SF Giants: Comparing the Giants and Dodgers Rotations After the Greinke Signing

Laith AghaContributor IDecember 18, 2012

SF Giants: Comparing the Giants and Dodgers Rotations After the Greinke Signing

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    The Dodgers have been spending big money this offseason, emboldened by the projected revenue of the organization’s next television contract.

    Much of the loot has gone toward bolstering the starting rotation, which—despite featuring 2011 Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw—did not quite measure up to San Francisco’s group of five.

    So in came the most desired free agent pitcher of this offseason, Zack Greinke, along with South Korean star Hyun-Jin Ryu. They will be joining Kershaw, Josh Beckett and either Chad Billingsley (depending on how well his elbow heals), Aaron Harang, Ted Lilly or Chris Capuano in the rotation.

    The Giants, on the other hand, are not changing a thing. Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito will again comprise the rotation. 

    And why not? Each started at least 31 games last season, and each has played a crucial role in one or both of San Franicsco’s two World Series titles.

    So have the Dodgers done enough to surpass the Giants on the mound? Let’s take a look.

Fifth Starter: Zito vs. Billingsley, Harang, Capuano or Lilly

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    While some teams are still trying to round out their starting rotations, the Giants know exactly who will take the ball for them on the fifth day. Meanwhile, the Dodgers must sort through an embarrassment of spoils to settle on a fifth starter.

    Barry Zito was spectacular during two of his three World Series starts, but it would be a stretch to expect him to be ready to pitch like that for an entire season in 2013.

    Other than a possible confidence boost from his postseason performance, the only lift Zito could gain would be the fact that he is finally entering the last year of his much-maligned contract. But neither point is likely to translate to a Zito renaissance.

    The Giants know what they have in Zito: an unspectacular but reliable pitcher at the back of their rotation.

    The Dodgers' situation is not nearly as clear.

    If Chad Billingsley’s health holds up, the Dodgers will probably have the best fifth starter in baseball. But that’s a sizable “if.”

    Billingsley, a right-hander, missed the last five weeks of the season due to a partially torn ligament in his throwing elbow. He has avoided Tommy John surgery thus far and has looked healthy while throwing to batters this offseason. But relying on a balky elbow ligament to hold up is risky.

    If Billingsley stays healthy, the advantage here goes to the Dodgers. If he doesn’t, and the Dodgers turn to Aaron Harang, Ted Lilly or Chris Capuano, Los Angeles probably still has the advantage, since each of these three posted a sub-4.00 ERA last season. Zito hasn't done that since 2006, his last season in Oakland.

    Harang was serviceable for the Dodgers last year, and solid for the Padres the year before, but he was terrible for several years prior to that while in Cincinnati. Bigger ball parks and weaker lineups have helped. Lilly is coming off a shoulder injury, though he is expected to be ready for Spring Training. Capuano had a career year with the Dodgers in 2012.

    Chances are that one or two of these players will be traded, but that would still leave the Dodgers with plenty of depth.

Fourth Starter: Vogelsong vs. Ryu

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    Since Ryu has never thrown a pitch in a major league game or even a minor league contest, he is a virtual unknown. He was decent in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, but his 2.57 ERA and seven strikeouts came during just seven innings.

    Just 10 South Korean pitchers have ever appeared in the major leagues, which makes a difficult task of translating one’s performance in the Korean Baseball Organization to the major leagues. Chan Ho Park, the first Korean to play in the major leagues, was also the most successful.

    Dodgers international scout Bob Engle compared Ryu to David Wells, but that seemed to be based more on them both being left-handed and round-bodied.

    So evaluating Ryu is difficult. However, considering last year’s international imports—Yu Darvish and Wei-Yin Chen—in their first major league seasons, Ryu could be expected to be adequate, but dominating.

    Meanwhile, Vogelsong was a Cy Young candidate late into last season. And based on his two seasons in San Francisco (3.06 ERA) since returning from a four-year hiatus in Japan, the Giants have every reason to believe they have a No. 2 starter slotted in the fourth spot.

    Advantage: Giants

Third Starter: Lincecum vs. Beckett

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    Tim Lincecum and Josh Beckett are an appropriate matchup, since both are star pitchers who have much to prove.

    Beckett has had the more tumultuous career of the two. In six full seasons with Boston, he was excellent during two seasons, adequate in another two and awful in the other two. During his seventh season, the Red Sox shipped him to Los Angeles in the Adrian Gonzalez blockbuster, presumably to shed his salary.

    Then Beckett got to Chavez Ravine and pitched well, posting a 2.93 ERA in seven starts.

    Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner and three-time strikeout king, boasts one of the best starts to a career in recent history. But he was putrid in 2012, going from ace status to not even deserving a spot in the team’s playoff rotation.

    He was stellar in relief during the postseason, but then choked in his one start, giving up four runs and failing to get out of the fifth inning against St. Louis.

    Chances are that Lincecum will be motivated to erase the memory of last season while also rejuvenating his stock as he enters free agency next offseason. If that proves to be the case, then Becket—who turns 32 in May—would need to have a career year to keep pace.

    Advantage: Giants

Second Starter: Bumgarner vs. Greinke

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    Other than his 2009 season, when he did a great Pedro Martinez impression with a 2.16 ERA and 242 strikeouts, Zack Greinke has never performed like an elite pitcher. And considering that he has been largely unspectacular since his one dominant year, the monstrous contract the Dodgers gave Greinke last week seems unwarranted.

    That’s not to say that Greinke, who turned 29 shortly after the 2012 season, isn’t a good pitcher, or that he won’t help the Dodgers in their pursuit of a World Series title. He just isn’t one of the best pitchers in baseball—as his $125 million would imply.

    At 23, Madison Bumgarner has already established himself as one of the best young talents in the major leagues. Since joining San Francisco’s rotation in mid-2010, he has maintained an ERA in the low threes in each season.

    But is he on the verge of a leap to the elite level? His ERA has actually climbed in his second and third seasons, while his home runs allowed nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012. His strikeout and walk rates were virtually identical the past two seasons, while his batting average against dropped from .260 to .234.

    What does that all mean for Bumgarner in 2013? Probably that he could show slight improvement, maybe dropping his ERA into the high twos, but will likely continue being the steady performer the Giants have become accustomed to.

    If Greinke pitches as he did while in Milwaukee and during a brief stint in Los Angeles of Anaheim, he will be good—just not as good as Bumgarner.

    Advantage: Giants

Ace: Cain vs. Kershaw

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    The Giants’ success is more attributed to their pitching than any other aspect of their game, and the leader of the pitching staff—at least since Lincecum’s tank job in 2012—is Matt Cain.

    Arguably one of the 10 best pitchers in the league, Cain has impressed with such accomplishments as a perfect game, a run-free 2010 postseason and a sub-3.00 ERA in three of the last four seasons. He would be the ace on most teams.

    But not for the Dodgers.

    Clayton Kershaw, who turns 25 during Spring Training, is arguably the best pitcher on the planet. The 2011 NL Cy Young winner has led the major leagues in ERA the past two seasons, which is just about the most telling sign of his prowess.

    Opponents barely hit above the Mendoza line against Kershaw, and he is making a habit of reaching 200 strikeouts by early September. Kershaw is a left-handed Lincecum—before Lincecum’s collapse.

    Advantage: Dodgers

Overall Advantage: Giants

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    All things being equal on offense and in the field, the Giants would beat the Dodgers in a five-game series, 3 games to 2.

    If it came down to a battle of the aces, the Dodgers would be more likely to emerge victorious. In a more conventional three-game series, it’s more of a toss-up.

    But the most important comparison is over the course of the regular season. The Dodgers have significant questions with the last three spots in their rotation, while Giants potentially only have two weaknesses in their rotation.

    Then again, if Lincecum has a bounce-back season, the Giants could have four pitchers not quite as good as Kershaw but better than Greinke.

    Despite all the money poured into their starting pitching, the Dodgers’ rotation still doesn’t match the Giants’.