The Pirates have not been known for their pitching, but thanks to this off-season's transactions, much of that has changed in 2012. Adding Wandy Rodriguez to the mix, thanks to a Tuesday evening trade with the Houston Astros, has helped shore things up that much more as they enter the stretch run. The swap helps alter the playoff race, as it's just one more contender with a strong rotation. How strong are we talking, though? With that in mind, today we'll look at the top rotations among contenders in the NL.
"Contender" has something of an everyman vibe to it these days, given the nature of the second wild card, so let's be clear from the start: for our purposes, we'll consider a contender to be a club that's no more than five games out of a playoff spot as of this writing. Don't be mad, Mets and Phillies fans: it's not you, it's math.
That still leaves us with eight teams to go over. Here's what's a bit strange: outside of the top three rotations in the NL right now, the rest of these just kind of meld together into a very stuffed fourth place. In a way, that's very good, as it means many of these competitors don't have any kind of serious pitching advantage over the other, but it also makes picking the eventual wild card winners a bit difficult. Not to mention separating the back end of this group with any kind of significance.
Arizona Diamondbacks - Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, Joe Saunders, Josh Collmenter: Were Daniel Hudson healthy, and not one of 2012's victims of Tommy John surgery, the Diamondbacks' rotation would likely be in the #3 spot, rather than as one of the many limbs of the giant, multi-team creature living at #4.
Hudson is out, though, leaving things in the capable hands of the unlucky Ian Kennedy, a Trevor Cahill doing his usual low K/BB, high grounder thing, Joe Saunders doing what Joe Saunders does best, by being much better than you think he is, and Wade Miley surviving his rookie campaign by slowly increasing his strikeout rate and K/BB the more he throws. Collmenter is the likely weak link here, but as of now, his season has gone well enough. This is a very strong group, top to bottom even without Hudson, but they don't have a real ace type to throw them over the top, no matter what Ian Kennedy's 2011 ERA says.
St. Louis Cardinals - Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly: Lohse is once again baffling, as he's improved his control even further, and has the 2.71 ERA and 3.4 K/BB to show for it. He's not quite that good, but his FIP the past two years are in the 3.60 range. The Cardinals would be fine with just that out of him, especially considering they also have Lance Lynn (9.3 K/9, 125 ERA+), Jake Westbrook inducing grounders -- ones that turn into outs, unlike in 2011 -- Joe Kelly adequately stepping in for the injured Jaime Garcia, and a much more Adam Wainwright-like Adam Wainwright over the last month-plus, where he's posted a 3.71 ERA, 4.9 K/BB, and 9.5 strikeouts per nine in 51 innings time.
Were Wainwright a guaranteed 100 percent following last year's Tommy John surgery, or if Garcia were around rather than Kelly, it would be easier to bump the Cardinals higher in the rankings. As it is, they're in this collective four spot, and absolutely have the pitching (and the lineup) to stay in this thing until the end.
Los Angeles Dodgers - Clayton Kershaw, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, Chad Billingsley, TBA: This last spot was filled by Nathan Eovaldi, but the Dodgers went and dealt him to the Marlins in the Hanley Ramirez trade. That means it could be anyone taking over here, either Stephen Fife making a return visit to the majors, or maybe the Dodgers are working on another deal as this is written. That question mark kind of leaves them in a lurch, as far as separation goes. Notice a theme here, about everyone having questions about their rotation?
What's here is great, though, as Clayton Kershaw is inarguably one of the league's finest arms, Chris Capuano has been even more than expected in his first year in Dodger blue, while Aaron Harang has been a bit above-average in his second straight season in a park that doesn't actively hate its pitchers. Billingsley once again is a bit disappointing, but at this point, it's safe to say he's an average-at-best contributor in a rotation fronted by others. Expecting both Capuano and Harang to survive at this level forever is possibly asking a bit much, another reason why a deal for someone like, say, Ryan Dempster, would make a lot of sense for the Dodgers. It'd also knock them -- easily -- into the third spot.
Atlanta Braves - Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Ben Sheets: There's a reason the Braves were attempting to get Dempster, and that's been the unreliability of their own rotation in 2012. Tommy Hanson's issue with the long ball have driven his ERA+ below average, Mike Minor still hasn't recovered from his early-season problems, Jair Jurrjens is only back in the rotation thanks to Brandon Beachy's injury, and Ben Sheets... I mean, this is a nice story, and the hope is he does well, but can they really gamble on Ben Sheets being the linchpin they've lacked? Thankfully, there's Tim Hudson -- there's always Tim Hudson.
Cincinnati Reds - Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake: Cueto is gold, and the top pitcher in this rotation. Since 2010, Cueto owns a 2.80 ERA (and 145 ERA+) in 475 frames. The homer issues that plagued his early years have vanished to the point that he is now leading the NL in homers per nine, in the positive way. Bailey is a solid mid-rotation arm, although past troubles with injuries do cause concern that he's always a start away from missing time. Mat Latos has been merely adequate in his first year with the Reds, with inconsistency being the major issue. Arroyo's season has been solid, but he's less than a year removed from looking like he was done, too, so it's tough to count this as a victory until the season has ended. Mike Leake has been very strong of late, making up for a tough start, but it's averaged out to a very Mike Leake campaign: solid enough for the back end on a good team. Save Cueto, though, there's no one here that the Reds can trust to match up against the other NL contenders consistently, a similar situation to what the D'backs are dealing with.
With just three left, now we can get into the numbers:
#3, Pittsburgh Pirates - James McDonald, A.J. Burnett, Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens/Kevin Correia, Wandy Rodriguez: It's not quite clear who Rodriguez is replacing, but he's an upgrade either way -- especially if the pitcher in question is Correia, who has mustered an 80 ERA+ in his two years with the Bucs. There are question marks here -- McDonald's durability, given his career-high 171 innings, Bedard's health -- but there's likely more to love here than in the other rotations behind them, at least after acquiring Wandy.
McDonald isn't an ace, but a 1-3 of McDonald, Burnett, Rodriguez is real good. As long as Bedard can stay healthy, they have a real shot at maintaining a playoff spot now, at least on the pitching side of things. That's asking a whole lot, given he's Erik Bedard, but at least now if he goes down, there's a competent major-league starter waiting to fill the void. Truth be told, the Pirates are barely at #3 here: the belief that Rodriguez is moving from a hitter's park to a pitcher's over the next two months helps push him above his season a bit, though.
#2, San Francisco Giants - Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito: Imagine this rotation if Lincecum was doing what he normally does, rather than posting a 61 ERA+ while averaging fewer than six innings per outing? That's the lone reason that the #2 spot is where they top out, but if Lincecum can regain his form over the season's final two months, then they are unquestionably the top rotation in the NL. Not that that's much of a surprise. Zito has been more than tolerable at the back end, Vogelsong has, incredibly, been even better than in his surprise return to the game in 2011, and the combination of Cain and Bumgarner at the top is a tough one to top for nearly everyone else in the NL. Yeah, your standard Tim Lincecum would make this scary rotation even scarier.
#1, Washington Nationals - Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler: Cut Chien-Ming Wang's four starts and John Lannan's spot appearance from the mix, and the Nationals starting five has produced a combined 562 innings, 2.99 ERA, 8.2 strikeouts per nine, and 3.1 K/BB. That's a great season for one pitcher, never mind a combined five over 91 starts. There's not a weak link in here, since Ross Detwiler, even over his head, still has expectations (3.68 FIP) that leave him plenty productive for a fifth starter. Strasburg might not pitch all year -- or maybe he will -- but as long as he's here and Tim Lincecum is mortal, there isn't a rotation in the NL touching this one.