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Baseball's Pitching Changes: The NL Arms Race

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—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.