Ranking Starting Rotations in the NL Central


Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been two years since the Milwaukee Brewers have had a formidable starting rotation. Led by Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers were the ninth-best pitching staff in terms of earned run average during the 2011 season.

2012 was a different story. And 2013 followed 2012 with another underwhelming performance from the starters.

But that could all change with the addition of Matt Garza, whom Milwaukee signed to a four-year, $50 million contract last week.

When it comes to the Brewers, I have never been overly optimistic. In fact, I have never really been optimistic at all; I view myself as more of a realist than a pessimist. Until now.

Garza not only drastically improves Milwaukee’s rotation, but it also lifts them higher in the NL Central rotation ranks. It’s still unclear how their rotation will line up, but if I was a betting man, I would bet Gallardo is not the starter on Opening Day. But the order isn’t really important, especially not to Garza who has already said he doesn’t care where he falls in the rotation.

But even with an awe-inspiring hurler like Garza, the NL Central is stacked with talent. With the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds all having top-five rotations last season, the Brewers will have to live up to/exceed every expectation in order to compete in 2014.

Let’s take a look at where I expect each starting rotation in the NL Central to rank this season.

5. Chicago Cubs

It’s only a matter of time before the Cubs are a force to be reckoned with, not only in the Central but in Major League Baseball. But that’s a few years down the road.

According to the Cubs official website, the Cubs’ rotation is as follows:

  1. LHP Travis Wood
  2. RHP Edwin Jackson
  3. RHP Jeff Samardzija
  4. LHP Chris Rusin
  5. RHP Jake Arrieta

That’s a pretty sorry rotation. Wood had a career year in 2013 but I don’t see him as the best pitcher on the team. Samardzija, whose name has been thrown around in trade rumors for the last year, has a potential to be an ace but just hasn’t figured it out yet.

The Cubs made a poor decision last year by throwing $52 million at Jackson. He lost 18 games and posted an ERA of 4.98. Will this go down as one of baseball’s worst free agent contracts?

Picking up Arrieta is a low-risk/high-reward move but even if it does pay off, he doesn’t have the ace-like stuff to make a big difference.

Although the Cubs have a bright future, they only have one pitcher — C.J. Edwards — in ESPN’s Keith Law’s Top 100 prospects. They’ll have to build a rotation through free agency and drafts to go along with the plethora of up and coming offensive prospects they possess.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates had the fifth-best ERA  in all of baseball a year ago. So how come I have them ranked fourth in the NL Central? Well, that’s just how good this division is.

Here’s what their rotation looks like:

  1. LHP Francisco Liriano
  2. RHP Gerrit Cole
  3. RHP Charlie Morton
  4. LHP Jeff Locke
  5. LHP Wandy Rodriguez

The Pirates also signed oft-injured right-hander Edinson Volquez this winter to be a starter, meaning someone from the list above will be booted out. However, if Volquez fails to prove he’s healthy and/or is shelled in Spring Training, the rotation could remain intact.

It doesn’t look like A.J. Burnett, who had a brilliant 2013 campaign, will be returning to the team this season. It was rumored he was mulling retirement, but he has recently stated he plans to play in 2014. Burnett was a monumental part of the Pirates success and he’ll be a tough one to replace.

I also don’t believe Liriano will be as lights-out and as dominant as he was last year. If he stays healthy, which has been Liriano’s Achilles’ heel, he should put up gratifying numbers but I don’t think he’ll come near the 3.02 ERA he boasted in 2013.

Cole is a stud and you won’t find a pitcher more consistent than Rodriguez. What really bothers me though is Jeff Locke. Locke was one of the best pitchers in baseball in his first 18 starts in 2013, during his ERA was 2.15. But over his last 12 starts, the rookie accumulated a 6.12 ERA.

3. Milwaukee Brewers

When I first started writing this post, I ranked the Brewers as the Central’s best rotation behind the Cardinals. But then I took a closer look at the Reds’ staff. Suffice it to say, I altered my list.

Here’s how Milwaukee’s rotation shakes out:

  1. RHP Kyle Lohse
  2. RHP Matt Garza
  3. RHP Yovani Gallardo
  4. RHP Wily Peralta
  5. RHP Marco Estrada

I’m basing my ranking of Milwaukee’s rotation based on potential, and they have the potential to be the best in the NL Central. It doesn’t mean that they will be, but they have the talent to reach that level.

If Gallardo can somehow break out of the year-long slump that plagued him in 2013, the Brewers 1-2-3 combo will be tremendous. But like I said, I’m a realist and with Gallardo’s decrease in fastball velocity and his inability to make hitters swing-and-miss on his curveball, I don’t see that happening.

Still, Lohse and Garza are both top of the line hurlers and should rack up some wins. Garza’s main focus needs to be on staying healthy. Without Garza, the rotation is below average.

However, the success of the rotation hinges on the performances of Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. And for Estrada, 2014 will be a make-or-break season.

I said this last year and I’m saying it again now: Estrada is a sleeper. He was so electric during the last half of the season that I have to believe he’s about to figure this game out. At his absolute best, he’s a solid No. 2 pitcher who currently sits at the back end of the rotation.

Peralta showed flashes of brilliance and then followed them up with distressing outings last year. Granted, he was only a rookie but he was nerve-wracking nonetheless. He’ll need to take a big leap in performance and consistency in 2014.

Luckily, the Brewers have some pitching depth. They have Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg, and Jimmy Nelson, all of whom are capable of filling in for a few spot starts. Smith and Thornburg could even take someone’s rotation spot long term if necessary.

Still, there is one aspect of the Crew’s rotation that is worrisome. They are without a left-handed starter. To me, that’s a big deal. Pitching staffs need variety in order to keep hitters on their toes. The Brewers are as plain as water.

2. Cincinnati Reds

Losing Bronson Arroyo hurts, but the Reds have more than enough quality pitchers to make up for that loss.

  1. RHP Johnny Cueto
  2. RHP Mat Latos
  3. RHP Homer Bailey
  4. RHP Mike Leake
  5. LHP Tony Cingrani

Cueto, who made only 11 starts in 2013, will finally be healthy this season. The fact that the Reds had one of the league’s best rotations without their ace says a lot about the rest of their staff.

Cingrani might be the best fifth starter in baseball. A mid-season call-up last year, he made 18 starts and had an ERA of 2.92. He also struck out 120 in 104 innings. Cingrani alone makes the Reds’ rotation daunting.

Latos, Bailey, and Leake are above average pitchers who may have overachieved a bit. But even if their statistics decline slightly, the combination of the three remains fearsome.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

Who else would top this list?

The Cardinals are the epitome of starting pitching. It seems that every pitcher that wears Cardinal red can throw 100 MPH. And for a Brewers fan, it’s a little ridiculous.

  1. RHP Adam Wainwright
  2. RHP Michael Wacha
  3. RHP Lance Lynn
  4. LHP Jaime Garcia
  5. RHP Shelby Miller

Not only does St. Louis have the best starting pitching staff in the NL Central, they have a top five group in Major League Baseball.

Wainwright is a Cy Young candidate year in and year out. Wacha is quickly turning into an ace. Lynn and Garcia seemingly came out of nowhere. And Miller’s changeup is faster than Gallardo’s fastball (not really, but you get my drift). When facing the Cardinals, you’re seeing an ace every day.

And with the exception of  Wainwright,they’re all relatively young, meaning the Cardinals’ rotation will be a beast for many years to come.