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The Beast That Is the NL East

The NL East is quite possibly the deepest division in terms of starting pitching. The NL West gets a lot of publicity with the Giants, Diamondbacks, and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw leading the way. The NL Central is led by strong staffs in Milwaukee and St. Louis. In the American League New York, Tampa Bay, and Boston all have strong staffs and include a handful of elite pitchers. The Tigers lead things in the Central Division and in the West Oakland has, as always, a stable of quality young arms, the Mariners throw out Felix Hernandez every fifth day, and the Rangers will be interesting to watch, mainly to see how Yu Darvish will pitch in the States. The NL East, however, boasts both depth from top to bottom and includes a number of the best pitchers in the game.

As everyone in the baseball world already knows the Phillies starting rotation is pretty good. Even with the loss of Roy Oswalt, the Phils still have three of the top pitchers in all of baseball in Roy Halladay, Cliff lee, and Cole Hamels, leading their rotation. If Vance Worley can replicate his rookie year to any extent he adds a young arm to the rotation which, along with a renewal for Cole hamels, could help to ensure their pitching dominance continues well into the foreseeable future.

The Atlanta Braves also contain a wealth of quality pitching. Though they don't match up to the level of the Phillies, but then again who does, they still have a strong bunch of starters. Even with Tim Hudson set to miss the first month or so of the season due to a back injury young guns Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor, all who enjoyed successful seasons last year, all return. To take the place of the injured Hudson to being the year the Braves also have Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado ready to step in. While the Phillies have established elite MLB starters the Braves, on the other hand, counter with a group of elite prospects and young guys who could easily step up to that level.

Speaking of elite young pitchers, the Nationals have Steven Strausburg returning for his first full season in his comback from Tommy John surgery. He will be on an innings limit this year as the Nats look to monitor his health in his return. Number two starter, Jordan Zimmermann, was in a similar situation in 2009 when he pitched 161.1 innings following his return from a Tommy John surgery of his own. New Nat Gio Gonzalez and Free Agent signee Edwin Jackson who, although having gotten around in his career has put up above average numbers, form quality depth in the middle of the rotation.

The Mets will be an interesting team to watch throughout the season in terms of their starting rotation. Leading this intrigue is without question the return of Johan Santana, who did not pitch at the major league level at all last season. In fact, his only action in 2011 came with two starts at Class Advanced A St. Lucie. How Santana will perform in 2012 will be something I am really looking forward watching develop as the season progresses. With Santana the Mets could have anything ranging from an ace, midling starter, or another injury disappointment. While the performance of Santana is a headling that bears watching it is not the only intriguing one concerning Mets pitching. Can Dillon Gee stand up to another season at the MLB level? His first full season in the majors got off to a fast start before tailing at the end of the year. Veterans R.A Dickey, Johnathan Niese, and Mike Pelfrey form a dependable, solid mid-rotation core.

Like the Mets, the Marlins face similar questions. Josh Johnson, despite a rather extensive injusry history, has shown he can produce at an elite level. After only making nine starts in 2011 how he returns in 2012 will be a headling worth watching. New signing Mark Buehrle provides consistency, if nothing else. Buehrle, along with the underrated Anibal Sanchez, form solid mid-rotation depth. The enigmatic Ricky Nolasco could be provide a boom or bust season for the Marlins. Likewise for our new fifth starter, Carlos Zambrano, who got me thinking about the idea of taking a deeper look at the divisions starting rotations in the first place.

I wanted to look at each projected rotation to see how exactly each stacks up next to one another for the upcoming 2012 season.

Here are the projected starting five for each NL East team along with their FIP, used because it is better at predicting the future than measuring the present and their WAR from 2011 (except for Steven Strasburg and Johan Santana which are described below).

Philadelphia Phillies

Rotation Spot Pitcher GS FIP
1 Roy Halladay 32 2.20
2 Cliff Lee 32 2.60
3 Cole Hamels 31 3.00
4 Vance Worley 21 3.24
5 Joe Blanton 8 3.55

Atlanta Braves

Rotation Spot Pitcher GS FIP
1 Tim Hudson 33 3.39
2 Jair Jurrjens 23 3.99
3 Tommy Hanson 22 3.67
4 Brandon Beachy 25 3.19
5 Mike Minor 15 3.39

Washington Nationals

Rotation Spot Pitcher GS FIP

Steven Strasburg (2010/11)

17 1.87
2 Gio Gonzalez 32 3.64
3 Jordan Zimmermann 26 3.16
4 Edwin Jackson 31 3.55
5 John Lannan 33 4.28

New York Mets

Rotation Spot Pitcher GS FIP
1 Johan Santana (2010) 29 3.54
2 R.A. Dickey 32 3.78
3 Jon Niese 26 3.36
4 Mike Pelfrey 33 4.47
5 Dillon Gee 27 4.59

Miami Marlins

Rotation Spot Pitcher GS FIP
1 Josh Johnson 9 2.64
2 Mark Buehrle 31 3.98
3 Anibal Sanchez 32 3.35
4 Ricky Nolasco 33 3.54
5 Carlos Zambrano 24 4.59

In 2011 league average FIP was 3.94. Breaking down the rotations we see the data backs up what we already know... the Phillies staff is exceptional. Every projected starter for 2012 was well below league average. Of the Braves's top five only Jair Jurgens had an FIP above league average, registering just above at 3.99. Steven Strasburg's 17 career starts have proven that, when healthy, he is indeed worthy of the hype. The rest of the Nationals starters sit below league average except for fifth starter John Lannan. The only team with multiple projected starters for 2012 with an above average FIP last season was the Mets, with Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee posting an FIP about half a run worse than league average. The only Marlins starter above league average last season was Carlos Zambrano.

Here is a rundown of the projected divisional starters based on the 2011 FIPs:

Rank Player FIP
1 Steven Strasburg (10/11) 1.87
2 Roy Halladay 2.20
3 Cliff Lee 2.60
4 Josh Johnson 2.64
5 Cole Hamels 3.00
6 Jordan Zimmerman 3.16
7 Brandon Beachy 3.19
8 Vance Worley 3.24
9 Anibal Sanchez 3.35
10 Jon Niese 3.36
11 Tim Hudson 3.39
11 Mike Minor 3.39
13 Ricky Nolasco 3.54
13 Johan Santana (2010) 3.54
15 Edwin Jackson 3.55
15 Joe Blanton 3.55
17 Gio Gonzalez 3.67
18 R.A. Dickey 3.78
19 Mark Buehrle 3.98
League Average 3.99
20 Jair Jurrjens 3.99
21 John Lannan 4.28
22 Mike Pelfrey 4.47
23 Carlos Zambrano 4.59
23 Dillon Gee 4.59

It must also be noted that these numbers are only for the projected starting five. By looking at the number of starters used by each team last season we see how important health is to the starting rotations.

The Phillies only used an amazing seven starters last season. Along with the above five 23 starts went to Roy Oswalt (3.44 FIP) and 15 to Kyle Kendrick (4.75).

The Braves were also quite lucky in regards to their starting rotation using only eight starters throughout the year. Derek Low made 35 starts (3.70), Randall Delgado had seven (5.14), and Julio Teheran made three starts (5.45).

Washington was forced to use 11 starters last season. Livan Hernandez made 29 starts (3.96), Jason Marquis made 20 (3.78), Tom Gorzelanny started 15 games (4.57), Chien-Ming Wang had 11 starts (4.57), Ross Detwiler made 10 starts (4.42), five starts went to Yunesky Maya (4.99), and Brad Peacock made 2 starts (3.68).

The Mets used nine starters throughout the 2011 season. Chris Capuano started 31 games (4.03), Miguel Batista made 4 starts (3.72), Chris Schwinden started 4 games (3.03), Chris Young also started in 4 games (4.32) and D.J. Carrasco made a single start (15.84).

The Marlins used 11 starters last season. Javier Vazquez started 32 games (3.57), Chris Volstad made 29 starts (4.32), Brad Hand started 12 games (5.73), Clay Hensley was the starter for 9 games (5.53), Alex Sanabia started 2 games (4.73), Brian Sanches also made 2 starts (6.96), Jay Buente started a single game (6.36), and Elih Villanueva also made 1 start (12.03).

This tells us that, while talent eventually wins out as evidenced by every full time Phillies starter last season posting an FIP below league average, luck also plays a major role in determining success and failure. Marlins fans saw this first hand on both counts. The shoulder injury that sidelined Josh Johnson after only 9 starts last season forced the team to use a division tying high 11 starters. You don't need me to tell you that we would rather have Johnson making starts instead of the guys the Marlins were forced to turn to, like Sanabia, Sanches, Buente and Villanueva.

This point also illustrates the fact that in many cases the team's 5th starter isn't always a terrible pitcher. In the case of the 2012 projected starters, using their 2011 FIP's as a guide, the Nationals, Mets, and Marlins project to be above league average but are by no means terrible. Injuries wreak havoc on a team's starting rotation. While the 5th starter may be only slightly worse than average, the 6th, 7th, 8th, etc. starters really bring down the quality of starts seen by a team that is forced to use a higher number of starters. Last year the Phillies were lucky on both counts. Their starting five were great to begin with but by only using seven starters during the course of the season also did not bring down their performance to the extent it did to a team like the Marlins who needed to use 11 starters.

Looking at the final division standings from last year proves the importance of using the fewest number of starters as possible. The first place, 102-59 Phillies, only used seven starters. The Braves, who finished in second and let the Wild Card slip away, used only eight. The Nationals used 11 starters, three more than the 4th placed Mets, the only anomaly in the division. The Marlins, who also used 11, finished in the basement.

What does this tell us? It is really pretty simple. One, if you have the talent you obviously have a leg up on the competition. Talent, however, is not the only thing that is important. Health and luck also play a large role in determining success and failure. Hopefully 2012 will be more kind to the Marlins than was 2011 ... at least kind enough to not have to sit through starts from Brian Sanches again.