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Baseball's Pitching Changes: The AL Arms Race


— by Mark Ross

Pitchers are scheduled to report to spring training in less than a month, and if Major League Baseball’s offseason is any indication, a lot of teams’ postseason hopes will be riding on those arms that will get tuned up in Florida and Arizona.

Between free agent signings, trades and injury comebacks, more than half of MLB's 30 teams will enter the season with a different starting rotation compared to the start of the 2011 season. More to the point, teams that are expected to contend this season made a majority of the biggest moves, adding significance, not to mention, scrutiny, to these transactions.

In the American League, the Los Angeles Angels struck first when they signed C.J. Wilson to a five-year, $77.5 million deal. Adding the left-hander to a starting rotation that already features Jered Weaver, who finished second in the AL Cy Young voting last season, and Dan Haren is no less significant than the fact that adding Wilson also meant taking him away from the Angels’ division rival, the Texas Rangers.

Last season, Wilson went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA for the Rangers, earning his first All-Star Game invite and helping them reach the World Series for a second straight year. In Anaheim, he will team with Weaver and Haren, who combined to win 34 games and strike out nearly 400 batters.

The Rangers didn’t sit idly by, however, as in December they won the rights to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish with a posting fee of $51.7 million. The defending AL West champs then completed the deal with the 25-year-old right-hander by agreeing to a six-year contract worth about $60 million just prior to the deadline to sign him within the 30-day negotiating period.

Darvish, who went 18-6 last season in Japan with a 1.44 ERA, will join presumed Opening Day starter Colby Lewis, and most likely, Dexter Holland, Matt Harrison and converted closer Neftali Feliz in the Rangers’ rotation. Alexi Ogando, who won 13 games as a starter last year, is also a possibility, but at this point it appears he will take Feliz’s place in the bullpen this season.

Like their AL West counterparts, the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s also joined in on the rotation makeovers, albeit following a different strategy. Last week, the Mariners agreed to send two young pitchers, Michael Pineda and Jose Campos, to the New York Yankees for top prospect Jesus Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi. The A’s also traded away two young starting pitchers, sending right-hander Trevor Cahill and left-handed reliever Craig Breslow to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a Dec. 9 trade and two weeks later shipping left-hander Gio Gonzalez and a prospect to the Washington Nationals. These two trades brought the rebuilding A’s a total of seven players, five of them pitchers, in return.

While Gonzalez and Cahill are significant additions for the Nationals and Diamondbacks respectively, Pineda to the Yankees could turn out to be the real game-changer. Pineda, who went 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 171 innings as a rookie last season, was expected to team with former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez as the Mariners’ 1-2 punch for years to come.

Now, the 22-year-old right-hander goes to a legitimate World Series contender and helps the Yankees fill what was a glaring need – starting pitching depth beyond CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova. The Mariners did well by adding the young, impact bat they needed in the slugging Montero, but they did this trade with an eye towards the future, while the Yankees are focused on the present.

And if adding Pineda wasn’t enough, Yankees GM Brian Cashman bolstered the rotation further by agreeing to a one-year, $10 million deal with free agent Hiroki Kuroda the same night he brokered the trade with Seattle. Kuroda, 36, is considerably older than Pineda, but over the past four years he has posted a 41-46 record with a respectable 3.45 ERA. Last year, he went 13-16 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the right-hander was ninth in the National League with a 3.07 ERA.

With Pineda and Kuroda joining Sabathia and Nova in the rotation, the Yankees have three candidates – A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes – for their fifth spot, a luxury they didn’t have just two weeks ago. The Boston Red Sox, the Yankees’ AL East rivals, are making some tweaks to their rotation as well, but their move came from in-house as they are switching Daniel Bard from a reliever to a starter.

Bard figures to join lefty Jon Lester and right-handers Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz with Aaron Cook, Vincente Padilla and Carlos Silva coming to spring training in hopes of securing the fifth spot. Starting pitching depth will be critical for the Sox this season, who at some point hope to get Daisuke Matsuzaka back after undergoing Tommy John surgery last June. In addition, the team will be without the services of John Lackey, who will miss the entire 2012 season after having Tommy John surgery during the offseason.

For now, one could argue that the Yankees appear to have the strongest starting rotation in the AL East, which is saying something since the division also includes the Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa definitely has the youngest rotation in the league, not to mention the majors, as the Rays will trot out left-hander David Price, workhorse James Shields, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and young phenom Matt Moore, one of the early favorites to win the award this season, with either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann rounding out their starting five. Shields, who turned 30 in December, is the oldest of the six, while Davis, Hellickson, Moore and Price range from 22 to 26 years old.

The AL Central was the quietest of the three divisions when it came to pitching acquisitions in the offseason, but in case of the Detroit Tigers it’s a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After all, the defending division champs’ rotation is headed up by none other than Justin Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young and MVP. Following Verlander, the Tigers look to have righties Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, and possibly 20-year-old Jacob Turner, their top pitching prospect, in their rotation.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians acquired veteran right-hander Derek Lowe from the Atlanta Braves last October and will add him to their young core of starting pitchers Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Tomlin in hopes of competing with the Tigers for division supremacy.

And if that wasn’t enough pitching turnover to digest, some of these same teams tinkered with their respective bullpens as well. The most significant moves along those lines involved the Rangers and Red Sox, who will have new closers in 2012.

The Rangers signed Joe Nathan away from the Minnesota Twins to take Feliz’s place, while the Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey from the A’s to replace departed closer Jonathan Papelbon, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Red Sox also acquired Mark Melancon from the Houston Astros in a separate deal. Melancon, who saved 20 games for the Astros last season, is expected to take Bard’s place as the Sox’ set-up man this season.

What’s more, this is probably not the last of the pitching changes that will be made before the season even starts. For one, dozens of free agent pitchers remain unsigned, including a three-time All-Star and two-time 20-game winner (Roy Oswalt), a starter who’s averaged more than 200 innings over the past four seasons (Edwin Jackson), and a closer who’s saved 34 or more games the past five seasons (Francisco Cordero), to name a few. There also are pitchers like Matt Garza of the Chicago Cubs and Gavin Floyd of the Chicago White Sox, who are reportedly available via trade.

So regardless of what other moves happen between now and Opening Day, or even during the season itself, the arms race has clearly begun. Now it’s a matter of seeing which team has the arsenal to play, and ultimately win, in October.