A Division Full of Aces: Who has the Best Rotation in the National League Central?

latos+v+sd+7-5-12Let’s just pretend for one moment that the advent of the modern bullpen never happened. There’s no such thing as a LOOGY, Jerome Holtman never invented the save, and starting pitchers are handed the ball at the start of the game with the expectation that they will work a minimum of 7 innings. Now, I’m fairly sure the Player’s Association and a majority of the big league managers would riot if this kind of thing ever happened, but I know one place where everybody would be happy: the National League Central.

You see, apart from Pittsburgh, none of the NL Central teams have been able to cobble together a solid bullpen.The Cardinals struggles have been well-documented this year and for good reason. St. Louis currently has an ERA north of 6.00 out of the bullpen, which is good for dead last in baseball. Chicago, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee haven’t been much better ranking 20th, 18th, and 15th respectively in ERA.

But when a starting pitcher is on the mound? Look out, because each of these ball clubs has put together a quality rotation and most of them are running at full power right now. But which one of these star-studded starting staffs is the best?

1.  St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have assembled one hell of a starting rotation this year, one with a nice balance of crafty veterans, young hurlers, and curveball wizards. Cardianals’ starters have racked up an MLB 14 wins already this year and their 2.18 ERA as a unit is nearly a run better than the Texas Rangers’ 2nd best staff.

At the forefront of this collection of arms is ace right-hander Adam Wainwright. I’ve discussed his successes some already this year and a lot of what Wainwright is doing well this season is based off of his impeccable control. The big righty has a bonkers 43-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season, which has allowed him to work deep into games. Wainwright has failed to last 7 innings in just one of his 5 starts and even then he managed to navigate the Cards through the 6th.

He’s not the only Cardinals pitcher that’s been dialed in either. Rookie right-hander Shelby Miller has had an excellent first month as a starter, putting up a 2.05 ERA while averaging just over 6 innings per outing. He’s worked primarily off of two pitches, his fastball and curve, and they’ve both been sharp. Miller’s fastball in particular has had hitters baffled. The NL is currently hitting just .203 against the pitch this year and they’ve struck out 24 times in 74 at-bats, compared to just 9 walks. As long as Shelby Miller continues to pitch to his strengths, he should continue to pile up the victories.

The rest of the rotation hasn’t been chopped liver either. Lance Lynn is picking up right where he left off a year ago, starting out with a 4-0 record and an ERA just a hair above 3. Master of the slow curve, Jaime Garcia, has also been excellent this year and is averaging 8 strikeouts for every 9 innings pitched.

The contributions of Jake Westbrook should not be forgotten either, although they are less likely to continue. Westbrook, who has a career 4.24 ERA, has allowed just 3 earned runs in 27.2 innings of work and he has yet to allow an opposing hitter to go deep. But his 14 strikeout-14 walk ratio screams regression and at some point his luck is likely to run out. That shouldn’t diminish what he’s already done however and the fact that the Cardinals have 5 different starters churning out quality start after quality start bodes well for the rest of 2013.

2.  Cincinnati Reds

The Reds currently rank 4th in baseball in starter’s ERA and after watching Mat Latos keep a tough Cardinals lineup in check for 6 innings and they’re ability to generate swings and misses is a big reason why. Cincinnati currently ranks 1st in the NL in strikeouts by starting pitchers, checking in with 148 at this early point in the season, and a healthy amount of those K’s have come from a rookie who has burst on the scene.

Right-hander Tony Cingrani has been a revelation for the Reds so far, striking out an absurd 28 batters in his first 18 innings of work. Cingrani owes a large chunk of his success this year to his deceptive delivery and his pinpoint control. Hitters seem to be having trouble picking the ball up out of Cingrani’s hand and that’s worked to his benefit. Hitters swing and miss about a quarter of the time against Cingrani’s fastball, which is a rate that would make even Justin Verlander jealous. Now the Reds rookie is likely to experience some regression at some point but that doesn’t mean he won’t keep erasing hitters at an elite clip. Cingrani looks like he’s here to stay.

As far as the rest of the rotation goes, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, and Bronson Arroyo have done exactly what’s expected of them. Bailey and Latos both have ERAs south of 3.00 and they’ve each piled up around 9 strikeouts per every 9 innings pitched. That kind of production will not only get the job done, but it’s likely to get you elected to the All-Star game. Arroyo hasn’t been as steady as the rest of his rotation mates but that’s to be expected from a soft-tossing 36-year-old. As long as Arroyo can keep the Reds competitive for 5 or 6 innings once a week, Dusty Baker will be happy.

The Reds rotation should get even better as the year progresses because at some point staff ace Johnny Cueto will have to return. Cueto may not be made from the most durable material, but when he is on the mound the Reds know their likely to get 6 or 7 shut down innings and a good chance at a win. If Dusty Baker is smart enough to keep Cingrani in the rotation instead of Mike Leake, the Reds may just have the deepest rotation in the game.

3.  Pittsburgh Pirates

The single smartest thing that the Pittsburgh Pirates have done as on organization in the past decade was locking Andrew McCutchen up to a long-term deal that’s beginning to look like a downright bargain. Other than that, the 2nd smartest move the Pirates have made was to bring in both A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, provided that their former teams pay for part of their deals. So far the pair of pitchers have combined for a 4-2 record and an ERA south of 2.50 in 56.1 innings. In other words, the kind of production most teams dream of out of the top of their rotation.

Burnett now has a 3.41 ERA in 237.1 total innings of work over the course of two seasons for the Pirates and he looks nothing like the pitcher the Yankees ran out of town. When Burnett was in New York he was a heavy fastball pitcher, leaning on his heater nearly 2/3rds of the time, which made him a little predictable. The Pirates have altered Burnett’s approach to the game and are instead they are having him work off his breaking pitches a little more often, to great results.

The Pirates have also gotten some great performances out of long time minor leaguer Jeff Locke. Locke isn’t a hard-thrower by any means (his fastball tops out at 92) and he seems to know that. Instead, Locke mixes all 4 of his pitches in any count, which can keep hitters off-balance. Locke also throws each pitch with a purpose, hitting his location more often than not, which is key for a pitcher with less than dominant stuff. Locke probably won’t finish the year with a 2.83 ERA but he’s a good bet to stay somewhere south of 4.50, which makes him a nice find at the back-end of the rotation.

The bottom part of the rotation is really where the Pirates start to fall behind. James McDonald has struggled with his performance since last June, posting an ERA north of 5.00 over the time span. Reclamation project Jonathan Sanchez has also been a complete bust and it seems to be getting to him. He was ejected without retiring a batter in his last start against St. Louis after hitting Allen Craig intentionally. If Pittsburgh wants to avoid another 2nd half collapse they’d be wise to call up one of their prized pitching prospects. Jameson Taillon (who was extremely impressive in the World Baseball Classic) and Gerrit Cole could give the Pirates the type of boost that could end their two decade long losing streak.

4.  Milwaukee Brewers

Each and every season the starting pitchers for the Milwaukee Brewers seem to get off to a slow start and 2013 hasn’t been any different. The Brewers currently rank 18th in baseball in starter’s ERA, but thanks to the talent on hand, that should change rather quickly.

Yovani Gallardo is one of the most talented pitchers in the Major Leagues and after getting roughed up during his first 3 starts, he’s beginning to look like it. He was brilliant against the Pirates last night, shutting down their lineup for 7 innings while picking up 5 strikeouts compared to just 2 walks. He was consistently working ahead of hitters all night long, throwing first pitch strikes to 19 of the 27 batters he faced. Gallardo was able to carry that stellar performance over to the other side of the diamond as well, cracking his first homer of the year to lead Milwaukee to victory.

The rest of the rotation isn’t as much of a sure thing. The Brewers should be able to chalk up 12-15 victories from Kyle Lohse and a mid-3.00 ERA, but otherwise they are going to need one of the youngsters to step up. Wily Perralta has the most talent out of any of the candidates, but he struggles with his command far too frequently to be anything more than occasionally brilliant but often frustrating. Hiram Burgos may also have a bright future but he’s never going to blow hitters away because his fastball tops out between 89-91 mph. If one of these pitchers can make a jump and become a solid #3 in Milwaukee’s rotation the Brewers could make some noise in the NL Central this year, but otherwise it’s going to be tough sledding in a division loaded with quality pitching staffs.

5.  Chicago Cubs

It’s an absolute shame that the Cubs bullpen has been so crummy and that their offense can’t score runs because the pitching staff has been downright dominant during the season’s first month. The Cubs starting staff has actually allowed the lowest batting average against in baseball and their 3.14 ERA as a unit ranks 5th in the league.

The development of Jeff Samardzija has been a big factor behind that success, although the results have yet to show in the win column. The Cubs have scored just 15 total runs in Samardzija’s 6 starts, which is almost unfair when you consider the fact that he’s averaging more than 11 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. Samardzija worked hard on improving his control a year ago and those improvements have carried over to 2013 as well. The Cubs ace is on pace to walk fewer batters this year than any other point in his career, which should have fans in Chicago excited about his future.

But things after Samardzija aren’t as bright as they are for the rest of the division. Carlos Villanueva, Edwin Jackson, and Travis Wood are unlikely to intimidate any big league lineup and that goes for 5th starter Scott Feldman as well.

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