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MLB Power Rankings: Top 15 Starting Pitchers in the NL Central

Conner BoydCorrespondent IJanuary 25, 2012

MLB Power Rankings: Top 15 Starting Pitchers in the NL Central

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    There is some great pitching talent in the NL Central. It's arguable that over the past two seasons, the NL Central has improved more in pitching than any other division in baseball aside from perhaps the NL East.

    I compiled this list using an extremely unscientific method. The two main factors I took into account to make these rankings were career resumes and future potential. I also took into account the importance of each pitcher to their respective teams.

15: Ryan Dempster, Chicago Cubs

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    2011 stats: 202.1 IP, 10-14, 4.80 ERA, 191 K

    Career stats: 2042.2 IP, 112-116, 4.41 ERA, 1765 K

    Look, Dempster barely made this list. There are plenty of other pitchers in the NL Central who had better 2011 seasons than Dempster. Dempster is here because he has had a pretty solid career, and it's easy to look at his poor 2011 campaign as something of a fluke. 

    Solid peripherals, like his strikeout total and his 2011 K/9 of 8.5, show that Dempster can still miss a ton of bats. Dempster tends to fall victim to the long ball, which probably has something to do with pitching in some of the hardest pitcher's parks in baseball for most of the year. His Achilles heel is the abundance of free passes he issues every year. Dempster has an inflated WHIP due to his high walk rate (3.6 BB/9 in 2011, 4.1 BB/9 career).

    Dempster's 2011 season was forgettable, and his career stats aren't overly impressive. He has only received Cy Young votes once in his long career (in 2008 when he finished sixth), and he is probably coming to the end of his career.

    Nevertheless, I still believe Dempster deserves to be on this list simply because he is essentially the last bit of glue holding a volatile Cubs rotation (and team) together. With Garza very possibly being traded away before the offseason is over, Dempster is going to have no short order ahead of him if he wants to keep his Cubs in contention.

14: Jeff Karstens, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    2011 Stats: 162.1 IP, 9-9, 3.38 ERA, 96 K

    Career Stats: 501.2 IP, 21-36, 4.52, 264 K

    Jeff Karstens wasn't really a household name prior to last season, and he didn't really have any reason to be. Splitting time between relief work and starting, Karstens had never posted remarkable numbers.

    Then 2011 happened.

    Karstens (like the rest of the Pirates starting rotation) came out of nowhere to lead the Pirates to a relatively successful season (by Pittsburgh Pirate standards).

    Karstens' 2011 season was extremely impressive, but he is being held back on this list because that was really his first "good" season to date. He doesn't have good peripherals (4.7 K/9, 1.3 HR/9, 1.91 K/BB), and he could easily come into the next season and get shelled.

    But I really don't see that happening. With another year like last year under his belt, Karstens will soon become a household name, and he is going to be a leader on the this surprising Pirates rotation.

13: Erik Bedard, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    2011 Stats: 129.1 IP, 5-9, 3.62 ERA, 125 K

    Career Stats: 951.1 IP, 56-50, 3.70 ERA, 926 K

    Erik Bedard has had a very strange career so far. Often regarded as one of the most purely talented pitchers in baseball, Bedard is easily one of the most fragile players in the league as well. He seems to constantly be hampered by some kind of injury, waving a huge red flag over his abundance of talent.

    After missing half of both the 2008 and 2009 seasons, he missed all of 2010 before coming back to the league in 2011 when he split time between the Seattle Mariners and the Boston Red Sox. Even in this, his "comeback year," he managed only 129.1 innings due to injuries over the course of the season.

    Still, the Pirates will be getting a very good pitching talent in 2012. He has never pitched in 200-plus innings, but if they can get 180 innings out of Bedard, his $4.5 million contract will be a bargain, and Pirates management will look genius. 

    Bedard has the talent to be higher on this list, but whether or not he can stay healthy still remains to be seen.

12: Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds

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    2011 Stats: 167.2 IP, 12-9 3.86 ERA, 118 K

    Career Stats: 306.0 IP, 20-13, 4.03 ERA, 209 K

    Mike Leake is one of the youngest pitchers on this list. He is currently just 24 years of age, but is already entering his third year as a major league pitcher.

    Leake owns the rare distinction of being one of a handful of players who went straight from the draft to the majors. After being drafted eighth overall by the Reds in the 2009 draft, the only time Leake spent developing his professional game was in a quick stint in the Arizona Fall League. After spring training for the 2010 season, he was awarded the fifth spot on the rotation.

    So, Leake must be naturally gifted, right?

    Well, yes. Leake is a very good pitcher, and the fact that he is only 24 years old and will be considered a "veteran" in 2012 means that Leake has all the potential in the world to get better. He was one of only two Reds starters in 2011 that showed any type of consistency, and moving forward he will likely be a very important piece of the Reds rotation.

    Leake is going to make a name for himself in the league, but as of right now he is still refining his game. With some more experience and age, expect Leake to shoot up this list.

11: Randy Wolf, Milwaukee Brewers

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    2011 Stats: 212.1 IP, 13-10, 3.69 ERA, 134 K

    Career Stats: 2110.1 IP, 127-107, 4.09 ERA, 1663 K

    Randy Wolf has been pretty dang good for the Brewers since coming over via free agency prior to the 2010 season. He is entering the third and final guaranteed year of the deal, and if he is hoping the Brewers will pick up the $10 million option for 2013, he's going to have to prove that he's worth the money with the talent in the farm nipping at that open spot's heels.

    Wolf was signed with the intention of him being a high rotation starter, but was relegated to the fourth spot in the rotation when Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke came over in trades. He flourished as a fourth starter, and was one of the best fourth starters in all of baseball.

    He has had a long, consistent career and has surpassed 210 innings for each of the past three years despite the fact that he is now 35 years of age. He continues to pitch well, and while he will never blow you away with any of his pitches, he manages to induce tons of fly-ball outs, a tactic that has been surprisingly successful with the Brewers, who play in a very hitter-friendly park.

    Wolf has plenty to gain from pitching well next season, and will hopefully continue to be a solid middle of the rotation guy for the Brewers.

10: Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2011 Stats: 194.2 IP, 13-7, 3.56 ERA, 156 K

    Career Stats: 374.0 IP, 27-16, 3.27 ERA, 296 K

    Jaime Garcia burst onto the scene in 2010. A relatively unknown prospect drafted in the 22nd round of the MLB amateur draft, Garcia was freshly coming off of Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss almost the entire 2009 season. 

    Garcia is living proof that Tommy John surgery only puts a temporary damper on a career.

    No one expected him to pitch as well as he did, and most of the baseball community didn't even know who he was prior to his rookie season. He would go on to place third in rookie of the year voting with an ERA of 2.70 and a 13-8 record, certainly a fine rookie year by any standards.

    On the surface of the numbers, it looks like Garcia seemed to have regressed in 2011. He didn't have a bad year by any means, but with an ERA that rose nearly a whole run, it's easy to see how he may have been the victim of a sophomore slump.

    In all actuality, however, he really didn't pitch significantly worse than he did in 2010. His WHIP was nearly identical (1.316 to 1.320), he pitched in more innings in 2011 and he still managed to only give up 0.7 HR/9. He even dropped his BB/9 from 2010 (3.5) to 2011 (2.3)

    Where Garcia lost ground was in H/9. Garcia, perhaps in an attempt to limit the walks he allowed, left the ball over the plate too much in 2011. This didn't lead to many home runs, but it certainly increased his H/9 from 8.3 in 2010 to 9.6 in 2011. 

    Garcia is a great young pitcher, and any team would be lucky to have him as a No. 3 starter. It's going to be interesting to see if Garcia can find some type of middle-ground in his pitching style between not allowing hits and not allowing walks. The Cardinals will also hope they can get a full 200-inning season out of him in 2012.

9: Shaun Marcum, Milwaukee Brewers

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    2011 Stats: 200.2 IP, 13-7, 3.54 ERA, 158 K

    Career Stats: 792.2 IP, 50-32, 3.77 ERA, 637 K

    Shaun Marcum came over to the Milwaukee Brewers prior to the 2011 season in a trade that sent Brett Lawrie, the best overall prospect in the Brewers system, to the Toronto Blue Jays. It was a good move for both sides. The Jays got one of the best young hitters in baseball and a future superstar, and the Brewers got a very good pitcher to help reconstruct what was one of the worst starting rotations in baseball in 2009 and 2010.

    Marcum experienced some good success in 2011. It was the first year he reached the 200 IP plateau, he tied his career high in wins, maintained his mid-three ERA, demonstrated outstanding control (most of the time) and managed a 7.1 K/9 (7.2 career) despite having a fastball that tops out at 88 mph.

    Marcum isn't higher on this list because he had what would politely be described as a bad ending to what was a mostly successful season. He posted a 5.17 ERA in September, and then went on to post an eye-popping 14.90 ERA in the postseason in three starts, the longest of which was only 4.2 innings.

    Why this happened, no one really knows. It's very possibly that Marcum just got tired down the stretch. Marcum had never pitched 200 innings in his career, and it was his first time pitching in the playoffs. It's unlikely that batters managed to figure him out... for a solid stretch of the season, Marcum was the Brewers best, most reliable pitcher (especially on the road), and he baffled offenses. 

    Marcum is fighting for either a contract extension or a big free-agency deal for 2013, so expect his numbers to get better in 2012. He could move up.

8: Wandy Rodriguez, Houston Astros

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    2011 Stats: 191.0 IP, 11-11, 3.49 ERA, 166 K

    Career Stats: 1176.0 IP, 73-75, 4.01 ERA, 1004 K

    Poor Wandy Rodriguez. Virtually the only bright spot on a Houston Astros team that is basically in limbo until its move to the American League in 2013.

    Now, keep in mind, there's a better than average chance that Wandy won't be in Houston in 2012. The Astros are shopping him in anticipation of a complete rebuild, and many teams (most notably the Boston Red Sox, looking to counter the New York Yankees' acquisitions of Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda), are interested in his services.

    His career ERA doesn't look that impressive compared to some others on this list. A 4.01 ERA isn't anything to shake a stick at, but it isn't really all that remarkable on a list of the 15 best pitchers in a division.

    Wandy is here because of the past four years. Since 2008, he has not posted an ERA above 3.60 (2010), and had a career low of 3.02 in 2009. He has only pitched in 200-plus innings once in his career (2009), but he has managed over 190 the past two seasons. 

    Add that to the fact that he went 11-11 last season with the worst team in baseball, that's really not bad. Wandy doesn't blow anyone away with a fastball that averages at about 90 mph and a curve in the mid-70's, but he does have a lot of good movement on all of his pitches and demonstrates good control.

    There's a good chance he won't be in the NL Central in 2012, but if he does stay with the Astros, look for him to be pretty much the only good thing they have going for them. 

7: Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs

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    2011 Stats: 198.0 IP, 10-10, 3.32 ERA, 197 K

    Career Stats: 932.1 IP, 52-54, 3.83 ERA, 769 K

    Matt Garza, like Wandy Rodriguez, faces some uncertainties going into the 2012 season.

    Over the course of this offseason, Garza has gone from sure to be traded, to possibly being shopped, to possibly staying with the Cubs, to being the cornerstone of the Cubs development going forward, to possibly being shopped, so on and so forth.

    My point: No one really knows where Matt Garza will play in 2012. With many teams looking for starting pitching to stay competitive, and the Chicago Cubs appearing to be in a complete rebuild phase, I still have my money on Garza being traded. He would fetch a high return, and would provide immediate talent for a team with a deep farm system in need of good pitching.

    That doesn't mean I think he SHOULD be traded.

    Garza is one fantastic pitcher. His career numbers are somewhat baffling (ranging from a 6.2 K/9 in 2008 to a 9.0 K/9 in 2011), and an ERA that has always been near 4.00 his entire career until 2011, it appears that 2011 may have been something of a breakout year... or it may have been an anomaly, and he could revert back to being a solid No. 3 or No. 4 starter instead of an ace.

    But Garza has fantastic stuff. Once regarded as one of the best pure pitching talents in Tampa Bay (which really is something considering the bevy of talent in Tampa Bay), he proved last season with Chicago that he can be one of the best pitchers in the game.

    Where he lands next season and how well he pitches in 2012 is kind of up in the air as of right now, but his pure talent lands him this high on the list.

6: Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    2011 Stats: 156.0 IP, 9-5, 2.31 ERA, 104 K

    Career Stats: 687.0 IP, 41-37, 3.83 ERA, 532 K

    Johnny Cueto is here almost solely because of his outstanding 2011 season, and the potential this young pitcher possesses to be a Cy Young contending ace.

    In fact, were it not for missed time due to injury, Cueto almost certainly would have been in the discussion for the Cy Young last year.

    Unfortunately, he was only able to pitch in 155 innings last year, and that simply was not enough to help pull the Reds out of mediocrity.

    A lot of discussion going forward will be placed on who is going to be the ace of this rotation—Cueto or new teammate Mat Latos. I think that's not even a point worth discussing, as both of these young pitchers are capable of great things. The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals have proven that having dual aces at the top of your rotation (along with solid three through five guys) is vital to success.

    With Cueto, the Reds have a young ace under contract until 2015, and it looks like he's only going to get better.

    Cueto used to be a strikeout pitcher. His rookie campaign saw him strike out 8.2 batters per nine innings. Since then, his K/9 has dipped every single year (2008—8.2, 2009—6.9, 2010—6.7, 2011—6.0). But with the decrease in strikeouts, we've watched Cueto gain command of the strike zone, and as a result, his ERA, his BB/9, his HR/9 and his WHIP have dropped every single year.

    If he can put together a full season next year (as in 200-plus innings), Cueto will certainly receive some Cy Young recognition. 

5: Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds

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    2011 Stats: 194.1 IP, 9-14, 3.47 ERA, 185 K

    Career Stats: 429.2 IP, 27-29, 3.37 ERA, 413 K

    The Cincinnati Reds were clearly paying attention to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011. After a resurgent 2010 campaign that saw the Reds defy the odds and make the playoffs, they decided to stay pat the following offseason. Only a few minor changes to the team, and no changes to what was an average pitching rotation at best.

    The Reds proceeded to fall into the pit of mediocrity. 

    Despite solid pitching from youngsters Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto, the Reds starting rotation just wasn't good enough, and showed no consistency. A potent offense with poor pitching... essentially the Reds were the Milwaukee Brewers of 2009 and 2010

    Enter Mat Latos.

    The Reds elected to give up a ton of talent to get Mat Latos. They gave up one of the best hitting prospects in the game in Yonder Alonzo, they gave up first-rounder Yasmani Grandal and they gave up underachieving but hyper-talented Edinson Volquez, all for San Diego's (former) ace.

    Who got the better end of the deal? Certainly, in the short term, the Reds. 

    The Padres are going to have to develop the players they received, while the Reds get one of the best young pitchers in the game. In the long-term, the Padres will probably get the long straw, but the Reds are in "win now" mode, much like the Brewers of 2011.

    Latos could flop... he's spent his career in the best park for pitchers in all of baseball, and is going to one of the worst pitchers parks in all of baseball. But I don't see Latos becoming a flop. He is simply too talented and too motivated to fall flat on his face. 

    With the run support he will be getting, we can certainly bet that he will have a much better record than 2011.

4: Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2011 Stats: 237.1 IP, 11-9, 3.45 ERA, 191 K

    Career Stats: 2202.1 IP, 144-92, 3.76 ERA, 1685 K

    Chris Carpenter doesn't know how to quit.

    The hard-throwing righty will be turning 37 in April, and he is still pitching extremely well. He led the Cardinals into the playoffs, and guided them to a World Championship, defying every single odd along the way.

    But as he gets older, you have to star wondering when his age will catch up to him.

    He began to show signs of slowing down during the first half of 2011, but salvaged a pretty fantastic season. The older he gets, however, the harder it is going to be for him to pull out of slumps like he did this past year.

    To put it bluntly, age is why Carpenter is not higher on this list. Looking at his remarkable career resume in which he has won a Cy Young, and has finished in the top three in Cy Young voting three times, it's clear that he has had the most impressive career so far out of anyone on this list.

    In all likelihood, Carpenter is going to still pitch well next year, and probably a year or two after that. But it wouldn't surprise me to see his numbers steadily start to decline. He will continue to be an excellent No. 2 starter behind Adam Wainwright, he will continue to mentor the young pitchers looking to make a mark, and he will look to be the leader of a team that is suddenly without superstar Albert Pujols.

    His intensity for the game is unrivaled, and his importance to his team is now more important than ever.

    The three pitchers ahead of Carp have a longer, and possibly brighter, future ahead of them than him, but Carpenter's legacy has firmly planted himself amongst the best pitchers in St. Louis history.

3: Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers

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    2011 Stats: 207.1 IP, 17-10, 3.52 ERA, 207 K

    Career Stats: 712.1 IP, 53-34, 3.63 ERA, 732 K

    Yovani Gallardo is arguably the pitcher with the most untapped potential on this list, which is saying something given his 2011 season and his career numbers.

    Gallardo is only turning 26 next month, yet he will be entering his sixth year of service as a major leaguer in 2012. Over the course of his already impressive career, Gallardo has transformed from the big-time Brewers prospect with an incredible curveball to an ace at a young age, capable of racking up tons of strikeouts.

    Gallardo is the first pitcher in Milwaukee Brewers history to strike out 200-plus batters in three consecutive seasons (2009: 204, 2010: 200, 2011: 207). He has a career K/9 of 9.2.

    By essentially every measurement, 2011 was Gallardo's most successful season to date. Excluding an injury filled that only saw him pitch in 24 regular-season innings, he posted career lows in ERA, WHIP and BB/9, and career highs in wins, Ks and SO/BB. 

    And he is only going to get better.

    Gallardo has an excellent repertoire, consisting of a mid-90's fastball, a power curve, a tight slider, a new cutter in the low 90's and a now scarce changeup. Gallardo's problem has been control since he entered the big leagues, always walking too many batters. In 2011 it appears Gallardo has figured it out, and while his K/9 dipped slightly from 2009/2010 to 2011, as mentioned, almost every other stat got better. Further, if you eliminate the slow start of April, Gallardo's ERA would be 3.05 in 171 IP. Recognition of his fantastic year resulted in the first Cy Young votes of his career, finishing in seventh for the award. 

    Gallardo is an ace and is under team control for several more years. He's going to get better and better, and sometime in the very near future, he just might become a top five pitcher in all of baseball.

2: Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers

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    2011 Stats: 171.2 IP, 16-6, 3.83 ERA, 201 K

    Career Stats: 1279.2 IP, 76-73, 3.82 ERA, 1132 K

    As I mentioned earlier in the article, the Milwaukee Brewers knew they need pitching to succeed in a tough NL Central, and they gave up several major league-ready players and top prospects to acquire Zack Greinke from the Kansas City Royals.

    Zack Greinke frightened Brewers fans before the season even began, breaking his ribs during a pick-up basketball game, missing all of spring training and the first month of the season. Then, when he finally made his first start as a Brewer, he certainly did not inspire confidence in Brewers fans that he was worth the price the Brewers paid to get him. In May, Greinke posted a 5.29 ERA, and in June, he posted a 6.04 ERA. Somewhat bizarrely, Greinke was still pitching fairly well, striking out 80 batters in only 62.1 innings, while only walking 12.

    Fans patiently waited for Greinke to become the ace they knew he could be, and when he finally arrived, he did not disappoint. Over the course of the last three months, Greinke posted a 2.80 ERA, and struck out 121 over 109.1 innings. If Greinke had not missed the vital training and preparation of spring training, it's not hard to imagine him putting together a Cy Young season.

    Speaking of Cy Young, Zack Greinke is also responsible for one of the single most dominant seasons by a pitcher in MLB history. In 2009, Greinke went 229.1 innings, posted an ERA of 2.16, struck out 242 and was the overwhelming winner of the Cy Young award.

    Greinke and Gallardo have become one of the best one-two combinations in baseball. They were the first pair of pitchers in Brewers history to strike out 200 batters in a season, Greinke doing so in impressive fashion, finishing with a MLB-leading 10.5 K/9.

    Looking at the second half of 2011, and his 2009 season, Greinke's potential is frightening to any batters that have to face him. He has electric stuff, impressive control and a mentality solely focused on pitching well and helping his team win. The Brewers would do well to extend him, something both Greinke and the Brewers have expressed interest in.

1: Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2011 DNP, 2010 Stats: 233.0 IP, 20-11, 2.42 ERA, 213 K

    Career Stats: 874.1 IP, 2.97 ERA, 66-35, 724 K

    Who else was it going to be?

    Simply put, Adam Wainwright combines both factors that I used to compile this list better than anyone else: A strong past resume and an immensely bright future.

    Wainwright, of course, missed the entire 2011 season because of Tommy John surgery. Some people might look at that as a red flag, but Tommy John has a high rate of post-surgical success, and with someone as talented as Wainwright, he should be back to full force in 2012 atop a very good St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation.

    Wainwright is simply the best current pitcher on this list. The top six pitchers on this list are all exceedingly talented, but Wainwright's brilliance cannot be denied.

    His past two seasons have earned him plenty of Cy Young recognition, finishing in third in 2009 and second in 2010, somewhat famously finishing with more first-place votes than any other pitcher in 2009 but still coming in third. Had it not been for a freakish 2010 season from Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright would have had his first Cy Young award in 2010.

    Moving forward, assuming of course that he recovers fully from his surgery, Adam Wainwright will continue to be the standard of pitching in the NL Central, and one of the three best pitchers in the National League. He may face stiff competition from the other pitchers on this list, but Wainwright is an astoundingly talented starting pitcher.

    Wainwright (and Chris Carpenter, for that matter) is going to be pitching in his final season under Cardinals control. While there is a chance the Cards could extend him, a pitcher with Wainwright's talents would earn a remarkable contract in free agency. Expect to see Wainwright come back from injury looking to pitch the best season of his career. He will be a top contender for the Cy Young award, and will be looking to earn a huge contract after this season.

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