandon." But Arroyo came into his own last season, posting a 1.22 WHIP. Another pitcher who's good at keeping runners off base is David Wells, who got somewhat rocked on Opening Day, but should rebound from that after his hangover wears off. Last season he led the NL by walking just .92 hitters per nine innings.

4. Florida Marlins
Josh Beckett is still best known for his MVP performance in the 2003 World Series, and really, that's all he's accomplished in his career. However, his games started have increased in each of his big league seasons, and if he avoids injury this season, he's destined for big things. His ERA this spring was 0.98. Guillermo Mota will be closing games for the first time in his career, and as a Phillies fan, I hope he fails miserably, although I doubt this will be the case. Mota was one of the best setup men in the league in L.A. and will probably infuriate the Phillies (and the rest of the league) in the ninth inning this season. Like Beckett, A.J. Burnett is a pitcher whose promise has been clouded by injury, although Burnett did pull it together in 2002 when he tossed five shutouts. If he's healthy, Burnett is likely to top his '02 stat line and have a career year. 39-year-old Al Leiter is the geezer of the staff, but he's returning to the site of his '97 World Series win, and he still has good stuff, posting a 3.21 ERA last year. The always-likable Dontrelle Willis (except when he pitches against the Phils) slumped a little bit last season after his 2003 Rookie of the Year campaign. The question surrounding him is whether it was the typical sophomore slump or whether NL hitters figured out his wack motion. I think it's the former. If so, he'll make the Marlins' rotation one of the best in baseball.

5. Minnesota Twins
I'm very proud of the fact that I picked Johan Santana to win last year's AL Cy Young Award before the season started. He wasn't even an all-star, but he led the AL in wins, strikeouts, and WHIP (and was second in ERA, nearly winning the pitching Triple Crown). He's only 26. He might very well do it all again, but this time around, it won't be a surprise. Joe Nathan's move to the Twin Cities and the closer role last season was a success, as he saved 44 games and was the Twins' all-star representative. Preserving leads for him is probably the best setup man in the league, Juan Rincon. He pitched 77 games in relief (and won 11 of them), while keeping his ERA to 2.63. Phillies castoff Carlos Silva is a solid starter for the Twins, going 14-8 last season. Yep, that would have tied for the Phils lead in wins. And for some reason, I like Kyle Lohse despite his 13 losses last season. I think he'll tend more toward his '02 and '03 numbers, when he won 13 and 14 games, respectively.

Honorable Mention: San Diego Padres
Quick, who led the majors last season with a 2.27 ERA, far ahead of Randy Johnson's second-best 2.60? That would be Padres ace Jake Peavy. He could very well be this year's Johan Santana. He wasn't an all-star last season, either. Peavy will celebrate his 24th birthday on May 31, 10 days after I do the same. I am quite jealous. Closer Trevor Hoffman has reached 31+ saves in nine of the last 10 seasons, and if he does so again this year, he'll pass John Franco for second on the all-time saves list. He saved 41 games last season. And when it's "Trevor Time," and he enters a game to the foreshadowing tolling of AC/DC's "Hells Bells," it's one of the most electric feelings in baseball. Seriously. I get chills watching it on TV. Second-year Japanese import Akinori Otsuka is the NL's answer to Juan Rincon - the best setup man in the league. With his 1.75 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 77 1/3 innings, he was third in Rookie of the Year voting last season. Brian Lawrence won 15 games last season and is certainly capable of repeating that performance. And Woody Williams returns to San Diego to pitch in spacious PETCO Park after going 45-22 in a three-plus-year stint with the Cardinals.

What about...: San Francisco Giants
Yep, they have Jason Schmidt, probably the best pitcher in the NL. He won 18 games last season and is impossibly stingy when it comes to giving up hits. And they also have new acquisition Armando Benitez, who led the NL in saves last season with 47. So that'll take care of every fifth day and the occasional lead that a Bonds-led offense provides. But the Giants' staff is pretty thin beyond those two. There's the mediocre Brett Tomko, who doesn't walk many but doesn't strike many out, either. There's Jerome Williams and his puka-shell necklace and his 17 hit batters last season. Williams pitches well only when you make him take his necklace off, which the Devil Rays made him do on June 8 last season. He then held them to one run and four hits in seven innings en route to the win. And their top middle reliever is Jim Brower, who led the league with 89 appearances last season but also had 10 wild pitches in 93 innings.

Disappearing Act: Houston Astros
It's Roger Clemens (2.98 ERA, 18 wins, 218 strikeouts in 2004) and Roy Oswalt (3.49, 20, 206) in the rotation and Brad Lidge (1.90 ERA, 29 saves) closing things out. Beyond that, who knows? Andy Pettitte is healthy again, and a season like those he had in Yankee pinstripes could make the 'Stros formidable foes. On the other hand, he averaged 5.5 innings per start last season. The rotation behind those three starters is filled with unknowns. Same for the bullpen behind Lidge. The top setup man is Dan Wheeler, whose career 4.95 ERA won't help secure any leads.

The Worst Pitching Staff In Baseball: Colorado Rockies
Well, the Royals didn't sweep my "worst" awards, thanks to the Rockies. Their best pitcher just may be Chin-Hui Tsao, a third-year major leaguer out of Taiwan who's starting the season on the DL. He was projected to be the closer, but elbow tendinitis will force the Rockies to go with a committee of gopherballers. The Patriarch, Joe Kennedy, somehow managed an ERA under 4.00 last year, his first season in Coors Field. He's the ace of the staff, if you couldn't tell from his 9-7 record last season. The number two starter, Jason Jennings, was the 2002 NL Rookie of the Year, but last season he allowed more hits than anyone else in the league and was fourth in walks allowed and second in earned runs allowed as well. Shawn Chacon will move back to the rotation after embarrassing himself in the closer's role last season. He had 35 saves...but also threw nine wild pitches in 63 1/3 innings and had an ERA of 7.11, which made batters oh thank heaven. The Rockies' setup crew is predictably awful, and the best one might be the anonymous Scott Dohmann, who as a rookie last year struck out 49 batters in 46 innings with a 4.11 ERA. With a staff like this in a ballpark like Coors Field, it's quite likely the Rockies will need to score 12 runs every time out in order to win, as they did on Opening Day.


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