2011 NL East Rankings Part 2: The Pitchers

In our last episode, I went over the starting lineups for each team, giving out 5 points for the best player at each position, 1 point for the worst. Here’s where we stand:

SCORE: Phillies (27), Mets (24), Nationals (24), Braves (23), Marlins (21)

Before comparing the pitchers I have to caveat it even more than the position players. Most teams make it evident who their “ace” is early on in the year, and most teams have an obvious one anyway. Most teams make it evident who their #5 starter is early on in the year, by not  playing him until about May. Of course, the number 5 starter is often 3 or 4 guys. And many teams don’t make it all that evident who starters 2-4 are. This normally isn’t important, but since we’re trying to compare guys head to head, it is extremely important. So I’ll do this the best I can, but it should be taken with a handful of salt. I’ve tried to use Baseball Prospectus as my guide to order.

#1 STARTER

1. Phillies – Roy Halladay
2. Marlins – Josh Johnson
3. Braves – Tim Hudson
4. Nationals – Livan Hernandez
5. Mets – Mike Pelfrey

Halladay gets the nod as the overall #1, and his tenure gets him in the spot over Lee, not that it would matter for this exercise. Johnson is a close second to both, but he wouldn’t surpass either one. Hudson is probably only the second best starter on the Braves, but his experience gets him the top spot in the rotation. It wouldn’t change the rankings on this position anyway. Pelfrey, meanwhile, is the opening day starter and assumed top guy for the Mets. He’s got potential to be better than Livan, depending on whether Livo pitches like it’s 2010 or 2009, but not better than anyone else.

SCORE: Phillies (32), Braves (26), Nationals (26), Marlins (25), Mets (25)

#2 STARTER

1. Phillies – Cliff Lee
2. Braves – Tim Hudson
3. Marlins – Ricky Nolasco
4. Nationals – Jason Marquis
5. Mets – Jonathan Niese

Cliff Lee is an easy pick at the top of this list, and it gets a little dicey below. I put Lowe as the #2 for the Braves due to consistency and experience, Nolasco to me is a close third here. BP actually likes Nolasco better than Lowe, but he’s yet to show it over a full season in my opinion, so I’ll take Lowe. Marquis is my reluctant choice for the Nats #2 starter, which won’t be where he ends the season, but other guys are young, and may move up and down or have innings limits, so I feel like he’s gotta go here. At least his spring showed he’s not completely gone. He and Niese have identical WARPs according to BP, but while I’d rather have Niese due to youth, I’m less confident he’ll start all season, so I give Marquis the microscopic advantage. Which is still worth 1 point.

SCORE: Phillies (37), Braves (30), Marlins (28), Nationals (28), Mets (26)

#3 STARTER

1. Phillies – Roy Oswalt
2. Braves – Tommy Hanson
3. Nationals – Jordan Zimmermann
4. Marlins – Javier Vazquez
5. Mets – Chris Young

Well, the Phillies remain on top for the third straight starter. I’d rather have the 24 year old Hanson than the 33 year old Oswalt if I was a GM, but Oswalt is currently better, but a tiny bit. This shouldn’t take away from Hanson’s greatness, he is spectacular. Zimmermann gets the nod as the third starter for the Nats to me, as he is as likely to start every 5th game until he runs out of innings as anyone on the list. And I put him third on this list because I think he’s going to be quite good. Vazquez and Young were both good pitchers, but they’ve been terrible recently. They could each turn in impressive seasons, but I am tentative to rank them higher until they should they can do something.

SCORE: Phillies (42), Braves (34), Nationals (31), Marlins (30), Mets (27)

#4 STARTER

1. Phillies – Cole Hamels
2. Braves – Jair Jurrjens
3. Mets – R.A. Dickey
4. Marlins – Anibel Sanchez
5. Nationals – John Lannan

The top spot isn’t even close, if you think Hamels is the 4th starter on the Phillies, the other guys on this list don’t touch him. Jurrjens and Dickey are close, but Dickey has the ability to completely lose his one pitch that all knuckleballers have, and will likely be somewhat less consistent. Sanchez isn’t far behind, but I don’t think he has the ability that the other guys do. Could Lannan be better than the worst on this list? Sure, if he pitches like he did last fall, not if he pitches like he did last spring and summer, or this spring.

SCORE: Phillies (47), Braves (38), Nationals (32), Marlins (32), Mets (30)

#5 STARTER

1. Braves – Mike Minor/Brandon Beachy
2. Nationals – Tom Gorzelanny/Ross Detwiler
3. Mets – Chris Capuano/Johan Santana
4. Phillies – Joe Blanton
5. Marlins – Chris Volstad

Well well well, look who isn’t #1 on the list, finally. Minor’s got a good chance to be a very good pitcher, and so does Detwiler. Neither has really shown it in the majors, while they’ve both destroyed AAA hitters. The difference is that Minor’s likely starting as the #5 guy, while Detwiler has to wait for Gorzelanny, Marquis or Lannan to stumble. I don’t have the faith in Gorzy to put him at the number 1 spot here, but between him and Detwiler, I like the back end of this rotation. Capuano is a decent veteran who will pitch ok, and while we don’t know if Johan will be back before June or July or August, he will probably be pretty good. Blanton is probably going to be fine, but I can’t rank him above the possibility of Santana, and he has no upside, like the other guys. Volstad is a giant, but he hasn’t shown that he can pitch at all in the majors yet.

Update: Minor was beat out by Beachy for the #5 spot the day this was posted, but my ranking still stands. If teams carried a #6 starter, the Braves would lead that category, too. Unless Johan comes back from major shoulder surgery at the earliest possible time and is successful, I think this ranking is still pretty accurate.

SCORE: Phillies (49), Braves (43), Nationals (36), Marlins (33), Mets (33)

CLOSER

1. Mets – Francisco Rodriguez
2.  Braves – Craig Kimbrel
3.  Marlins – Leo Nunez
4. Nationals – Drew Storen/Tyler Clippard/Sean Burnett/Todd Coffey
5. Phillies – Brad Lidge

This was the hardest one for me. Rodriguez, despite all his trouble, is still the best. Kimbrel may end up being great this year, but I’d like to see it first. Nunez is a decent reliever, but he is nothing special. It sill ranks him above Storen, who has looked bad this spring, although his recent outings since fixing some mechanical flaw have been better. I’d consider ranking Storen last, but if he doesn’t perform, I think the Nats have a strong bullpen with plenty of decent options, even if none are ideal. As for Brad Lidge, he continues to be shaky, wild, somewhat hurt, and inexplicably permanent in his role.

SCORE: Phillies (50), Braves (47), Mets (38), Nationals (38), Marlins (36)

How did we get here?

1. Phillies – 50: The had a slight edge in position players and then utterly destroyed in the starting pitching category. It’s surprising, with all the talk that their lineup isn’t great, how good it might really be. They should be a very good team once again.

2. Braves – 47: The Braves have come in a pretty close second. Their lineup is middle of the road, with some questions, but their pitching staff is just high quality throughout. They are the Phillies biggest competition for the division, and could end up taking the title.

3 (tie) Mets – 38: Despite all of their troubles, the Mets keep their heads above water just enough, to grab a tie for third place at the end thanks to their closer. It’s not a formula for success, though, and I’d be surprised if they finished this high.

3 (tie) Nationals – 38: The Nats position players keep them in fair position until they get to the pitching, and a potentially good back end of the rotation makes up for having poor front line guys. They have a chance this year to be better than they’ve been in years, although it still won’t be good.

5 Marlins – 36: This style of assessment seems to be unfair to the Marlins. They have a true ace, and the rest of their pitching staff is quite good, they just lose a point here and there for being a tick below the other guys. Their lineup, though, is probably the worst in the division. I’d be surprised, though, with the depth of their pitching, if they are horrible.

I think while people would quibble about the order of the bottom, the top two are probably right. Some would envision more distance between the Phillies and the Braves, but I think this is pretty accurate. The bottom three are so close in points that it will just as easily turn out in a different order as it does in this order. A key injury could quickly sink one of the bottom teams to the anchor position. As for me, I’ll take the Phillies to win and the Braves to contend for a wild card, probably fighting for the East title until some time in September.

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