MLB 2011 Predictions: Felix Hernandez and the Best Starting Pitchers in the AL

James Stewart-Meudt@@JSMeudtCorrespondent IIMarch 8, 2011

MLB 2011 Predictions: Felix Hernandez and the Best Starting Pitchers in the AL

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    Pitching wins championships.

    It's not overly complicated: if you have a great starting rotation, you're going to win some ball games. Just ask the San Francisco Giants, or a Philadelphia Phillies fan if you've got the time.

    Every offseason teams try to bring in talented arms. Sometimes those arms are found through free agency, while other times it comes from a hot prospect or even taking a chance on an aging veteran.

    For many teams, their seasons hinge on the performance of their starting rotation.

    That said, let's take a look at who will be the best starting pitchers in the AL on their respective teams in 2011.


Baltimore Orioles: Jake Arrieta

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    Like many of the weaker teams in baseball, being the best pitcher on the Orioles staff is rather relative. If you can keep your ERA somewhere around the mid-3's, you're basically an ace in Baltimore.

    At just 25 years old, Arrieta made 18 starts for Baltimore last season, finishing 6-6 with a 4.66 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. In three seasons in the minors, he posted solid numbers, albeit in limited work. He was 6-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts at Triple-A Norfolk before making his major league debut on June 10 against the New York Yankees.

    Pitching in the AL East isn't going to help Arrieta's development, and he'll have to develop his secondary pitches if he's going to have any success. He can get his fastball up to 94-95 mph, but locating it was his problem last year.

    He threw 173.1 innings between the majors and minor leagues last season, so we'll see how he responds to a full season this year. He'll have to make big strides to keep an ERA under three this season, but like I said, it's not difficult to be the best starter in Baltimore.

Boston Red Sox: John Lester

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    Despite Clay Buchholz's surface stats, Lester was the best pitcher on the Red Sox last season. Finishing the 2010 season with a 19-9 record and a 3.25 ERA. He was selected to his first All-Star game and placed fourth in Cy Young voting.

    The Red Sox made big strides adding Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford this offseason, but it starts and ends with their starting rotation. Lester collected 225 strikeouts for the second straight season, good for third in the AL.

    At just 27 years old and already with a no-hitter on his resume, Lester has established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

    The Red Sox need their starting rotation to return to form if they want any chance at making the postseason, and Lester is a big part of that. Expect him to lead the Red Sox into October in 2011.

New York Yankees: CC Sabathia

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    Sabathia won 21 games last season, but his stats were down from 2009. He threw more pitches per plate appearance (from 3.73 to 3.82), his K/9 were down (from 8.93 to 7.71), as was his K/BB ratio (from 4.25 to 2.94). Still, Sabathia is one of the best pitchers in baseball and the best big game pitcher in the AL East.

    Sabathia has an opt-out clause at the end of the 2011 season, which he is expected to use. With an eye on adding some years and money to his contract, whether it's from the New York Yankees or some other team, Sabathia is poised for a big season.

    The Yankees starting rotation looks weak this year, with several veterans competing for the No. 4 and No. 5 spots. They'll most likely make a mid-season trade for a starter, but Sabathia will remain the Yanks' best starting pitcher this season.

Tampa Bay Rays: David Price

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    Price bounced back from a disappointing 2009 season to finish second in the AL Cy Young voting last season. Price went 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. He increased his K/9 rate from 7.15 in 2009 to 8.11 in 2010 and cut down his walk rate.

    The Rays lost a lot this offseason, including relievers Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour. Needless to say, the starting rotation is going to be very important for the Rays in 2011. They have a great pitching prospect ready to go in Jeremy Hellickson, but it starts and ends with Price.


Toronto Blue Jays: Ricky Romero

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    Everything about Romero's 2010 campaign was better than 2009.

    Finishing 14-9 with a 3.73 ERA, Romero increased his K/9 rate (7.13 in 2009 to 7.46 in 2010) and reduced his walk rate. Despite throwing 32 more innings than he did in 2009, Romero only walked three more batters.

    The Blue Jays have one heck of a young rotation on their hands. I'm not sure if any of them can even get into an R-rated movie yet.

    With a youthful, potential-filled rotation and a power-packed lineup in Toronto, the rest of the AL East needs to be on watch. A third place finish for the Blue Jays isn't out of the question and if the Yankees can't find some starting pitching during the season, they could even jump to second.

    Romero is going to be a big part of that.

Chicago White Sox: Jake Peavy

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    Injuries have limited Peavy to just 33 starts over the last two seasons, but no one is more important to the White Sox in 2011.

    In 17 starts last season, Peavy went 7-6 with a 4.63 ERA. He landed on the 15-day DL on July 7 after throwing less than two innings against the LA Angels the previous day, and never returned. Peavy now says he's 100 percent healthy and experienced just "general soreness" after his first spring start on Sunday.

    Given Peavy's age (29) and potential, it's amazing he's listed as No. 4 on Chicago's depth chart. If he can stay healthy this season, Peavy can be an ace.

    Along with Mark Buerhle and John Danks, and after adding Adam Dunn this offseason, the White Sox have their eyes on an AL Central division title this year.

    Give him 30 starts, and Peavy will establish himself as their best starting pitcher by season's end.

Cleveland Indians: Carlos Carrasco

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    Carrasco was one of four players sent to Cleveland from the Phillies for Cliff Lee in 2009. He made seven starts last season as a September call up and pitched well, finishing 2-2 with a 3.83.

    Carrasco was up and down over his six years in the minors, throwing almost 900 innings. He has swing and miss stuff, but has struggled with his consistency and has trouble avoiding the big inning.

    He did a good job keeping the ball in the park and on the ground (1.35 GB/FB rate).

    Fausto Carmona is Cleveland's No. 1 starter heading into the season, and rightfully so. But he could easily find himself on the trading block during the season, and if that happens, the Indians can just move everyone in that rotation up a spot.

    Carrasco certainly has good stuff and is just 23 years old, so I'll throw him a bone and take a chance. That said, being the best pitcher on the Cleveland staff isn't saying very much.

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander

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    Despite putting up great numbers every season and being, by far, the best pitcher the Detroit Tigers have, Verlander seems to fly under the radar.

    His numbers aren't flashy. He throws a ton of innings and strikes out a ton of batters, but his ERA hurts him when it comes time to vote for the Cy Young winner.

    Last season, Verlander finished 18-9 with a 3.37 ERA and 219 strike outs in 224.1 innings. The guy is a leader, plain and simple. The Tigers spent a lot of money this offseason, signing free agents Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, as well as locking up Magglio Ordonez for another season.

    The Tigers also have solid starters in Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, but Verlander is the face of the rotation and the best they have.

Kansas City Royals: Whichever Prospect They Call Up in September

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    Oh boy. The Kansas City Royals. Who cares who their best pitcher will be this season? I guess I do, but only for the sake of writing this piece.

    Anyway, the Royals have the best and deepest farm system in all of baseball, but where is the pitching? Third baseman Mike Moustakas and first baseman Eric Hosmer should both see time in the majors this season, but all five of the Royals' top pitching prospects will open the year in Double-A.

    Maybe we start seeing guys like John Lamb and Mike Montgomery later in the season, but patience is going to be the key word for Royals fans this season.

    After trading Zack Greinke to Milwaukee, the rotation is wide open. Right now, offseason acquisition Jeff Francis is the de facto No. 1 starter, but there just isn't any talent in the rotation as a whole. It will be interesting to see, especially if the Royals' prospects are putting up good numbers in the minors. They may just throw their hands up and bring every one up to the majors.

    If that happens, John Lamb and Mike Montgomery will do more in less than half a season than any starting pitcher the Royals have now.

Minnesota Twins: Francisco Liriano

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    Does anyone else think that Carl Pavano has no business being the Twins' No. 1 starter?

    Three years removed from Tommy John surgery, Liriano finally returned to putting up ace-type numbers in 2010, finishing the season 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA and 201 strike outs in 191.2 innings.

    If the Twins are getting close to 200 innings and more than 200 strike outs from Liriano, it's going to be a good season.

    Liriano's name has come up in trade rumors recently, with the New York Yankees hot on his trail. There are divergent schools of thought on this situation. The Twins can sell high on Liriano now, expecting his shoulder to be a problem again at some point, or they can hold on to him and take their chances.

    I support the latter thought. Sometimes it just takes longer for some guys to come back from Tommy John surgery and Liriano may just be one of those guys. His numbers are that of an ace, and let's not forget, he's only 27 years old.

    Now, maybe the Yankees get really desperate and blow the Twins away with an offer. If that happens, maybe they deal Liriano.

    For now though, Liriano is easily the best pitcher in the Twins' rotation.

Los Angeles Angels: Dan Haren

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    Haren adjusted well to his mid-season move to the AL, even with the addition of having to face the DH.

    In 14 starts for the Angels, Haren went 5-4 with a 2.87 ERA. 10 of his 14 starts were quality starts (6 IP or more, 3 ER or less). He finished the season with 216 strike outs (his third straight season with 200 or more) and pitched 235 innings (his sixth straight season with 213 IP or more).

    Jared Weaver had a great season for the Angels last year, leading the AL in strikeouts (233, a career high), setting a career high in innings (224.1) and posting the lowest WHIP (1.07) and ERA (3.01) since his debut season in 2006.

    Despite all that, Haren will establish himself as the Angels' best starting pitcher.


Oakland A's: Trevor Cahill

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    Is anyone else in love with the Oakland A's starting rotation? I mean, talk about youth and ability, these guys have it all. With their offensive additions this offseason, do the A's have enough to win the AL West? I think so, but that's a question for another day.

    In predicting who will be Oakland's best starting pitcher this season, it was a tough choice between Cahill and Brett Anderson. So for all you Brett Anderson fans, don't worry, I wanted to pick him, but his elbow problems made me a bit cautious.

    Cahill, 23, was great last season, and while an increase in his numbers can be expected this season (.236 BABIP in 2010), he's still the best of the bunch. In 30 starts, Cahill went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA.

    He doesn't strike out a lot of batters (5.40 K/9) but he gets a ton of ground balls (1.35 GB/FB) and has a good defense behind him this season.

    Now, if Anderson's elbow holds up all season, he'll compete with Cahill for the title of "best starting pitcher," but I'll take the guy without injury questions for now.

    To sniff 20 wins in just your second season is very impressive, and even if his ERA rises a half run or so, Cahill will still be the best the A's have in 2011.

Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez

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    Not much of a question here. Felix Hernandez is the best pitcher in baseball, last year's Cy Young winner, and easily the best the Mariners have to offer.

    Hernandez led the majors in ERA (2.27), led the AL in innings pitched (249.2, just one inning behind Roy Halladay for the major league high), and was second in WHIP (1.06, just behind Cliff Lee with 1.00) and strike outs (232, one behind Jeff Weaver with 233).

    Many questioned giving the Cy Young to a guy who finished the season 13-12, but given his dominance in every other stat and the offensive support the Mariners gave him, it was clear Felix deserved it.

    The Mariners have a decent starting rotation heading into this season, but King Felix is head and shoulders above them all, and most of baseball for that matter.

Texas Rangers: C.J. Wilson

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    Looking at the Texas Rangers' starting rotation, there's a lot of parity—C.J. Wilson, Tommy Hunter and Colby Lewis are all right in the same ballpark in terms of ERA and WHIP, though Hunter threw the least number of innings of the three.

    In looking at 2011 though, C.J. Wilson will be No. 1 once again, and not just in title.

    Wilson went 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA during the regular season last year, and 1-2 with a 3.70 ERA in four postseason starts during the Rangers' World Series run.

    The Rangers don't care much for innings limits, and Wilson threw 131 more innings last season than any previous season in the majors, so we'll see how he responds in year two as a full time starter.

    Wilson will also be a free agent at the end of the 2011 season, and the pitching talent is quite thin next offseason, so Wilson should have his eye on a big payday in 2012 as well.