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Stacking our rotation up

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Maybe it's the lengthy period of speculation before the announcement which drained the enthusiasm away, but I can't say I am feeling all that excited about Johnson coming back to Arizona as yet. If I can draw a parallel, it's a bit like the news that your sea-captain uncle, whom you loved dearly as a child, is coming back to dry land after years in foreign parts. But there are whispers in the family that he might not be "the same", and you wonder if your fond memories of bouncing on his knee are about to be cruelly shattered, by someone who turns out to be closer to Fagin than Santa Claus.

I think it's largely a question of managing our expectations here. It's too much to hope that we'll see the Johnson of 2001 - a 2.49 ERA and 372 K's in less than 250 innings. But I would settle for the 2005 version, who won half his starts, had a no-decision in another quarter, and an ERA of 3.79. That'd do, especially considering the tenth-best ERA in the National League last season was 3.71. If we have two of the top ten pitchers in the league on our roster, our changes of playoff contention would be great, especially since both Davis and Hernandez should be solid in their roles. Davis would seem a decent #3, but not so good as a #2.

Which brings me to today's question, somewhat inspired by my colleague over at True Blue LA, who have been comparing projections for the various teams in the NL West. Today, in particular, let's take a look at the rotations of the five teams, based largely on the ZIPS projections for the teams concerned (but shamlessly lifted from True Blue LA). Who do you think has the best rotation?

  • DIAMONDBACKS
    Brandon Webb 3.85
    Randy Johnson 3.63
    Doug Davis 4.54
    Micah Owings 4.88
    Livan Hernandez 5.14

    I'm prepared to bet that the majority of D'backs pitchers will beat expectations here. ZIPS hates Webb for some reason: their predicted ERA's have been high for him since he arrived in the majors, and I'm not sure why. On the other hand, I'd happily settle for Johnson at 3.63. Davis, I expect will be helped by having an improved defense behind him (though, let's face it, a set of garbage cans would probably make more outs than the Brewers did). I've plugged Owings into the fifth spot, as that's the best ERA of the likely candidates: EdGon rated a 4.96, EnGon 5.08, Nippert 5.41 and MacLane 6.14. I am certainly hoping for better from Hernandez 2.0: given what we're paying him, I would want more than poor #4 starter numbers from him [over on TBLA, I'm trying to convince them he's as good as Derek Lowe, though if truth be told that's more for my own amusement as anything. ;-)]

  • DODGERS
    Derek Lowe 3.84
    Jason Schmidt 3.94
    Brad Penny 3.95
    Chad Billingsley 4.38
    Randy Wolf (No Projection)

    Maybe it's just fan favoritism, but as I tend to think the D'backs are under-rated, I suspect the Dodgers won't be that good, Lowe in particular. He benefited from a very weak schedule, padding his stats in the second half thanks to 15 of his last 18, and nine of his final ten starts, coming against sub-.500 teams. I think both Schmidt and Penny will do better in 2007. This is actually a damn solid rotation: there might be no obvious "ace", but going by these numbers, Lowe, Schmidt and Penny are very solid number twos, and Billingsley would be a #3, rather than #4, starter.

  • GIANTS
    Matt Cain 4.01
    Barry Zito 4.01
    Noah Lowry 4.15
    Matt Morris 4.31
    Jonathan Sanchez 4.57

    Here we see the problem in the Zito signing. You're paying someone $18m, for an ERA expected to be above four, which barely makes the top ten in the division? And this is the first year of a contract that runs through 2013? The Giants had better hope ZIPS is pessimistic regarding Zito, or that contract is going to look albatross-shaped before long. But for next season, they don't look too bad; much like the Dodgers, there aren't many obvious days when fans will have to bury their heads in the ground. Morris might actually turn out to be the worst of the lot here.

  • PADRES
    Jake Peavy 3.23
    Chris Young 3.82
    Greg Maddux 3.90
    Clay Hensley 4.14
    Mike Thompson 4.65

    On paper, the Padres rotation could be the strongest in the division, though you have to take playing in the cavernous confines of Petco into consideration. Peavy will need to capture his late-season form in order to reach those numbers: he finished July with an ERA above five, but over his last dozen starts, then allowed 23 runs in 78.1 innings (a figure of 2.64 in that time). If he can extend that through 2007, Young and Maddux should be capable of backing Peavy up, and make runs difficult to come by for Padres opponents.

  • ROCKIES
    Aaron Cook 4.37
    Byung-Hyun Kim 4.44
    Jeff Francis 4.48
    Taylor Buchholz 4.85
    Jason Hirsh 4.85

    While all their division rivals made at least one big move to strengthen their rotation (Johnson, Schmidt, Zito and Maddux respectively), the Rockies didn't, and the results are obvious. Their "ace" would, by ZIPS, be no better than the number three starter on any other NL West team. This might be the Rockies' downfall in 2007; they have a good crop of position players coming through, they just lack the arms to support them. Of course, a large factor in any Rockies' statistics will be how much use is made of the humidor, which last year, moved Coors Field from altitude to Death Valley.

If I had to put these five teams in order for rotational strength, I would do so as follows: Padres, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Giants, Rockies. However, the top three are fairly close in the rankings, and all it would take is perhaps one pitcher to over (or under) perform, and the rankings could be totally reversed.

Finally, a quick update on the Johnson front. The Tribune is reporting that "Johnson and the Diamondbacks have reached an agreement on the financial language on Johnson's new two-year contract with the D-Backs." The deal apparently does not include any changes to the $40m due through 2012, from Johnson's previous stay in Arizona. And finally, a nasty, vitriolic hack-job on Johnson from Newsday:

You can't take a surly, withdrawn misfit who happens to have been blessed with the skill to throw baseballs past bats and expect him to survive in an environment populated by vibrant human beings. Randy Johnson was out of his element among people, period, and if you are not a people person, New York is not the place for you. No doubt he will be happier back in the desert of Arizona, where reptiles thrive.

Pin that one to the bulletin-board in the clubhouse before Arizona travels to New York for their series. Mind you, the writer says "The Diamondbacks aren't much better than they were in 2004," so clearly hasn't got a fricking clue about anything outside the New York sewers. Even last year's version was 25 games better than they were in 2004, and the 2007 model figures to be improved further. Oh, what I'd give, for the chance to play the Yankees in the World Series, and watch Johnson stuff those word down that hack's throat.