2012 NL East Rankings Part 2: The Pitchers

Yesterday, we examined the position players for each team in the NL East, giving out 5 points for the best player at each position, 1 point for the worst. Here’s where we stand:

SCORE: PHI (28), DC (26), MIA (25), ATL (23), NYM (18)

The Nats did so well because of strong showings in C, 3B and LF, while ranking middle of the road for the rest, and only taking the dreaded #5 slot for first base. Comparing starting pitchers is even tougher than the position players, not because it’s hard to know who’s best, but because it’s a little subjective to name the #2 or 3 guy for a team. At least the #1s are pretty clear. I’ve tried to use Baseball Prospectus as my guide to order, and I continue pick a great British rock to guide the text.

#1 STARTER (The Stone Roses)

1. Phillies – Roy Halladay
2. Nationals – Stephen Strasburg
3. Marlins – Josh Johnson
4. Mets – Johan Santana
5. Braves – Tim Hudson

Roy Halladay is still an ace of aces, he finished 2nd in the Cy Young voting last year after winning it in 2010, and is still the best here. Strasburg is projected by PECOTA to have the lowest ERA of any starting pitcher in the league, and we all know that peace reigns and Love Spreads in Washington whenever Baseball Jesus starts, but he’s not pitching more than 160 or so innings this year. He’s no lower on this list despite the inning cap, because the next two guys have some question marks. Josh Johnson is a true ace, but he was hurt most of last year and has only started one full season so far. Santana is also coming off injury, and probably doesn’t have the fastball he used to have, although he was still incredible without it in 2010. Tim Hudson is a very good pitcher, but he probably isn’t in the league of what the other 4 guys can bring.

SCORE: PHI (33), DC (30), MIA (28), ATL (24), NYM (20)

#2 STARTER (The Music)

1. Phillies – Cliff Lee
2. Atlanta – Tommy Hanson
3. Nationals – Gio Gonzalez
4. Marlins – Mark Buehrle
5. Mets – RA Dickey

Cliff Lee would have probably been the best #1 starter, and he’s definitely the premier #2. Tommy Hanson is my semi-reluctant pick for second, not because he wasn’t a great young pitcher last year, but because he has tweaked his delivery and there has been talk of shoulder issues. Gio’s ability to strike people out and his success over the last two years makes me rank him slightly above Buerhle, who has been very good but never great over his very good career. RA Dickey has been excellent over the last two years and putting him at the bottom of the list glosses over how well he’s pitched. But in his career path to this point he did seem to Take the Long Wrong and Walk It, and two years of strong pitching from a 37 year old after a bad career is a tough history to overcome for predictions, even when a knuckleball is involved.

SCORE: PHI (38), DC (33), MIA (30), ATL (28), NYM (21)

#3 STARTER (Radiohead)

1. Phillies – Cole Hamels
2. Nationals – Jordan Zimmermann
3. Braves – Jair Jurrjens
4. Marlins – Ricky Nolasco
5. Mets – Jon Niese

Once again, the Phillies have the best pitcher and there isn’t much room for debate. But Jordan Zimmermann could wind up being a truly great pitcher, and although PECOTA might suggest that is a bit Optimistic, his 122 ERA+ last season makes me believe that his best is more than good enough. Jair Jurrjens had a decent strikeout rate until last year, but he lowered his walks as well and had a great season. Nolasco may have better stuff than Jurrjens and JZimm, but he hasn’t actually put it together a season with an ERA+ above 92 in three seasons, so it hasn’t translated to success. Jon Niese has had two seasons of below average pitching, although he’s young enough to expect some improvement, since he can strike guys out, there’s little doubt where he belongs on this list.

SCORE: PHI (43), DC (37), MIA (34), ATL (31), NYM (22)

#4 STARTER (The Verve)

1. Braves – Brandon Beachy
2. Marlins – Anibel Sanchez
3. Phillies – Vance Worley
4. Nationals – Edwin Jackson
5. Mets – Mike Pelfrey

Beachy had a very good rookie season, and was slightly worse than Sanchez in terms of ERA. But its close, and with Beachy just finishing up his first season at age 24, and Sanchez already 28, I’m giving the edge to Beachy for 2012. Sanchez’s jump in K rate probably isn’t sustainable, and if so, Beachy will probably have more strikeouts, too. Vance Worley had a great year last year, and if he repeats it, he might top the list. But his minor league track record is spotty, so he might have just been a Lucky Man in 2011 rather than a guy who finally figured it out. Depending on which Edwin Jackson shows up, he could easily move up this list, but his value will likely come from pitching 200 innings at a slightly above average ERA. Mike Pelfrey has had some good seasons, but last year was definitely not one of them, and he can’t strike anyone out while walking too many.

SCORE: PHI (46), DC (39), MIA (38), ATL (36), NYM (23)

#5 STARTER (Muse)

1. Braves – Mike Minor
2. Marlins – Carlos Zambrano
3. Nationals – John Lannan/ Chien-Ming Wang
4. Mets – Dillon Gee
5. Phillies – Joe Blanton

Often the fifth starter spot for many teams breeds Hysteria among fans and management alike, but at least 3 of these teams are putting real talent out there. Mike Minor is a legitimate young pitcher that can strike people out, and he’s a guy that has a shot to be more of a top of the rotation guy has he matures. The Braves should also get a bonus point for have Julio Teheran as the next guy in line (but they don’t). Big Z once was a top of the rotation guy, but he just stunk last year. That being said, his history before 2011 shows us while he’s no longer an ace, from ’07-’10 he was a strong starter, clearly better than the other #5s listed below him. The Nationals have a very good pitcher in Lannan who outperforms projections and could wind up with the best ERA on this list. With Chien-Ming Wang, they could also get solid performance better than most expect for a 4 or a 5, but it is unclear how the two will be used. Dillon Gee had a rough year last year, but he wasn’t awful, just not particularly good. Joe Blanton was hurt alot last year, and when he wasn’t, he was even worse than in 2010… And he was bad in 2010. Joel Pinero might jump in that spot too, but he was awful last year as well.

SCORE: PHI (47), DC (42), MIA (42), ATL (41), NYM (25)

CLOSER (Stereophonics)

1. Phillies – Jonathan Papelbon
2. Braves – Craig Kimbrel
3. Nationals – Drew Storen
4. Marlins – Heath Bell
5. Mets – Frank Francisco

It is hard to argue, as much as I’d like to, that Papelbon isn’t the best on this list thanks to his track record. But the Braves young closer had a ridiculous K/9 of 14.8 last year, and could finish the season with better numbers. Storen is a solid, upper/mid-level reliever, but he isn’t wowing anyone with strikeouts. Heath Bell is similar, and may suffer from moving away from San Diego’s ballpark and the NL West in general – he’s no longer pitching in ballparks the size of North Dakota. All four of those guys are solid closers, though, and any one could finish with the best overall season. Frank Francisco, replacing Francisco Rodriguez, is a tick below them, although he’ll get the job done, he won’t do it quite as well, walking a few too many and giving up the occasional HR more often than the rest.

SCORE: PHI (52), DC (45), ATL (45), MIA (44), NYM (26)

How did we get here?

Philadelphia (Coldplay): It isn’t that surprising to see the Phillies in first place, but their having so many players at or near the top of so many categories really helped them get a big lead. However, their aging position players will start to break down eventually, and their fans should be looking at their Clocks. If this is the year father time catches up with them, they are very vulnerable. Next year may look different, but for now, they are the leaders.

Nationals (Blur): The virtually three way tie for 2nd place isn’t at all surprising either. The front of the Nationals rotation and a few great position players really helps them. A strong showing is aided by not having anyone at the bottom of the list for almost any position. Washington has a chance to be true contenders for the first time since the End of A Century, going back to the mid-90s when they had Pedro Martinez.

Atlanta (Ash): The Braves get here thanks to a strong back of the rotation, despite the worst “ace”, and a few key position players that offset some holes. Jason Heyward appeared to be a real Shining Light in their lineup when he first got to the majors, often compared to Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, and if he does live up to expectations from two years ago, they could be in very good shape.

Miami (Kaiser Chiefs): The Marlins also have a very strong back end to their rotation, while a solid lineup helps them out as well. If their pitchers can stay healthy, Big Z regains his old form, and their bats live up to their potential (especially Hanley, Reyes and their young outfielders), then I Predict a Riot on the streets of Miami this October. Or at least a parade. But those are alot of “ifs.”

Mets (Kasabian): Then there are the Mets, who contending Days are Forgotten. They fell behind in the position player battle, with their only strength being corner infielders, and then just got obliterated in the pitching section.

The Nationals have a tough road ahead of them, but if this little exercise is any indication, they should be right in the thick of things for a while to at least finish second in the division, if not better.


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