Ranking NL Central pitching staffs: Cardinals are No. 1, barely
FEB 12, 2014 3:19p ET
ST. LOUIS -- For all the acclaim being showered these days on the Cardinals' pitching, this might be sacrilege to mention. But it is worth pointing out: Their pitching might not be the best in the division.
The Reds and Pirates are that strong. The addition of starter Matt Garza notably upgrades the Brewers who, you might not realize, finished 2013 with the second-best bullpen ERA in the division. Only the rebuilding Cubs lack the depth to hang with the rest of the Central.
Rankings always are a subjective matter, of course, and never more so than the time of year when pitchers and catchers have just started reporting to spring training. In a few months, there will be real game results to compare. For now, past performances and always-iffy projections will have to do.
Only this is certain: There's not much difference in the top three staffs.
How close are the top three? Last year, Cardinals starters finished with a 3.42 ERA, second-best in the NL to the Dodgers. The Reds were right behind at 3.43 and the Pirates fourth, 3.50. All three teams saw little turnover in the off-season.
The Pirates and Reds both lost veteran presences, with A.J. Burnett signing with the Phillies and Bronson Arroyo moving on to Arizona. The Cardinals, however, shouldn't be too thrilled that those two have left the division. They had their way with both. Over the past two seasons, Arroyo went 1-4 with a 4.85 ERA in seven starts against St. Louis. In Burnett's nine starts against the Cardinals in 2012-13, he was usually very good or very bad. Four times, he went seven innings and allowed no more than one run. In three others, he failed to go five innings and gave up at least five runs. Don't forget, the Pirates opted to go with the rookie Cole over Burnett in Game 5 of the NL Division Series.
The Pirates could not afford to bring back Burnett in part because they will be paying $7.5 million of the $13 million Rodriguez will make after exercising his player option. If any of the Pirates falter, they have a pretty strong backup plan with 22-year-old Jameson Taillon considered ready for his shot.
1. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
2. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
3. Jason Grilli, Pirates
4. Jim Henderson, Brewers
5. Jose Veras, Cubs
As dominant as Rosenthal was in the playoffs and is expected to be in 2014, ranking him ahead of the more proven Chapman would not be accurate. Not yet, anyway. Chapman throws just as hard, is left-handed and has 77 saves on his resume. Rosenthal has three in the regular season. Heck, Rosenthal might not deserve to be ranked ahead of the Pirates' Grilli, who is coming off an All-Star season in which he saved 33 games despite missing six weeks in the second half.
PROJECTED KEY RELIEVERS
No setup reliever had a stronger 2013 than Melancon, the main reason the Pirates head this list. In 72 outings, he had a 0.96 WHIP and 1.39 ERA and allowed only eight extra-base hits. The Brewers lost some key bullpen pieces and could be without Gorzellany, who had shoulder surgery in the off-season. Milwaukee also could get a boost after the rotation is settled. Estrado has plenty of experience out of the bullpen. If Broxton doesn't return to form after season-ending surgery, the Reds' bullpen will be without a clear bridge to Chapman. The Cardinals aren't sure who will pitch the eighth, either, but they're not short on quality candidates.
The depth of their entire pitching staff, in fact, gives the Cardinals the edge over the rest of the pitching staffs in the division. But not by much:
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.