With Opening Day imminent for the 2012 season, every team's fans are going to be looking at the starting rotation to see which five players made the cut this year.
While it's always interesting to see who gets those final spots, those whose teams have playoff hopes know that those final couple pitchers don't matter all that much as long as they aren't awful.
What really matters is who each team's top three pitchers are, as they will be the ones taking the mound in playoff games.
Here are the rankings heading into 2012 for each team's top pitchers. I primarily used 2011's stats, but I factored in past numbers and projections as well.
The Orioles have some talent on offense if you know where to look, but their starting rotation is flat-out atrocious.
With Jeremy Guthrie gone, who else do they have? Zach Britton had a decent rookie year and shows some promise, but will be sidelined to start the season. Jason Hammel or Jake Arrieta could be in competition to be the No. 2 guy, while Taiwanese import Wei-Yin Chen is far from a sure thing.
In all honesty, I would be surprised if a single O's starter had a good year.
The Astros actually had the potential to not be in the cellar this year, but by converting Brett Myers to closer, they've shown that it's not a big deal to them if they have a bad rotation.
Wandy Rodriguez is not necessarily an ace, but flashes that potential when he's on, and Bud Norris seems to be gradually improving. After that, though, I don't trust anyone on their staff.
Their next best pitcher may be Livan Hernandez, who I'm pretty sure is out of gas at this point in his career.
The Oakland Athletics always seem to find a way to make great starting pitchers. However, there's always a learning curve involved, and at least for this year, the brand new starting rotation will have to work out all the issues.
Brandon McCarthy will pitch well, but Tommy Milone has five career starts under his belt, and Bartolo Colon hardly has the stamina to last an entire season. I can't put Brett Anderson on this list since he'll miss a good chunk of 2012, as will Dallas Braden.
Unlike the Orioles, the A's do have a shot at having a decent year. However, they are injury-riddled enough at the front end of their rotation that I can't place them any higher than this.
The Kansas City Royals made some nice moves in the offseason, and may have one of the best bullpens in the AL.
However, even with the addition of Jonathan Sanchez, their starting rotation is still rather poor.
Bruce Chen is serviceable, and Sanchez should have a bounce-back season as the ace of the staff. Luke Hochevar remains a question mark, however, with his 2011 stats likely being his ceiling.
Even when the Colorado Rockies have talented pitchers, playing in Coors Field means that they'll be near the bottom of the barrel each year. With Ubaldo Jimenez long gone, 2012 is no exception.
Jhoulys Chacin is a rising star despite playing in Colorado and should have a good year, while Jeremy Guthrie can be an innings-eater if nothing else.
There's really no solid pitcher to place third. Heck, the third-best pitcher could very well be Jamie Moyer, but I would say it's second-year guy Juan Nicasio, who put up mediocre numbers his rookie year.
The Twins could very well have a good rotation next year. Their problem is that their pitchers are rather streaky, with no one able to put together any consistently good seasons.
After a good 2010, Carl Pavano has been showing his age with only an okay 2011, and you never know what you'll get with Francisco Liriano. Scott Baker has been consistently solid, and he's the only guy in the Twins rotation you can say that about, let alone the top three.
They could shock me and skyrocket up the ranks, but they're inconsistent enough that I can't act like it'll happen.
Three AL Central teams with bottom-six pitching staffs, at least the top three starters? That appears to be the case, especially since the Chicago White Sox are without Mark Buehrle, who honestly made the rotation far better, even if stats don't necessarily show it.
John Danks has been consistently good, but I don't quite buy him as an ace yet. Gavin Floyd and Philip Humber are both solid workhorses, but three nice pitchers does not equal any type of championship rotation; their top three is basically a trifecta of middle-of-the-rotation guys, with Danks perhaps being a number two.
Where do you rank a team that has a huge question mark where an elite pitcher should be? That's the question I have to ask when it comes to the New York Mets, and here's why I rank them low.
Johan Santana is coming back from a very serious injury, and while he was a no-question ace before, I don't think he'll be at that level, at least not at first. After him, the depth is questionable.
R.A. Dickey can be decent, but Mike Pelfrey gives me and most Mets fans a headache. He can be good, but when he's bad, he's really bad—that hurts their rank quite a bit.
The Cubs are finally rid of Carlos Zambrano, and while that helps clear the air in the clubhouse, it does knock them low in the rotation rankings, as they don't have much in the top three.
Matt Garza is consistently good and will be again this year. While Ryan Dempster was good in the past, he needs to rebound from an iffy 2011, as it looked like he showed his age. Paul Maholm isn't the best No. 3 guy, but if he can handle carrying Pittsburgh, he can handle No. 3 with the Cubs.
Every year, the Padres seem to have a very nice starting rotation with players we've never heard of and never hear from again once they start playing elsewhere. That being said, with Mat Latos, Aaron Harang and others gone, I have to rank them low even if they'll likely overachieve again.
Last year was Tim Stauffer's first as a full-time starter, and he seemed decent. Clayton Richard is okay as well, but isn't a go-to guy necessarily. Edinson Volquez had the one great season and hasn't been able to stay on the field since, so who knows what you'll get with him.
The Pittsburgh Pirates made all the right moves this offseason. While they're still stuck almost in the bottom third of teams when it comes to starting rotations, at least they aren't dead last or nearly dead last like most years.
Erik Bedard should be great for Pittsburgh, and while I don't trust Charlie Morton's consistency just yet, if he plays like he did last year, then he's a good No. 2 guy. A.J. Burnett adds a nice workhorse at worst once he returns from the disabled list.
The Cleveland Indians may have the second-best top three pitchers in the AL Central, but after seeing the other three teams, that's really not saying much.
Justin Masterson should have a great year and looked like an ace last year, but Ubaldo Jimenez is a massive question mark moving forward. He could be great, but could be wild yet again.
Josh Tomlin's 12 wins were due to some good luck, but I think he's a solid No. 3 option, even though he's technically the fourth guy in the rotation; I can't put Derek Lowe in the top three at this point in his career, though.
The Toronto Blue Jays show a lot of promise when it comes to their hitting for this year. Their starting rotation, however, I'm not sold on.
I consider Ricky Romero rather underrated, and think he's definitely an ace. Brandon Morrow is confusing, as he's such a strikeout artist, yet allows so many earned runs. If he can knock the ERA down, then he's a great number two.
The third-best pitcher in unclear. If it's Brett Cecil, then he'll have to improve on a mediocre 2011, though his 2010 wasn't all that much better. Henderson Alvarez could easily swipe that third spot this coming year.
I can feel the heat already. I have the nerve to put the team that just won the AL pennant two years in a row this low in starting pitching quality, what's up with that?
Well, they lost C.J. Wilson, and they won thanks to an amazing lineup rather than pitching.
Colby Lewis is a great postseason pitcher, but in the regular season he's good at best—certainly not an ace. Yu Darvish is a complete question mark right now, though I think he'll be good personally, and Derek Holland had a nice year and works well as the third-best pitcher.
The Rangers have the rotation depth to do well, but they don't have someone that can fill Wilson's shoes. That's why they fell out of the top half, at least for now.
The Reds made a huge splash with their trade this past offseason, but I'm not buying that it makes them that much better. They're another team for which I'll get flak for putting in the bottom half, but I had them and the next three extremely close together.
Johnny Cueto is not someone who I see as being an ace quite yet, but he's shown himself to be a very good pitcher already. Mike Leake is a solid middle-rotation guy as well. Mat Latos is the question mark.
If Latos plays like he did in San Diego, then the Reds have a nice rotation, but pitchers out of San Diego never play as well as they did there. In reality, they have a couple of No. 2's and 3's—they've failed to acquire a true ace like they set out to do.
I feel like on most of my rankings, the Mariners end up lower than I'd prefer, getting the short end of the stick when bunched up with other close-ranked teams. In this case, I'm quite positive that the Mariners' front three is about average.
Felix Hernandez is, of course, a great ace and one of the best pitchers in baseball, but there's definitely a drop off. Jason Vargas is decent, but only a middle-rotation guy, and I'm not sold on Blake Beavan yet, though he's still young.
If they had the Hernandez-Fister-Vargas trio like they did last year, then you could probably put them in the top 10.
I'm not sure how much faith I have in the Dodgers depth, both in the rotation and the lineup, but when it comes to the front of the rotation, they are in fairly good shape.
Clayton Kershaw is the reigning Cy Young winner, and someone so young should continue to grow. Ted Lilly is a No. 3 at this point in his career, but can still be an innings eater.
Chad Billingsley is the one I'm unsure about.
Billingsley was consistently good until 2011, and he has No. 2 talent, so if he bounces back, then the Dodgers have a very nice rotation. Even if he doesn't, it's not all that bad.
The Atlanta Braves are known more for their dominant bullpen, but they have a great starting rotation as well heading into 2012.
Tim Hudson will start the season late, but the elder statesman of the team has remained great. Jair Jurrjens has been a dynamic No. 2 despite the trade rumors, and Tommy Hanson has been a solid No. 3 practically since his debut.
The Detroit Tigers are best known for their bats, but they have some great pitching as well, led by perhaps the best in the game today in Justin Verlander, who was utterly dominant last year.
Doug Fister was a great pickup last year, and has proven to be a great second starter. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are both only adequate No. 3 guys, though neither one has quite yet pitched the way a third guy should.
Verlander can cover for them in the meantime.
The Miami Marlins could have a great rotation or a troublesome rotation next year; it all depends on whether Josh Johnson stays healthy. If he does, the top three are one of the better groups in the league.
Josh Johnson is easily an ace when healthy, and he finally seems to be, while Mark Buehrle makes an ideal No. 2 pitcher. Anibal Sanchez is a very solid No. 3 pitcher, and they are actually one of the few teams that seems to clearly have a top three in place.
The Washington Nationals made one of the biggest offseason trades, and by doing so land themselves on the top 10 when it comes to the front end of their rotation.
Stephen Strasburg looks to be great as long as he stays healthy, and I see Gio Gonzalez continuing his dominance over in Washington. Jordan Zimmermann has plenty of upside now that he's finally pitching a full season, though it's too early to consider him more than good, if a bit on the unlucky side.
The Boston Red Sox's pitching situation is one where I think people will say I both overrated and underrated them, no matter where I put them. If we're talking the entire rotation, then they take a huge hit as they have no depth. The top three are actually very good, though.
Jon Lester has been consistently great for the Red Sox, and while Josh Beckett can be streaky, he's ace material at his best. Clay Buchholz is also great when healthy—that has not been often, but an iffy Buchholz is still their best option as the No. 3 guy.
The Brewers' pitching is at its best in the 1-4 rankings, rather than looking at the entire rotation or the top three. Looking at the latter, however, they still have a great group.
Yovani Gallardo has been on the cusp of being an ace for a while now, and at worst is a great second option. Zack Greinke is being projected by many sabermetricians to have a far better 2012 season, almost back to his Cy Young levels.
As for Shaun Marcum, he's just about at the level of the other two and is rather underrated. He makes for a great No. 3 option.
The Yankees, after acquiring Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda and bringing back Andy Pettitte, have incredible pitching depth. If I were looking at the staff as a whole, they would be in the top three easily. Just looking at the first three pitchers, though, they're great, but not quite at that level.
C.C. Sabathia is an ace, and can be relied on as the anchor. Hiroki Kuroda will be a huge asset if his stats are like what he's put up with the Dodgers. Ivan Nova is still young, but if he puts up numbers like he did last year, then the Yankees have a great rotation.
The only real question mark I have with the St. Louis Cardinals is their durability. Chris Carpenter's battling an injury and Adam Wainwright had Tommy John surgery. Assuming they'll be healthy for most of 2012, it's far easier to place them this high.
Carpenter has started to show his age, but remains a great pitcher, and Wainwright manages to be a bit underrated despite being dominant year after year. Both Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse are serviceable as solid third starters; I'm using Garcia in my rankings here as he's been more consistent in his career.
I can already see people commenting that I'm ranking them too highly, but I truly believe that the Arizona Diamondbacks, with their major offseason acquisition, have given themselves a top-five front of the rotation.
Ian Kennedy was dominant out of nowhere in 2011, but had a solid 2010, so he should regress minimally, while Daniel Hudson has already proven he can have very hot streaks. Throw in Trevor Cahill to that mix and you have a rotation that could actually compete with San Francisco in the division.
The Tampa Bay Rays have a huge group of great young pitching. They have a very real chance at being first on this list next year as long as they sustain their dominance.
David Price is a Cy Young contender when he's on, and Jeremy Hellickson should be great as long as he doesn't have a sophomore slump. James Shields is a workhorse who had a great 2011, and if he repeats that, then this could feasibly be a top-three rotation.
Matt Moore should be the next Rookie of the Year following Hellickson, though I can't put him in the top three just yet, despite how dominant he was in the minors.
Do the Angels really have a better rotation than the Rays now? With their latest free-agent acquisition, I absolutely think that their top three players could win in a battle with the Rays, even if I wouldn't extend the same praise to a five-on-five battle.
Jered Weaver has been dominant the past two seasons, and Dan Haren has been very underrated with how he's performed in L.A. so far. As for C.J. Wilson, he goes from being an ace on the AL Champs to the third-best pitcher; that shows how dominant the Angels are up front.
The San Francisco Giants have been loaded with pitching talent for years now, and they should have no trouble remaining near the top of this list for some time.
Tim Lincecum is a perennial Cy Young candidate despite a hard-luck win-loss record last year, and Matt Cain might be the most underrated pitcher in baseball for the same reason. Madison Bumgarner is a rising star who's nearly on the level of the other two already.
The Giants won the 2010 World Series with this batch, but their failed playoff run in 2011 and any failure in 2012 will not be due to this rotation.
There's no question in my mind that the Phillies have the best top-three starting rotation. Even if it was expanded to all five in the rotation, they would be right up there.
Roy Halladay is, to me, the best pitcher in the game day in and day out. Both he and Cliff Lee have won Cy Youngs and have been great for the Phillies. Cole Hamels is just about at their level at his best as well; he is a marquee free agent in 2013 for a reason.
Like the Giants, if the Phillies don't win a title this year, it will not be due to their rotation.