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Ranking the NL Central starting rotations

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The Cardinals could have a very good rotation if their pitchers stay healthy. But where does their rotation rank in comparison to the rotations of other NL Central teams?

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David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Saturday, VEB readers. In case you are wondering, I am writing this post ahead of time. I was at last night's Cardinals-Reds game, and I will be at today's game as well. I am in no position to say anything about either game because, well, they haven't taken place yet, at least at the time that I am writing this. I'm already starting to confuse myself by writing in different time frames, so I'm just going to go straight to the topic at hand.

When I originally heard that Jason Marquis was going to be in the Reds' starting rotation, I was stunned. I was not aware of the fact that he was still pitching in the majors, and I had no idea that the Reds' starting rotation depth was so thin that bringing in Marquis was a necessary move. This got me thinking, though, about the starting rotations of the other teams in the NL Central. While I find it hard to imagine that the Cardinals would need a pitcher of Marquis' caliber at any point in the near future, given their starting pitching depth, I was a little curious about the state of the other NL Central teams' starting rotations. What follows is my attempt to rank the starting rotations of all five NL Central teams. While I will only include the ZiPS projections for each team's projected top five starters, I will also take into account the quality of each team's starting pitching depth in my overall rankings, due to the frequency of starting pitcher injuries.

5. Milwaukee Brewers

Pitcher ERA IP K/9 BB/9 FIP WAR
Kyle Lohse"]" style="padding: 2px 3px; vertical-align: bottom;">Kyle Lohse 3.91 163.3 6.28 1.93 4.22 1.2
Matt Garza"]" style="padding: 2px 3px; vertical-align: bottom;">Matt Garza 3.82 141.3 7.52 2.68 3.91 1.6
Wily Peralta"]" style="padding: 2px 3px; vertical-align: bottom;">Wily Peralta 4.21 177.3 7.11 3.60 4.34 1.0
Jimmy Nelson"]" style="padding: 2px 3px; vertical-align: bottom;">Jimmy Nelson 3.95 150.3 7.90 3.95 4.04 1.4
Mike Fiers"]" style="padding: 2px 3px; vertical-align: bottom;">Mike Fiers 4.05 133.3 8.24 2.43 4.05 1.4

The Brewers rotation is interesting in that it is basically composed of five #3/4 starter types who are all projected to be worth between one and two wins and have an ERA between 3.82 and 4.21. With that being said, there is some upside here. Matt Garza, when healthy, can be a three win pitcher. In addition, Mike Fiers' projection seems awfully low, given that he put up 1.7 WAR in just 71 2/3 innings last year. While it is unlikely that he will put up the same numbers as last year in a full season's worth of starts, he is an intriguing player to watch and has breakout potential. In addition, Jimmy Nelson could turn into a good pitcher for the Brewers if he comes anywhere close to pitching like he did in Triple-A last year (1.46 ERA, 2.97 FIP in 111 innings).

Lohse is a known quantity at this point, especially for readers here, but Peralta is only 25 and perhaps has some untapped potential. While people who follow traditional stats will say that he already had his breakout last year (17 wins, 3.53 ERA), he put up just 1.6 WAR with a 4.11 FIP despite a high innings total of 198 2/3. If he takes a step forward this year, that could go a long way to making the Brewers' rotation more formidable. The Brewers are certainly weak on depth, though, as the sixth starter on their depth chart, Taylor Jungmann, has never pitched in the majors and has a negative ZiPS projected WAR. After that, their next best option is Brent Suter, who hasn't pitched above Double-A yet.

4. Cincinnati Reds

Pitcher ERA IP K/9 BB/9 FIP WAR
Johnny Cueto"]" style="padding: 2px 3px; vertical-align: bottom;">Johnny Cueto 2.88 181.3 8.09 2.28 3.48 3.0
Homer Bailey"]" style="padding: 2px 3px; vertical-align: bottom;">Homer Bailey 3.54 172.7 7.82 2.40 3.76 2.2
Mike Leake"]" style="padding: 2px 3px; vertical-align: bottom;">Mike Leake 3.94 194.3 6.30 2.08 4.09 1.6
Anthony DeSclafani"]" style="padding: 2px 3px; vertical-align: bottom;">Anthony DeSclafani 4.45 127.3 6.93 2.62 4.49 0.4
Jason Marquis 5.29 80.0 6.08 3.60 5.69 -0.6

I almost ranked the Reds fifth on this list, solely due to the fact that they have Jason Marquis in their rotation, but I couldn't ignore the fact that the Reds have a better top of the rotation and more depth than the Brewers. Cueto is a legitimate top of the rotation starter for the Reds, while Homer Bailey, when healthy, has the potential to be a solid number two. (He is currently on the DL but is expected to be back next weekend.) Mike Leake has been an incredibly consistent mid-rotation innings eater, and the Reds can count on him to do the same in 2015.

After that is where things become questionable. Anthony DeSclafani has the potential to be a solid back-end starter, but he has yet to prove himself at the major league level. Jason Marquis is ranked fifth on the rotation's depth chart (when Homer Bailey is included), but he should be closer to tenth. Talented righthander Raisel Iglesias is filling Bailey's spot for now, but he could be sent down when Bailey returns. (Knowing how Walt Jocketty operates, this is the most likely scenario, since Marquis would likely have to be designated for assignment if Bailey takes his spot.) The Reds also have Michael Lorenzen and David Holmberg available as depth, with top prospect Robert Stephenson getting closer to the majors.

What I find to be most confusing about the Reds is how they insist on giving Jason Marquis a rotation spot over younger, more talented players like Lorenzen, Iglesias, and Tony Cingrani. The Reds seem intent on putting Cingrani in the bullpen, despite the fact that he has yet to fail as a starter when healthy. The Reds could even (dare I say it) put Aroldis Chapman in the rotation over Marquis, now that they have the open rotation spot that they lacked in prior years when Chapman was getting consideration as a starter. Nevertheless, this won't happen unless the Reds fall out of contention early in the year, and even then, it's probably a long shot, given the fact that Chapman himself doesn't want to start.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

Pitcher ERA IP K/9 BB/9 FIP WAR
Francisco Liriano"]">Francisco Liriano 3.24 163.7 9.46 3.68 3.27 2.6
Gerrit Cole"]">Gerrit Cole 3.32 170.7 8.44 2.53 3.25 2.9
A.J. Burnett"]">A.J. Burnett 3.92 179.3 7.88 3.61 3.73 1.8
Jeff Locke"]">Jeff Locke 4.17 164.0 6.80 3.46 4.31 0.5
Vance Worley"]">Vance Worley 3.95 132.3 6.12 2.11 3.69 1.4

The Pirates rotation is not necessarily the strength of the team, but it is strong enough for the team to be contenders in the division this year, especially given how good their offense is. Liriano and Cole are very good starters at the top of their rotation, but for right now, they are probably in the second tier of NL Central starters behind Wainwright, Lester, and Cueto. Cole is only 24, though, and has the potential to be an elite starter. The only question is whether he can stay healthy and have a breakout season in 2015.

A.J. Burnett slots in as a nice mid-rotation innings eater, and Worley and Locke are solid, low-upside back-end starters. They are certainly replaceable, though, and it's likely that one of them will be replaced if Charlie Morton returns from injury. He was originally set to be in the rotation at the start of the season, but he went on the DL after having a rough spring where he didn't feel fully recovered from his offseason hip surgery. The Pirates have some high-upside depth options, with top prospects Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham starting the season at Triple-A Indianapolis.

2. Chicago Cubs

Pitcher ERA IP K/9 BB/9 FIP WAR
Jon Lester"]">Jon Lester 3.10 208.7 8.06 2.29 3.25 4.3
Jake Arrieta"]">Jake Arrieta 3.67 154.3 8.52 3.50 3.79 1.9
Jason Hammel"]">Jason Hammel 3.89 141.0 7.47 2.68 3.97 1.4
Travis Wood 4.31 173.3 7.11 3.48 4.42 1.2
Kyle Hendricks"]">Kyle Hendricks 3.54 165.3 6.26 2.07 3.54 2.8

With all the attention the Cubs' top hitting prospects are getting, many seem to overlook the fact that the Cubs have a solid starting rotation already in place. Lester and Arrieta make up one of the best one-two tandems in the division, and Hammel and Hendricks are solid mid-rotation starters. In particular, I think that Arrieta's ZiPS projection is especially low, as it projects a 3 WAR dropoff from last year. I think his breakout last year was legitimate, and I think ZiPS (and other projection systems) are underestimating him due to his pre-2014 performance.

The only question mark in the Cubs rotation is the fifth spot, which is currently being filled by Travis Wood. The Cubs are hoping to see Wood pitch more like he did in 2013 than in 2014, and if he pitches somewhere in between, he'll probably keep his rotation spot until the Cubs make a mid-season trade or sign a top tier starter in the offseason. The Cubs also have enviable starting pitching depth, with Edwin Jackson and Tsuyoshi Wada projected to be worth at least 1 WAR. The Cubs also have former top ten pick Jacob Turner and top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards available should multiple injuries occur. (At the moment, Wada and Turner are on the DL with what appear to be minor injuries, so I'm making the assumption that they will be available as depth at some point during the year.)

1. St. Louis Cardinals

Pitcher ERA IP K/9 BB/9 FIP WAR
Adam Wainwright 2.92 203.7 7.73 1.86 2.95 4.2
Lance Lynn 3.27 192.7 8.59 3.22 3.38 3.1
John Lackey 3.64 175.7 7.32 1.95 3.76 2.1
Michael Wacha 3.27 129.3 8.28 2.65 3.40 2.0
Carlos Martinez"]">Carlos Martinez 3.66 150.0 7.68 3.06 3.35 2.5

I almost feel bad ranking the Cardinals first, since this is a Cardinals site and I'm a Cardinals fan, but it's hard to deny that when healthy, the Cardinals have one of the best starting five in the National League. Within the division, it really isn't even that close, as the Cardinals have five of the best eleven starters in the division by projected WAR. Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in baseball when healthy, Lynn is a very good number two who eats up innings, and Wacha and Martinez have ace-like potential. At worst, Lackey is a mid-rotation innings eater (assuming health), but it wouldn't be all that surprising to see him put up another 3 WAR season in 2015.

The ZiPS projections above reflect the enormous potential that is present in the Cardinals' starting rotation, but they still take into account injury risk and the possibility of the team limiting the innings of certain starters. If Wacha stays healthy, he should comfortably top his innings pitched projection, and Martinez and Lackey could as well if they stay healthy. As we know, though, pitcher health is always a huge concern, and the probability of making it through the season with the rotation unscathed is extremely low.

Luckily, the Cardinals have perhaps the best starting pitching depth of all teams in the NL Central. In addition to having serviceable swingman Carlos Villanueva currently pitching out of the bullpen, the Cardinals have a Triple-A rotation stacked with starters who have already pitched at the major league level (Marco Gonzales, Tyler Lyons, John Gast) or are expected to at some point in the next year or two (Tim Cooney, Zach Petrick). The Cardinals might even get a contribution out of Jaime Garcia, who was days away from cracking the major league rotation before experiencing a setback in his return from thoracic outlet syndrome. Gonzales, Lyons, Cooney, and Villaneueva are all projected for at least 1 WAR, so the Cardinals appear to have both quantity and quality when it comes to starting pitching depth.

If the Cardinals can avoid catastrophic injuries, their starting pitching should once again be a strength for them this year, and given the number of pitching prospects in the Cardinals' system, I would expect things to stay this way for years to come.