Among best rotations, there's plenty of room at the top

Phillies' now best with Lee, but several others are on their heels

December 18, 2010

You don't have to be conspicuously great to have a terrific starting rotation.

When the Phillies added Cliff Lee to Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, they became the official champions of the 2010-11 offseason. They zipped past the World Series champion Giants in claiming the best combination of four starters in the majors — a notable feat given our last look at the Giants.

Remember them? They rolled to an 11-4 record in the playoffs thanks to a 2.18 ERA from Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez. The Giants outpitched the Phillies to reach the World Series, then beat Lee and the Rangers.

All four not only return for 2011, but also are under the Giants' control in 2012. Cain will give up a few runs along the way, but Sanchez is much better than he showed. That group is for real, if not quite as formidable as the Phillies with Lee.

But a look at rotations as currently built shows something surprising. There are at least three other rotations that are almost as strong as the Phillies', including two that are arguably ahead of the Giants.

It's surprising that Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright haven't been able to carry the Cardinals farther in the playoffs in recent years. Along with 2010 rookie Jaime Garcia and the recently re-signed Jake Westbrook, they give manager Tony La Russa a much stronger hand than currently advertised.

Carpenter, Wainwright, Garcia and Westbrook were 59-39 with a 3.14 ERA over 129 starts a year ago, totals that probably would have been a tick better had Westbrook not spent his first four months with the woeful Indians. No other group of four starters had more wins (those with the Phillies and Rays had 58 each), and only the Phillies and Angels got more innings from their 2011 top four than the 8311/3 put up by the Cardinals' guys.

Like the Cardinals, the Angels somehow missed the 2011 playoffs with a group of starting pitchers that can be considered alongside the elite. Mike Scioscia's staff doesn't have the highly decorated guys to compete with the Phillies, Giants and Cardinals, but Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Dan Haren and Joel Pineiro are nevertheless a solid core.

They were 52-41 with an AL-inflated 3.66 ERA over 125 starts a year ago. Haren, acquired in a midseason trade with the Diamondbacks, tied Carpenter for fourth in the majors with 235 innings pitched, and Weaver and Santana were also among the durable dozen major-leaguers who worked at least 222 innings. They delivered quality starts 69.6 percent of the time, a total topped by only the Giants (78 percent) and Phillies (69.64 percent).

The sleeping giant on this list is also a Los Angeles team. The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Jon Garland combined for 50 wins and a 3.33 ERA in 127 starts. You can argue that only Garland, who benefited from working in San Diego's Petco Park, delivered at peak form in 2010. And if you wanted to compare five-man rotations, sliding Ted Lilly in alongside Garland, the Dodgers would move a lot closer to the Phillies and Giants.

One of the greats: A lot of perks come with press passes. For Cleveland-based reporter Jim Ingraham, one of the biggest was a seat directly in front of Bob Feller the last 17 seasons.

Feller loved the Indians the way Ron Santo loved the Cubs. He wasn't as lovable of a guy, often taking harsh stances on modern ballplayers and developments in society, but he was the genuine article for his entire 92 years. He was also one of baseball's greatest pitchers.

Feller could be generous. My dad played against Feller on a team while in the Navy, and Feller saw enough of my dad's trick pitch — the so-called twist drill, a forefather of the screwball — to tell him whom to contact to get a professional contract when his Navy service ended.

Ingraham recounts how when Feller began his career in Van Meter, Iowa, Ty Cobb was still playing. He recalls Feller telling him how he lived in a boarding house in Cleveland when he was a 17-year-old rookie with the Indians, sharing space with a fellow boarder who had fought in the war — the Civil War.

"He was a nice guy,'' Feller told Ingraham. "Kind of quiet, but nice.''

Diversion tactics: Alarmed fans in Minnesota worry about pitching, and general manager Bill Smith hands them a new shortstop in Japanese All-Star Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

He should be fun to watch, but can a singles-hitting infielder offset heavy losses to the pitching staff? Nishioka, a career .293 hitter in Japan, led the Pacific League with 206 hits and 287 total bases. He's a switch hitter who stole 22 bases and does figure to be an offensive upgrade over J.J. Hardy, was traded to the Orioles.

He has won the Japanese equivalent of the Gold Glove at shortstop and second base but might profile better at second because his arm is considered average at best. He has battled wrist, knee and neck injuries throughout his career.

With Hardy as the regular, the Twins' shortstops were fourth in the AL in batting average (.268) and sixth in OPS (.692) behind the Blue Jays, Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees and Royals. Their second basemen were seventh in average (.261) and ninth in OPS (.708), so it's not as if Nishioka is going to fill a huge void. Unless he can be an All-Star level player, it seems unlikely his addition will do a lot to make up for the loss of pitchers Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and possibly Carl Pavano and Jon Rauch.

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