Commentary

Best (and worst) of the playoff rotations

Starting pitching often rules in October, and that should bode well for the Red Sox

Originally Published: September 24, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

When you think of October, you think of Josh Beckett pitching a Game 6 shutout in Yankee Stadium. You think of Cole Hamels, carving his own little slice of Mr. October history.

You think of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2001, of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in 1963, of Jack Morris dueling John Smoltz in an epic Game 7 in 1991.

You think, in other words, of starting pitchers -- of men who found a way to rise to meet the biggest moments of their careers in the most important month of the year.

And that brings us to this year, to this October. If the trail to tickertape is paved with starting pitching, who does that favor? We're about to sort that out right now, as Rumblings and Grumblings ranks the October readiness of the playoff field's rotations:

1. Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Prospective rotation: (1) Jon Lester, (2) Josh Beckett, (3) Clay Buchholz, (4) Daisuke Matsuzaka.

They may not be as deep in starters as the Phillies or Angels. But the Red Sox have the commodity that has put more rings on more fingers than anything else in the history of baseball -- arms that can blow any hitter away with raw stuff. As one NL exec put it, "the one thing the postseason has proven is: Power stuff plays."

So while Beckett may have lost a little feel for the breaking ball, would you bet against him in October? "There's something inside that guy," said the same exec. "When the big lights go on, he likes being out there."

And Lester (11-2, 2.13 ERA since May 31) is now, in the words of one scout, "the best left-handed pitcher in the American League" -- and a guy who has been so dominating for so long now, the Red Sox actually appear to be leaning toward starting him in Game 1 over Beckett.

Then you have Buchholz, who has a fastball that travels 94 miles per hour and a 1.73 ERA this month -- and who has been so good that the Red Sox haven't lost a game he started since Aug. 13 (eight starts ago). And there's Matsuzaka, who finally looks like a viable fourth starter, just threw six shutout innings against the Angels two starts ago and has proved his big-game credentials by winning MVP awards in two World Baseball Classics.

So this team may have its issues. But dominating starting pitching sure isn't one of them these days.

2. Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals

Prospective rotation: (1) Chris Carpenter, (2) Adam Wainwright, (3) Joel Pineiro, (4) Kyle Lohse or John Smoltz.

The nine scouts and executives we polled were split on which NL team to rank highest -- Cardinals or Phillies. And for good reason. As one scout put it, "If you just go by No. 1 and 2, I'd put the Cardinals first. If you want to look at all four starters, I'd pick the Phillies."

But here's our theory on this: April through September may be about pitching depth -- but not October. October is about getting your two best starters to the mound as many times as possible and hoping they pick the right days to be great. The Phillies, in fact, proved that last year -- when Cole Hamels started nearly half (five of 11) of the postseason games they won.

So as formidable as Cliff Lee and Hamels may be, they haven't been as relentlessly dominating as Carpenter and Wainwright. Since July 1, Carpenter is 11-1, with a 2.29 ERA and an average of 7 1/3 innings a start. As one NL executive put it, "If I had one game to win, I think I'd want Carpenter" to pitch it.

But in case no one has noticed, Wainwright has been even better over these past three months (10-3, 1.74, while pitching into the seventh 15 times in his past 17 starts). The two of them have been so untouchable, their team is 28-7 in that stretch in games those two have started. We also have no doubts about the ability of the Cardinals' two aces to handle October. Their combined career postseason ERA: 2.14.

3. Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies

Prospective rotation: (1) Cliff Lee, (2) Cole Hamels, (3) Joe Blanton, (4) Pedro Martinez or J.A. Happ.

First, let's make it clear this column is about rotations only. So the term "Brad Lidge," doesn't apply. Got that?

OK, second, let's answer a couple of pressing October questions about this rotation. The Phillies still haven't figured out who will pitch Game 1 -- Hamels or Lee. But they're almost certainly going to start Martinez over Happ in Game 4 if Pedro is physically up to it. But only his chiropractor knows for sure.

We heard vociferous arguments for the Phillies as the NL's best October rotation. And they're all compelling. One scout on Lee and Hamels: "I have a lot of faith in both those guys -- because of guts. I think Cliff Lee will come up big. And Cole Hamels has done it." Another scout on Blanton: "One of the most underrated starters in the National League, because he goes so deep in games." And the same scout on Pedro: "He's had great command. And he's got that intangible. He loves the big stage."

Maybe the best argument for the Phillies' October readiness: Since May 1, Lee, Hamels and Blanton are 7-1, with a 1.75 ERA, against other prospective playoff teams.

4. Yankees

New York Yankees

Prospective rotation: (1) CC Sabathia, (2) Andy Pettitte, (3) A.J. Burnett, (4) Joba Chamberlain or Chad Gaudin.

This team might have been our toughest call. We polled folks who rated them as the very best rotation out there. We also polled folks who ranked them as the fifth-best rotation out there. But we think, in truth, they're somewhere in between.

"I like the Yankees because of depth," said one executive. "Someone in that foursome could very well disappoint, but anyone in that foursome has a decent chance of pitching a dominant game."

True. And that starts with Sabathia, whose 8.53 ERA over the past two postseasons is a stat most people in the game don't take real seriously. "The last two years, he was worn completely down by the time he got there [by the Indians in '07 and the Brewers in '08]," said one NL executive. "That's not who he is."

But after CC, roll those dice. It's amazing how little faith Burnett (2-5 since Aug. 1) inspires for a guy with spectacular stuff. ("I'd be very surprised," said one scout, "if Burnett comes up big.") The Yankees think Pettitte's shoulder is OK, but who knows? And then there's Joba, who has the Yankees so exasperated that they've told him he'll have to outpitch Gaudin down the stretch if he even wants to get a postseason start.

So this is a very iffy group -- but one with gigantic win-the-World-Series upside.

5. Angels

Los Angeles Angels

Prospective rotation: (1) John Lackey, (2) Jered Weaver, (3) Scott Kazmir, (4) Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana.

It wasn't easy to rank this team as low as fifth. Heck, just think how deep this rotation is if either Saunders (5-0, 2.11 since coming off the disabled list last month) or Santana (4-2, 3.62 in his past 10 starts) won't even get an October start.

In fact, several people we polled lobbied heavily for the Angels to rank as high as No. 2. "Getting Kazmir elevated the Angels over the Yankees, I think," said one scout.

Well, you can definitely make that case. Kazmir has the eighth-best ERA in the AL (2.01) since he joined the Angels this month. Weaver (15-7, 3.82) has been steady from day one. And Lackey (8-4, 2.53 over his past 14 starts) has gotten it rolling after fighting early season health issues.

So if we're just talking about clubs with the ability to run a legit starter out there every night, this is a team that "easily has the best [rotation] depth in the league," said one AL exec. But here, he said, is the problem: The Angels still "lack a Sabathia or [Justin] Verlander."

Maybe they can win a World Series without one of those animals, the way the 2005 White Sox did. But without a true dominator, we couldn't convince ourselves to give them a top-four rating in this derby.

6. Tigers

Detroit Tigers

Prospective rotation: (1) Justin Verlander, (2) Edwin Jackson, (3) Rick Porcello, (4) Nate Robertson or (if his knee miraculously heals up) possibly Jarrod Washburn.

If Washburn's knee cartilage hadn't dissolved into capellini, this group would rank much higher. But even without him, this is everyone's favorite dark horse.

"This is my upset special," said one scout. "The Yankees could roll in there with the best record and face Verlander, who has handled them in the past [1-1, with a 1.29 ERA, in two starts this year], a couple of times and be out."

The Yankees, in fact, may be playing right into Detroit's hands in the LDS -- by choosing the series with the extra off day. Why? Because that decision wouldn't just allow the Yankees to avoid using a fourth starter. It would give the Tigers the same luxury -- meaning four of the possible five games would be started by Verlander and Jackson. Which means four challenging nights full of 98s and 99s on the radar gun.

"If they can just get on a streak, clinch and let those guys get some rest," one scout said of the Tigers, "I wouldn't want to face them in October."

7. Rockies

Colorado Rockies

Prospective rotation: (1) Ubaldo Jimenez, (2) Jorge De La Rosa, (3) Jason Marquis, (4) Aaron Cook (if healthy).

This might be the most unpredictable group in the entire field. The health of Cook -- who went 10-2 between April 24 and the end of July -- is a gigantic X factor. And most of America would be shocked to learn that the electrifying Jimenez "has the best pure stuff on any of the four [playoff] teams in the National League," said one scout. "But if you're basing this on dependability, I'd rank him fifth, behind the two Cardinals [Carpenter, Wainwright] and the two Phillies [Lee, Hamels]."

The Rockies have a similar secret weapon in de la Rosa, who started the year 0-6 -- but is 15-3 since. And, finally, there's Marquis, who was 14-8, 3.47 a month ago -- but is 1-4, with a 6.49 ERA, in his past six starts.

"The one thing that scares me about Colorado," said one scout, "is that they seem to be a feast-or-famine rotation. That's why they need Cook. He's their stabilizer. The other guys run so hot and cold, you don't know what you're going to get."

8. Dodgers

Los Angeles Dodgers

Prospective rotation: (1) Randy Wolf, (2) Clayton Kershaw (if healthy), (3) Hiroki Kuroda and (4) (pick one) Chad Billingsley, Jon Garland or Vicente Padilla.

Every time we asked one of our panelists about the Dodgers' rotation, we got a variation of the same response: "I don't even know what their rotation is," said one NL scout.

Uh, that's OK. Neither do they. Wolf, to even their surprise, has morphed into their Game 1 starter, thanks to a great year (11-6, with seven blown saves behind him and more quality starts -- 23 -- than any NL pitcher except Tim Lincecum or Dan Haren). And Kuroda (5-1, 2.34 the past two months) has finally righted his ship.

But the often-dominating Kershaw is still inching back from a separated non-pitching shoulder. And the big enigma is Billingsley, who started out 9-3, 2.72, and then unraveled so mightily, he pitched himself out of the rotation -- but then might have pitched his way back in with six one-hit innings Wednesday in Washington. "He had so much trouble commanding the strike zone last time I saw him," said one NL scout, "I thought something [physical] was going on. He's too good to become that ordinary."

Garland and Padilla will be around just in case. So the Dodgers have options. But they also have way too many questions to sit near the top of this list.

9. Twins

Minnesota Twins

Prospective rotation: (1) Scott Baker, (2) Nick Blackburn, (3) Carl Pavano, (4) Brian Duensing.

Who are these guys? Only Duensing (who has made just seven starts) has an ERA under 4.00 this season. Only Blackburn remains from the Opening Day rotation. Only Baker (among the group with double-figure starts) has a winning record this year.

So this team really has no business still being in any kind of race. But hey, they're the Twins -- a club starring in its own special edition of "Survivor."

The good news is: The Twins have walked 62 fewer hitters than any rotation in the league. But the bad news is: We had no choice but to rank them ninth on this list.

"I admire what they do and how they do it," said one scout. "But their starting pitching is very suspect."

Ready to rumble

Milton Bradley
Bradley
Malcontent for sale: You've probably read 1,000 times this week that the Cubs are going to have to digest (A) half, (B) most or (C) all of Milton Bradley's $21 million in salary over the next two years to trade him. Uh, don't be so sure of that.

We're hearing the approach the Cubs are far more likely to take is: "We'll swap our problem for your problem, our salary dump-ee for your salary dump-ee." So while none of this has been discussed, that could be an Eric Byrnes kind of guy, or a Bronson Arroyo kind of guy, or a Pat Burrell type.

And don't think there's no market for Bradley, either. It won't quite be up there with the Roy Halladay market. But "it only takes one club to make it happen," one National League GM told Rumblings. "It would have to be a club with a gentle fan base, a gentle media market and enough money to take the guy. But somebody will take Milton Bradley if the price is right."

Why? Because for all his antics and all his issues, he can hit. In case you hadn't noticed, Bradley has a higher career on-base percentage (.371) than Grady Sizemore, Derrek Lee or Johnny Damon. And he has a higher career OPS (.821) than Torii Hunter, Michael Young or Ichiro Suzuki. So "he'll probably go somewhere else and hit," said another GM. "He's hit everywhere he's been -- right? -- until this year."

Carlos Zambrano
Zambrano
Catch some Z-Z-Z's: Here's another Cubs rumor you should discount: The odds of Carlos Zambrano's getting traded might, in fact, be right up there with Ozzie Guillen's becoming the international spokesman for Wrigley Field.

Baseball men who have felt out various Cubs officials about Zambrano say they've never shown any interest in dealing him, and that their front-office types claim they've never even brought it up in a meeting among themselves.

Now Zambrano may not be the lowest-maintenance No. 1 starter alive. But he's still only 28 years old. And his raw numbers this year are almost identical to his numbers in 2007, when he won 18 games. Take a look:

The difference has been mostly (A) a good team in '07, not-so-good team in '09 and (B) 60 fewer innings pitched this year. So no matter how many Gatorade coolers he mashes, would you trade a guy like that if you had no ace in waiting to replace him? Hard to do, friends.

Houston Astros

The next flight to Houston: Any speculation you hear about the next manager in Houston is going to be all guesswork, because the Astros don't even have a shopping list yet. And the best word to describe the process that led to GM Ed Wade's two previous managerial hires (in Philadelphia) -- Charlie Manuel and Larry Bowa -- would be "meticulous."

So will the Astros talk to Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio if they're interested? Probably. But the vibe, from folks who have spoken to the Houston brass, is that the Astros strongly prefer a manager with experience. So here's some guesswork from this bleacher seat: Don't discount Jim Fregosi, who has interviewed in Houston before and has ties to Wade from their days together in Philly.

In the meantime, it's become more and more clear that only owner Drayton McLane stood in the way of Cooper's getting fired months ago. Astros players have told friends that at least one player went to McLane as long ago as spring training to tell him Cooper had lost the clubhouse. And there have been indications the baseball people wanted to change managers in May, but McLane wouldn't sign off on it.

Chone Figgins
Figgins
Mark DeRosa
DeRosa
Utility bill: We're hearing the Cardinals plan to let Mark DeRosa test the market. Which means two of baseball's most impactful super-utility men -- DeRosa and Chone Figgins -- will be hot free-agent commodities this winter.

DeRosa's versatility, power and leadership qualities make him a potential fit on as many as 15 different teams. But several baseball men we surveyed ranked Figgins (three years younger than DeRosa, at age 31) as the guy likely to get a slightly longer, richer deal.

"I love DeRosa, but Figgins just brings more things," said one NL executive. "I think he gives you more value in the positions he can play, for one thing. He's stuck at third base right now, but he's played the infield and the outfield with average to well-above-average range. He's also a legitimate No. 1 hitter. He's younger. And that speed of his kills. But they're both going to make a lot of money, because I'll say this: He and DeRosa are both winners as far as makeup goes."

On the Hudson: Yes, it looks all but certain that Tim Hudson will be returning to the Braves next year. But no, that doesn't mean the Braves will look to trade Javier Vazquez.

Clubs that have felt out the Braves on this came away with the feeling they're more likely to deal someone like Jo-Jo Reyes than Vazquez or even Kenshin Kawakami, unless they're offered a legit middle-of-the-order bat in return.

Not so likely to return in Atlanta: The Braves' prospective free-agent back-of-the-bullpen tandem of Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez.

J.J. Hardy
Hardy
Short cut: J.J. Hardy may have had an ugly year. But when the Brewers dangle him this winter, they should find a long line of shoppers.

"I've already recommended we look into him," said one scout. "Offensively, I think he's got to fix his hands. They're too far away from his body. But his defense is solid. He's got good makeup. And he does a lot of little things. If anyone needs a shortstop, they'd be crazy not to look at him."

Fish tank: Looks as if the Marlins are leaning toward keeping Chris Coghlan in left field rather than moving him back to his original position at second base. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Dan Uggla gets to stick around. Our best guess is that the Marlins can only afford to keep one player from their arbitration-eligible trio of Uggla, Cody Ross and Jorge Cantu. And if Uggla wants to parlay all his arbitration leverage into an $8 million deal, it probably won't be him.

So close but so Favre: It was only a matter of time before Brett Favre branched out and started messing with baseball, too. And now, we're hearing, he's in danger of screwing up the baseball postseason.

If the Twins and Tigers tie for first in the AL Central and need to settle it with a one-game playoff in the Metrodome, they'll run headlong into a conflict with an Oct. 5 Monday Night Football game in the Dome -- featuring You Know Who against his old team, the Packers.

In the past, the NFL has shown a willingness to work with baseball and move a division game like this to Green Bay, with the Packers returning the favor when the two teams meet later in the season. But given the plot line of this particular game, the NFL and the Vikings have dug in and shown no willingness to move this game anywhere.

Metrodome officials offered the Twins the chance to play at 11 a.m. But that's not going to fly in a game that could decide a whole season's work. So at this point, the likely outcome, if this game is necessary, is to have the teams play off Tuesday (Oct. 6) -- and then head right into the ALDS against the Yankees with no off day.

Of course, there's always a chance Favre could retire again by then. Isn't there?

The Rumblings Scouting Bureau

Once again this week, we check in with America's sharpest scouting minds:

Scott Feldman
Feldman
• On Scott Feldman: "I don't think he qualifies for the comeback-player-of-the-year award, but he's one of the best stories of the year. Whoever made the decision to move his arm slot back up and get him throwing over the top ought to be the coach of the year."

• On Joe Mauer: "Just when you think you've figured out how to get him out, he makes another adjustment. As soon as you think he's handling the ball in better than the ball away, you go away and you find out he handles everything. Just a very gifted, fluid swing."

• On Wade Davis: "I like the fact that he pitches up in the zone at such a young age. He changes eye level. He's got ice in his veins. He'll throw four-seamers and go right after guys. But he'll also change speeds and use his curveball to get guys off the fastball. He's really got some feel for it, at such a young age."

Injuries of the week

We'd like to thank those innovative Seattle Mariners for providing us with two of the wackiest injuries of the year -- in a span of 72 hours.

Second prize: Mariners catcher Rob Johnson has been out since Friday with a sprained ankle -- from landing funny while jumping up and down at home plate, waiting for Ichiro to finish orbiting the bases after a walk-off homer off Mariano Rivera. And we figured it would be tough to top that one until …

David Aardsma
Aardsma
First prize: We've always thought it was sad that too many Americans think reading is painful. But maybe they have a case, after closer David Aardsma's mishap this week. Aardsma was unavailable to pitch Tuesday with a sore back. And how did his back get so sore? From curling up, reading a book on the coast-to-coast flight from Seattle to Tampa on Monday. Ouch. Here's our recommended reading for his next flight: "Excuses Begone!"

Headliner of the Week

From the always-incisive comedians at theonion.com:

DEREK JETER HONORED FOR HAVING
FEWER HITS THAN HAROLD BAINES

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com