MLB Power Rankings 2011: The 7 Most Underrated Pitching Staffs in Baseball
Spring is the only time of year that anyone can be underrated. The heat has finally been taken off the hot stove. That means no more winter meetings, free-agent tours, salary dumps or round-table discussions.
No, spring is different. Spring is about sprinkler heads spraying the sod, a bucket of balls poured onto the infield, Beemers in the parking lot and the L-screen being dragged to the mound. It’s for ridiculously high jersey numbers and pitchers loping along the warning track.
The power rankings have vanished like a puff of smoke from a fastball popping a catcher’s mitt, and it’s time for the first pitch.
Still, some teams will be flying under the radar as April arrives, led by pitching staffs not gaining nearly enough attention. Seven stand out as the most underrated pitching staffs in the game.
Tampa Bay Rays
Do you really need a bullpen when your starters can pitch nine innings every game? OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but the Rays might have the AL’s best rotation this season, even after trading away their No. 2 starter.
In David Price they have a bona fide ace. In James Shields they have a battle-tested innings eater who should rebound from an off year. Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann showed plenty of upside while compiling career highs in innings.
Jeremy Hellickson won four games in four starts during a pennant race last year and he happens to be the second-ranked prospect in MLB by Baseball America.
Oh right, the bullpen. Joel Peralta might break camp as the closer, and there’s nothing underrated about that. Throw in Kyle Farnsworth and Adam Russell, and this is a bullpen only an eternal optimist, or Joe Maddon, could love.
However, the tone set by the starters could carry them to one of the highest team ERAs in the American League.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Whose individual ERAs were 2.91, 3.57, 3.62, 3.39 and 3.47? The Dodgers' projected rotation, of course.
They may not have a true No. 1 in the group of Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda and Jon Garland (not yet, anyway), but they have five chances to win every five days.
Think the Giants' championship run made an impact on the Dodgers? The Dodgers finished with a sub-.500 record for only the third time since 1993 and watched their rivals race to a ring, led by stellar pitching and timely hitting. While the Dodgers don’t have the ace potential the Giants demonstrated last year, they have no weakness in their staff.
The back end might be better than San Fran’s, led by Jonathan Broxton and set up by Hong-Chih Kuo and Kenley Jansen, meaning run totals will be low in Chavez Ravine.
Sure, there are questions everywhere, and their neighbors to the north in the NL East have an embarrassment of riches. Any one of their five starters could take a step back or get hurt (that’s right, Josh Johnson), and no job in their bullpen is truly safe this spring.
However, it’s more likely than not that a few arms in this arsenal will take the next step.
You think your team has some ifs: If Josh Johnson can stay healthy for a full season, if Ricky Nolasco can approach his 2008 dominance, if Javier Vazquez can recover a few MPH. Anibal Sanchez still has electric stuff, and he and Chris Volstad are still finding their ways around the National League. If just three among this group answer in a positive way in 2011, the Marlins will have a great rotation.
The bullpen has questions too, but not as many as it did this time last year. Leo Nunez has another year under his belt as the closer, with Mike Dunn waiting in the wings. Clay Hensley and Jose Ceda should set up Nunez and form the backbone of the ’11 Marlins.
Chicago White Sox
Expectations are high on the South Side, with the White Sox bringing their highest-ever payroll up north when they break camp this spring.
Adding Adam Dunn and re-signing Paul Konerko and Alexei Ramirez will place the focus on the offense, but it’s likely the Sox will only go as far as the pitching staff takes them.
The rotation has fewer questions than that of their division rivals, but the strength will be the bullpen, led by lefty flamethrowers Matt Thornton and Chris Sale. Thornton has three straight seasons of sub-3.00 ERA with a WHIP hanging around 1.00. Sale will just be asked to throw hard and make batters miss. Sergio Santos and newcomer Jesse Crain will shorten games all year, taking pressure off the starters.
Edwin Jackson, John Danks and Gavin Floyd are not spectacular, but imagine one of them having a breakout year. Imagine Jake Peavy stays healthy and Mark Buehrle wins 15 games. Imagine Tony Pena and Will Ohman round out a steady, workmanlike bullpen. None of those are stretches, and each would put the White Sox in the 2011 playoffs.
New York Yankees
Yankees, underrated? It’s been a strange offseason in the Bronx. But if the franchise name on this roster was exchanged with that of any other team in the league, it would have been business as usual.
An aging starter retires. A whiff on a big-name free agent. A huge contract for a setup man. Pretty run-of-the-mill.
Ivan Nova likely locked up a rotation spot with six hitless innings last Wednesday, and A.J. Burnett has looked rejuvenated working with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild this spring. Add them to Phil Hughes, CC Sabathia and the money burning a hole in their pocket that represents the fifth starter, and this could be a solid rotation.
The bullpen will shorten the games the lineup doesn’t put out of reach early, with Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain setting up Rafael Soriano, setting up you-know-who.
How could the Reds stand pat after watching the Giants win a championship led by their pitching and then watching rivals Milwaukee and Cincinnati add Cy Young winners? In fact, the Reds are the only NL contender lacking a true ace, but that might not be for long.
Don’t let the Tommy John surgery and control issues coming back fool you. Edinson Volquez was an ace just two years ago and he is headed back. Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Travis Wood, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey form the best six-man rotation in the league, and the bullpen will shorten games all year long.
Oh, and there is Aroldis Chapman in the setup role until he assumes the closer job (perhaps sometime this summer). The combination of Chapman, Francisco Cordero and Jose Arredondo could easily wind up as the best back end in the division.
Are the A’s underrated if everyone claims they are? Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson are Cy Young candidates in waiting, while Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden could be the best third and fourth starters in the league. But baseball fans like you know this already, right?
The A’s remain underrated because of their surplus of sleepers—Josh Outman and Joey Devine coming off injuries, Brandon McCarthy and Rich Harden trying to reclaim roles as front-end starters, and Grant Balfour and Craig Breslow serving as solid, low-profile innings eaters.
The A’s have future stars who’ll speed games along all season out West. But they are also one of the few teams that have every role covered in a deep, talented pitching staff. With an uninspiring lineup, they’ll need to be excellent to win in the deep AL West.