Baseball's Pitching Changes: The NL Arms Race

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Offseason changes add to senior circuit’s pitching depth, teams’ expectations

<p> A look at the significant pitching changes made this offseason in the National League</p>

—by Mark Ross

Similar to the American League, this offseason has seen plenty of changes when it comes to the pitching staffs in the National League. Trades and free agent signings have not only impacted rosters, but have been made in hopes of shaking up the standings in Major League Baseball's Senior Circuit.

In the National League East, not only do the Marlins unveil a new name (Hello Miami, good-bye Florida), new look (logo, colors, uniforms), open a new stadium and have a new manager (Ozzie Guillen), they also have committed nearly $200 million to free agency this offseason. While more than half of that is shortstop Jose Reyes’ six-year, $106 million contract, the Marlins also gave a four-year $58 million deal to left-handed starter Mark Buehrle and a three-year, $27 million deal to closer Heath Bell.

Besides reuniting Buehrle with Guillen, his former manager with the Chicago White Sox, the Marlins also acquired another veteran starter who pitched in the Windy City, Carlos Zambrano. The Chicago Cubs sent the mercurial right-hander and cash considerations (Cubs are reportedly paying more than $16 million of Zambrano’s $19 million 2012 salary) to the Marlins for right-hander Chris Volstad in a Jan. 5 deal. Guillen, who is friends with Zambrano, publicly stated his desire to bring Zambrano with him after he was named the Marlins’ manager, and now it will be up to him to keep his fellow fiery Venezuelan in check and under control.

In Buehrle and Zambrano, the Marlins get two veteran workhorses to team with their returning core of Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco. There are lingering questions about Johnson’s health, he was sidelined for most of the season with shoulder inflammation but is expected to be ready for spring training, and the obvious questions about Zambrano’s temperament/mindset, but if everything goes right, this has the potential to be a potent starting rotation.

It also didn’t hurt that the Marlins went out and signed Bell, who averaged 44 saves in his three seasons as closer for the San Diego Padres. It remains to be seen if Bell’s production will be impacted switching from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to new Marlins Park as his home stadium. Still, considering the Marlins blew 19 saves last year compared to just five for Bell, a change at the backend of the bullpen may end up being just what the Marlins need to make some noise in 2012.

Another NL East team positioned to make some noise in the near future, if not this year, is the Washington Nationals. A young team on the rise, the Nationals already had two top-flight starting pitchers in right-handers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman. Then on Dec. 23, the Nationals added left-hander Gio Gonzalez in a trade with the Oakland A’s.

The cost for Gonzalez was high, as the Nationals sent the A’s three of their best pitching prospects and another player in return, but it was a price they were willing to pay to add the 26-year-old who made his first All-Star team last season. With Gonzalez in the fold, the Nationals have three starters who are capable of winning 20 games and striking out more than 200 batters every season.

That being said, the trio most likely will not reach those milestones together this year, as Strasburg’s innings are expected to be limited to around 180 or so in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2010. Regardless, the future looks bright for the Nationals thanks in part to their new 1-2-3 punch at the top of their rotation.

For now, the best 1-2-3 punch in the division, if not all of baseball, belongs to the Philadelphia Phillies. In Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, the defending NL East champions not only have two Cy Young winners (Halladay, Lee), they have three hurlers who each won at least 14 games, pitched at least 216 innings, had an ERA of 2.79 or lower and made the All-Star Game last season. And if that wasn’t enough, they all finished in the top 5 of voting for last year’s NL Cy Young Award.

While Philly’s Big 3 is back for a second season together, there will be a new closer as Jonathan Papelbon comes over to the NL. Papelbon, the closer for the Boston Red Sox the past six seaons, signed a four-year, $50 million free agent deal that could be worth as much as $63 million over five years. He has 219 saves in his career and should add plenty more to that number closing for one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball.

Similar to the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL, the Atlanta Braves have one of the youngest starting rotations in baseball. Tim Hudson, 36, is far and away the oldest of the Braves’ starters. The rest of the rotation includes Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrgens and Brandon Beachy with Mike Minor, Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran expected to fill the fifth spot. Of these, Jurrgens is the oldest at 26 and Teheran, the youngest, will turn 21 later this week.

There are plenty of health-related question marks surrounding the front of the Braves’ rotation. Hudson underwent surgery in November to repair a herniated disc in his back, Hanson missed the last two months of last year with a partially torn rotator cuff, and Jurrgens has missed significant parts of the past two seasons due to different injuries. However, if these guys are healthy and are able to produce like they have in the past, they could combine with the young guns to form a formidable rotation with the potential to be something truly special.

In the NL Central, the Cincinnati Reds are hoping this season ends up being special as they are in “win now” mode after making several big moves. The first one came on Dec. 17 when the Reds acquired Mat Latos from the Padres for pitchers Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger and two of the organization’s top prospects in first baseman Yonder Alonso and catcher Yasmani Grandal.

The Reds gave up a lot to get Latos, who they hope will team with Johnny Cueto (9-5, 2.31 ERA in 24 starts last season) to give them up essentially two aces in their rotation. Latos, 24, is 23-24 with a 3.21 ERA and 374 strikeouts in 379 innings the past two seasons, but that was with the aforementioned Petco Park as his home base.

Now, he will call the launching pad known as Great American Ballpark his home stadium. Last year, 209 home runs were hit in Great American compared to 100 at Petco. And for his career, Latos has been more of a flyball pitcher compared to a groundball one (0.81 G/F ratio entering 2012). Latos, who received less than five runs of support per start last season, should figure to benefit more in that department this season with the Reds’ offense. On the other hand, it’s also fair to expect him to give up a few more runs each start, especially with him pitching his home games in a hitter-friendly environment.

Latos also has a reputation for being somewhat of a hothead and never being afraid to show his emotions on the mound or in the dugout, especially when things aren’t going his way. It will be up to pitching coach Bryan Price and manager Dusty Baker to guide him through the adjustment period with his new team, situation and home ballpark to get the front-line starter production they, in essence, paid for and, more importantly, need if they have any hopes of contending.

The Reds weren’t done with their pitching makeover with just Latos, however, as on Dec. 23 they acquired reliever Sean Marshall from their division rivals, the Cubs. The Reds sent the Cubs three players in return for the left-handed Marshall, who has thrived as a set-up man the past two seasons. He is 13-11 with six saves, a 2.45 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 150 1/3 innings in that span.

Marshall will continue his role as set-up man for the Reds, where he will precede their new closer, Ryan Madson. Madson, who won a World Series and played in another in his nine seasons with the Phillies, signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal to try and help the Reds make it back to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1990.

Madson, like Latos, will be under pressure to perform, as he will be replacing the departed Francisco Cordero. Although it may not have always been pretty, Cordero was effective in his four seasons as the Reds’ closer, averaging 38 saves per season. To put it another way, Cordero’s lowest single-season saves total with the Reds was 34. That’s two more than Madson saved last year in his first full season as the Phillies’ closer.

With Latos, Marshall and Madson on board, the Reds are hoping they have the arms to take down the defending World Series champions St. Louis Cardinals and defending NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers. While the Cardinals will look to defend their championship without first baseman Albert Pujols (signed with Los Angeles Angels), manager Tony LaRussa (retired) and pitching coach Dave Duncan (leave of absence), they will welcome back a key piece to their starting rotation in Adam Wainwright.

Wainwright missed all of the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last February. Prior to that, he won 39 games with a 2.53 ERA and 425 strikeouts in 2009 and 2010, and finished in the top 3 of the NL Cy Young voting both years. Even if he’s not back to his old self right away, the Cardinals’ starting rotation is already better of with Wainwright, who will team with Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook.

Meanwhile, the Brewers will look to their pitching to carry the load even more this season with the departure of Prince Fielder and the expected 50-game suspension for NL MVP Ryan Braun. Last year, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum combined for 46 of the Brewers’ franchise-record 96 wins, and will probably need even more this year to have any hopes of defending their division title.

Like the Brewers, the Arizona Diamondbacks are looking to defend their division title , and they went out and got another arm this offseason in hopes of keeping them atop the NL West standings. On Dec. 13, the Diamondbacks acquired right-handed starter Trevor Cahill, along with left-handed relieved Craig Breslow, from the Oakland A’s. The A’s received pitchers Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook and outfielder Collin Cowgill in return.

Cahill, who will turn 24 on March 1, has 40 wins in three major league seasons and will join a rotation that already includes Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. Kennedy, the oldest of the three at 27, is coming off a 21-win season where he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. Hudson won 16 games last year and the Silver Slugger award as the best hitting pitcher in the NL. Together, the trio has the potential to each win 20 or more games this season and beyond.

Likewise, the San Francisco Giants, the Diamondbacks’ division rivals, have three starters of their own that are capable of winning 20 or more games in a season. Tim Lincecum, the two-time NL Cy Young winner (2008-09) has come the closest with 18 wins in 2008, while Matt Cain (12-11, 2.88 ERA in 2011) and Madison Bumgarner (13-13, 3.21 ERA) each appear to have the stuff to do it. And that’s leaving out Ryan Vogelsong, who led the staff with a 2.71 ERA last year, and the guy who has actually won 20 or more games in a season, Barry Zito (23 wins in 2002 with the A’s), in the process.

So just like the AL, the NL appears to be well armed, if you will, especially as it applies to teams who are planning on contending. And if any of these teams are looking for even more pitching, there are plenty of free agents still out there (Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson, Francisco Cordero, etc.) and probably a pitcher or two (Cubs’ Matt Garza, Gavin Floyd of the Chicago White Sox, namely) that could be pried away from their current team, if the price is right.

What other moves, if any, are made by these supposed contenders will probably come down to one question – does my team have enough “arms” to compete, or more specifically, win? This is a hard enough question to answer once the season starts, let alone the end of January. But it’s definitely not a question they will want to revisit come the end of the season, especially if they are one of the teams watching, and not playing in, the postseason.

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