Ranking NL Central Pitching Staffs: Wainwright, Latos, Gallardo, Who's On Top?

Conner Boyd@BoydCDerpCorrespondent IDecember 21, 2011

Ranking NL Central Pitching Staffs: Wainwright, Latos, Gallardo, Who's On Top?

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    Last year, the big news in the NL Central revolved around the Milwaukee Brewers' acquisition of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum via trade. This year, the Cincinnati Reds made the biggest move by trading Yonder Alonso, Edinson Volquez and two minor league players for Mat Latos.

    With Adam Wainwright returning to the St. Louis Cardinals after sitting out the entire 2011 season, the Reds acquiring a potential ace, the Pittsburgh Pirates making under-the-radar moves and the Brewers returning all five of their starters from last year, which team has the best starting rotation at this point in the offseason?

No. 6: Houston Astros

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    There's no use in denying it—the Houston Astros are in a pretty poor state of affairs right now. Switching management is a good move, and switching leagues in 2013 will also be good, if for no other reason than to change the scenery. But in 2012, things aren't going to be pretty for the Astros.

    Wandy Rodriguez is a quality starter, and is certainly the best pitcher in this rotation. He is not an ace, and on a team with a decent rotation he would probably be a good No. 3 starter. But in a rotation as thin as rice paper, he's the clear No. 1.

    Bud Norris has gotten better every year, and he seems to be the one piece of the puzzle that fits at the moment. He's under team control until 2016 and will likely be the pitcher of the future for the Astros

    Brett Myers has had a few good years here and there, and the Astros will certainly be hoping he can post 2010-type numbers in 2012. If he pitches exceptionally well, don't be surprised to see him (and possibly Rodriguez) shipped off for talent to stock the farm in preparation of the league switch.

    J.A. Happ had an ugly 2011 campaign, but the consensus is that he is better than his numbers indicate. He has a solid K/9, but he walks a ton of batters and gave up too many home runs. If he can locate his pitches better, he could become a serviceable starter in this rotation.

    The fifth spot is up in the air, but the Astros have a pretty thin farm system at the moment and not a lot of options. They almost certainly won't pick up anyone from free agency, and their only major non-pitching trade piece at the moment is Carlos Lee. The Astros probably won't have a lot to brag about in 2012, but there may be some solid individual performances in this rotation, and Bud Norris could give the Astros hope for the future.

No. 5: Chicago Cubs

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    The Chicago Cubs are this low simply because they haven't done anything, and the moves they're looking to make will almost certainly hurt the rotation.

    One of the biggest rumors coming out of the Windy City is that the Cubs are looking to shop Matt Garza. The Cubs definitely are going to need a new bat with the departure of two of their better hitters in Aramis Ramirez and (possibly) Carlos Pena, but trading the only clear-cut ace on the rotation isn't a good move for a team that greatly struggled with pitching last year.

    Garza had the best season of his career in 2011, going 10-10 with a 3.32 ERA while pitching in 198 innings and racking up 197 strikeouts. Garza's trade value is way up because of his great year, but I think the Cubs should hold onto him.

    There also seems to be a chance that the Cubs are going to have Carlos Zambrano back in Chicago in 2012, which is seriously a horrible thought. Zambrano has been a clubhouse cancer for years.

    The Cubs have had notoriously awful chemistry on and off the field. Zambrano adds to that, and will continue to add to that in 2012. Even if he returns to form and pitches well, it won't be worth the money or the negative attitude he brings.

    After that, the Cubs have Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells. Not much has to be said about them, other than that they really can't be expected to anchor a rotation. Wells has potential, but has gotten worse each year as a starter. Dempster could potentially bounce back from a bad 2011 campaign, but it appears his age is catching up with him.

    The Cubs are trying to be active in free agency, but so far they haven't gotten much. They could pick up Paul Maholm which would be a nice addition, but I think the Cubs really missed a step when they didn't try seriously pursuing Mark Buehrle.

    If Garza is traded and Zambrano is brought back, the Cubs could very well have a worse rotation than the Astros.

No. 4: Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Pirates have made some good moves this offseason, and the addition of Erik Bedard at a low price was a fantastic acquisition by Pirates management.

    Bedard is a risky move, even at a low price. He hasn't pitched in a full season since 2007, when he went 182 innings with a 3.16 ERA and 220 strikeouts, which landed him in fifth place in Cy Young voting.

    Since then he has been injured, missing the entire 2010 season, and finally returning in 2011 to his most complete season since 2007. He still only managed 129.1 innings, but he pitched well with a 3.62 ERA and 125 strikeouts. Obviously, the Pirates are taking a gamble and hoping that Bedard will return to his 2007 stature and not succumb to injuries for the fifth year in a row.

    As I mentioned, I love this move. Bedard is definitely risky, but for what the Pirates are paying him, it is worth it and could pay off in a big way. The Pirates don't have the resources to go big in free agency, so making risky moves on players with high ceilings is the best they can do, and they did it well here.

    After Bedard, the rotation is actually in pretty good shape, if a bit unknown.

    The "biggest" name on the rotation is Kevin Correia. Correia pitched incredibly well for roughly the first month-and-a-half of the season, but seriously faltered down the stretch. I think Correia is better than his numbers from 2011 indicate. He missed the last month of the season with an injury and could have turned things around.

    James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, and Charlie Morton all had solid season in 2011, though none of them are standouts. They will all likely hover with ERAs in the upper 3.00s and lower 4.00s. 

    With Bedard added to that rotation—and Correia hopefully pitching like he did for the first two months of 2011—the Pirates are going to have a pretty decent rotation. Probably not good enough to contend, but definitely good enough to keep games close enough for their offense to win.

    If everything clicks properly, the Pirates might have their first .500-plus season since 1992. It all starts with pitching, and the Pirates seem to be doing okay there.

No. 3: Cincinnati Reds

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    The Reds had a pretty unremarkable starting rotation last year, there's no point in denying that.

    Bronson Arroyo was horrible, Edinson Volquez didn't seem to know what sport he was playing until the third inning of his games, and Homer Bailey was consistently mediocre. They did have two positives though—Mike Leake continued to improve, and Johnny Cueto was arguably of the best pitcher in the National League for a solid stretch over the summer. Unfortunately for the Reds, neither Leake nor Cueto were able to log close to 200 innings.

    The Reds realized that the starting rotation was the weakness of the team, and this offseason they are trying to improve.

    They were able to pick up Mat Latos in a huge trade that sent Yonder Alonso, Edinson Volquez, and two major league-caliber players to the San Diego Padres. It was a steep price to pay for the pitcher, and many commentators believe the Padres got the better end of the deal.

    Perhaps in the long term they did. But for right now, the Reds addressed their biggest need by picking up a potential ace, and a legitimate top of the rotation starter.

    Latos had a "down year" in 2011, going 9-14 with a 3.47 ERA, and 185 strikeouts over 194.1 IP. His 2010 season was even better, when he went 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA and 189 Ks in 184.2 IP. Latos has excellent stuff, and all signs indicate he could be an ace.

    The Reds insist they aren't done making moves to bolster the rotation, but so far they have managed to improve without trading their two biggest trade chips. The Reds were potentially willing to deal franchise player Joey Votto and blue chip prospect Devin Morasco in exchange for great starting pitching, but at this point I don't really think it is worth it.

    With the addition of Latos and the subtraction of Volquez, the rotation already looks a lot better. Volquez has excellent stuff with below average command, and he tends to make minor mistakes that cost him big in the majors. The Padres might get an ace out of him, and they might get a dud. He's still a couple of years away from greatness however, and it looks like the Reds are ready to contend right now.

    With a 1-2-3 of Latos, Cueto and Leake, the Reds have improved. They will be hoping for Arroyo to bounce back from his miserable 2011 season, and I doubt they are sold on giving Bailey the fifth spot. If a minor leaguer emerges (or possibly Aroldis Chapman), the Reds could have one of the best rotations in the National League.

    As it stands now though, they are still third-best in the division.

No. 2: St. Louis Cardinals

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    The decision to place the Cardinals in the No. 2 spot on this list might generate a little controversy, but when you look a the top two teams in the NL Central in terms of pitching, they are very close. Either one could be placed at No. 1. I put the Cardinals in second because of uncertainties moving forward.

    We don't know what Wainwright is going to look like after missing the entire 2011 season. Wainwright is unquestionably one of the best pitchers in baseball, and his return to the Cardinals is going to be a major boost regardless of his performance.

    That being said, if he comes back and dominates like he did prior to 2011, the Cardinals are going to be sitting pretty with their rotation. But if he falters and can't seem to shake the rust off, they're going to be hurting a little bit.

    Chris Carpenter is no longer a surefire ace, but he is still a very good pitcher, and behind an effective Wainwright he'll give the Cardinals one of the best 1-2 combinations in baseball.

    The biggest issue with Carpenter is age—he will be turning 37 next season, and you have to wonder when he's going to show signs of slowing down. He certainly didn't last year however, as he pitched in a league-leading 237.1 innings and led his team to a World Series championship.

    The rest of the rotation is in a pretty strange situation. They got pretty good performances out of their rotation beyond Carpenter last year, but all of them could potentially slump.

    Jaime Garcia didn't post the fantastic numbers of his rookie season in 2010, but he still proved that he is a solid option for the third spot in the rotation. The pretty big inflation of his ERA from 2010 to 2011 (2.70 to 3.56) could be cause for alarm, but a 3.56 ERA is still very good.

    Kyle Lohse had the best season of his career in 2011, but looking back at his career it is easy to jump to the assumption that it could have been a fluke. Lohse is typically nowhere near what his 2011 season showed, and the Cardinals simply cannot wait for him if he falters. I could be wrong, and they just might get another great year out of Lohse, but don't be surprised if he slumps back into an ERA in the mid to upper 4.00s.

    Jake Westbrook is not a lock for the fifth spot, but he should be given the chance when the season opens. Westbrook didn't have a good season in 2011, but he should be a good enough fifth starter on what should be at least an average—to a potentially great—starting rotation in 2012.

    As I mentioned earlier, it's just a matter of uncertainty with the Cardinals. The return of Wainwright will be welcomed, but they certainly do have some question marks going into next season.

No. 1: Milwaukee Brewers

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    The Brewers had a fantastic starting rotation in 2011, and all five of the starters will be back for an encore in 2012.

    The consistency of the starting rotation is hard to deny—Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson all had good years, and it stands to reason that at least two of these guys (Gallardo and Greinke) could be in Cy Young conversation in 2012.

    The acquisitions of Greinke and Marcum elevated the Brewers to what was arguably their best season in franchise history. It was their first NL Central championship, and only the second time in two-and-a-half decades that they made the playoffs. With the exception of Gallardo, the starters were unremarkable in the playoffs, but the regular season was phenomenal.

    Greinke had an extremely slow start. Broken ribs endured during a pickup basketball game in the offseason sidelined him for all of spring training, and the first month of the regular season.

    He stumbled out of the gates, posting an ERA above 5.00 in his first two months. Once Greinke found his footing however, he was as dominant as anyone in the game. And if you go off of post All-Star break numbers alone, he would have been in the conversation for a Cy Young. Incredibly, Greinke never lost a start at home, and had a fantastic league-leading K/9 of 10.5

    Gallardo also had a slow start, but he picked himself up as well. Gallardo would go on to post career highs in innings pitched (207.1), wins (17) and strikeouts (207), as well as career lows in ERA (3.52), WHIP (1.215) and BB/9 (2.6). His performance got him Cy Young recognition, as he finished in seventh place for the award.

    Having Gallardo and Greinke at the top of the rotation for the second year in a row is going to be huge. I expect both of them to improve, and I think Gallardo is on the verge of a very impressive season.

    Marcum and Wolf did everything that could have been expected from No. 3 and 4 pitchers, both posting ERAs in the mid-3.00s. It may have been Marcum's best year of his career, and it was one of Wolf's best years as well. Brewers fans will hope that Marcum can shake off a horrible postseason and pitch like he did for most of the regular season.

    The only starter last year with an ERA in the 4.00s was Chris Narveson, and even he managed to impress Brewers fans. Narveson can lose control of his pitches, which makes him something of a wild card. He will be the fifth starter going into 2012, but expect Ron Roenicke to give prospects Wily Peralta and possibly Tyler Thornburg a chance to start in the big leagues.

    The Brewers had the best rotation in the division last year, and one of the best rotations in baseball. If that continues next year, the Brewers will still have a great chance of contending.