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Aces on the Turn

 

Looking at the #1 starters in the National League

 

By Adam Hoff

 

If you read the first half of this column then you know what we are doing here.  In not, well, here’s everything you need in a nutshell: Short series are often decided by who has the best #1 starter, so it makes sense to look at the playoff teams and ascertain who’s got the goods at the top of the rotation.  Therefore, that’s what we are doing.  Part One examined the aces of the American League teams and ranked each squad’s chance at success based purely on that factor.  Today, we look at the NL playoff chase.

 

NATIONAL LEAGUE

 

St. Louis Cardinals.  Might as well start with the Cardinals.  They are having a phenomenal season.  Their bullpen and starting rotations have both been better than expected.  They have veterans all over the roster.  The offense is downright scary.  Yet questions linger.  Will Rolen be healthy?  Is Chris Carpenter ready to throw anytime soon?  That second question is what we’ll focus on here, because if healthy, Carpenter is the ace of this staff.  Always a guy with talent, he managed to avoid injuries most of the season and put it all together for a fantastic year.  He’s 15-5 with a staff-best 3.46 ERA and a sparkling 1.14 WHIP.  Nobody else on the roster constitutes an ace.  Matt Morris has given up about 100 home runs and his ERA is a bloated 4.55.  He’s nowhere near his 2002 form.  Woody Williams has been inconsistent at best.  Jason Marquis has good stuff but his 1.40 WHIP says he still has a ways to go.  Finally, Jeff Suppan leads the team in wins with 16, but he’s Jeff Suppan.  Enough said.  If Carpenter can’t go, who pitches in game one?  It’s a shame, but this top-of-the-rotation uncertainty could end the Cardinals playoff run before it even gets started.  It’s no way for a 100-win team to be treated, but that’s the danger in lacking a true ace on the staff. 

 

Atlanta Braves.  The other team that has been making postseason plans for a while now, the Braves face a similar dilemma as the Cards.  Gone are the days of Maddux and Glavine and even Kevin Millwood.  There is no one who sits perched at the top of the rotation, ready to go out and win the big games.  Instead, you have a lot of “maybes.”  And the truth is that you could make a case for nearly every starter they’ve got, with the exception of Mike Hampton, who shouldn’t be going anywhere near a big game.  John Thomson is talented and has been hot as of late (3-0 with a 1.38 ERA in September).  Then again, he’s done most of his best work when the division title was already in the rearview mirror.  Jaret Wright has made an impressive comeback that nearly rivals that of The Bride in “Kill Bill.”  Seriously, this guy was in a pitching coma for the better part of a decade.  Now he’s 15-8 with a 3.33 ERA.  How has this happened?  Popular opinion would point to Russ Ortiz as Bobby Cox’s guy.  Ortiz has had some nice playoff performances in the past (and a very not-so-nice performance in Game Two of the 2002 World Series ... the man was throwing batting practice) and is 14-9 with a team leading 198 innings pitched.  He’s sort of the de facto ace.  But do you really want a guy with a 1.52 WHIP taking the hill to open a series.  Yikes. 

 

The hurler that I like as the #1 starter is a guy that no one is talking about, Paul Byrd.  After sitting out the first two and a half months with an injury, Byrd has slowly pitched his way back into shape.  His 6-2 in August and July, has a 4-1 K/BB ratio, and knows how to pitch.  He’s not Curt Schilling, but he offers a more reliable option than the rest of the staff.  Overall, the Braves have very good depth in their rotation, but no real stud at the top.  Expect Ortiz or Wright to take the mound in Game One, but don’t be surprised to see Byrd sneak in there. 

 

Los Angeles Dodgers.  Broken record time.  Does anyone in the NL have a legit ace?  The Dodgers have a little more breathing room in their hunt for a playoff spot after taking two of three from the Giants.  With their 2.5 game lead in the West, it appears that they will reach the postseason.  However, with Brad Penny clutching his arm every time he tries to pitch, who will be The Guy?  Certainly not Kaz Ishii, who has walked more batters than he’s struck out this year.  Jose Lima and Wilson Alvarez are nice comeback stories, but certainly not players you want pitching a big playoff game.  That pretty much leaves Jeff Weaver and Odalis Perez.  As much as I like Weaver (13-12, 4.01, 1.30) with his bounce back season and all those quality starts (leads the league), you have to go with Perez.  He’s a consistent lefty, so that almost speaks for itself.  However, you’ve also got to appreciate that he boasts a 3.35 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP, and that he just beat the Giants with a 3-hitter the other day.  Perez isn’t a lefty that is at the level of someone like Johan Santana or even Oliver Perez, but he’s better than people think.

 

Chicago Cubs.  Now we look at all the “maybe” teams.  As was the case with the AL West, the NL Wild Card race is shaping up for a photo finish.  Therefore, we have to look at all the possibilities.  We start with the Cubs, since they finished the night a half game ahead of San Francisco for the WC lead.  The Cubbies are the opposite of all the teams previously discussed in this column.  The Cards, Braves, and Dodgers are defined by having rotations full of overachievers that really can’t be expected or counted upon to raise their level of play for the playoffs.  Things work in reverse in Chicago.  (Just like the flow of their river.)  When selecting an ace here, it’s more about simply trying to choose one, as opposed to creating one.  Matt Clement is only 9-13 but has a 3.68 ERA and is striking out more than a batter per inning.  He’s the type of pitcher that could easily go out and toss a two-hit shutout against anyone.  (This is why the Braves should be worried, by the way.  If the Cubs or Astros win the Wild Card, Atlanta becomes “anyone.”)  As good as Clement is though, he’s dinged up and can be ruled out for health reasons. 

 

Moving on, we’ve got the wily veteran Greg Maddux.  After a rough start, the newest member of the 300 Win Club has been a stabilizing force for the Cubs.  He leads the team with 201 innings pitched and a 1.17 WHIP and is tied for the team lead with 15 wins. Plus, he’s 9-4 with a 2.88 ERA over the past three months.  He actually makes a very compelling case.  That is, until you consider the following factors: 1) He’ll be pitching against his former team, eliminating certain advantages.  2) He’s allowed 30 home runs this year, and every long ball can be devastating in postseason play.  3) Speaking of postseason play, Maddux has never been real good this time of year.  4) Finally, this is a young pitching staff and they need to be reaffirmed and given confidence for future seasons.  You can’t go to the 40-year old guy now.

 

Still churning our way through this deep staff.  Next up are the young guns: Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Carlos Zambrano.  Wood has been up and down throughout his young career, but he’s got the right demeanor and has come up big in the past ... particularly against the Braves.  Prior has been banged up all year and what looked like 20 wins, 300 K’s, and a sub-3.00 ERA going in has turned into mediocrity and frustration.  Nevertheless, he’s an attractive option, particularly when you consider that he’s posted a .59 ERA and .78 WHIP in his last two starts.  Finally, you’ve got a Cy Young candidate in Zambrano.  Tied with Maddux for the team lead with 15 wins, Zambrano is third in the majors with a 2.64 ERA and is 3-0 with a .92 ERA in September. 

 

Now you know why everyone fears the Cubs.  If they can find a way to stop losing to the Mets and sneak into the playoffs, they have no fewer than four legitimate options to choose from for a Game One starter.  You have to imagine that Zambrano will get the nod, but I like Prior.  In fact, he ranks fifth on my “pitchers who I would give the ball to for a Game Seven” list, right behind Schilling, Randy, Schmidt, and Santana.  Forget about the injuries and the control problems and the talk of failure ... Prior is rounding into shape, he’s talented, and he’s the perfect guy to give you two dominant starts in a short series.  (Of course, none of this matters because Dusty will run his pitchers into the ground before its all said and done anyway.)

 

San Francisco Giants.  Just like the Twins in the AL, San Francisco knows where its bread is buttered.  Jason Schmidt is the epitome of an ace.  He stumbled for a stretch a few starts back and may have yielded the Cy Young to Roger Clemens, but his numbers for the year are still fabulous: 16-7 with a 3.21 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 240 strikeouts in 213 innings.  You don’t get much better than that.  Plus, he threw one of the finest games I’ve ever seen last year in the NLDS, holding the Marlins to two hits while striking out 13 in a virtuoso shutout performance. 

 

(Side note: I just want to give some love to Noah Lowry while we’re here.  The former Pepperdine hurler is, dare I say, making waves in the big leagues far earlier than expected.  A late first round draft pick in 2002, Lowry got his chance earlier this summer to plug a hole in the Giants rotation.  And plug it he has!  He’s 6-0 with a 3.77 ERA and came through with a brilliant complete game five-hitter against the Astros on national television earlier in the week, a performance good enough to earn him NL Player of the Week honors.  Good work, Noah!)

 

Houston Astros.  I’ll tell you what, the Astros are lurking.  They have an awful back end to their rotation and brutal middle relief, but they’ve got a shot.  Despite coming back to earth following their torrid stretch in early September, the ‘Stros are still only a game and a half out of the wild card.  If they can reach the playoffs, they could easily become the 2001 Diamondbacks all over again, riding Oswalt and Clemens and the middle of their order all the way to the promised land.  Plus, they’ve the best closer that nobody talks about in Brad Lidge.  But I digress.  As for who they will roll out for a series opener, you have to like Clemens at first glance.  He’s now 18-4 with a 2.89 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 210 K’s.  I honestly believe that Randy Johnson is the NL Cy Young (losing record and all!), but you have to like Clemens chances to take home the hardware.  However, when you consider the entire basis for this column -- that a great #1 starter can pitch twice in a short series, thus increasing the importance of having such a pitcher -- things get a bit dicey.  You see, Clemens is old.  He is.  As good as he’s been all year, he’s still older than dirt.  This makes the prospect of sending him out to pitch twice in a five game series kind of scary.  Houston might almost be better off going with the younger Roy Oswalt (18-10 with a 3.59 ERA) in the opener and following with Clemens in Game Two.  Food for thought.

 

San Diego Padres.  While it is unlikely that they will make up two and a half games and pass three teams, it’s not impossible, so we’ll throw them in here.  Besides, they actually have one of the best #1 starters in the game, the wildly underrated Jake Peavy.  Not only is he 14-6 with a major league best 2.25 ERA and 162 K’s in 160 innings, he’s also fresh (having missed time on the DL) and catching fire down the stretch.  You think the Cards would like to get their hands on him right about now?

 

How does the NL shake out?  Well, based purely on the “best #1 starter approach” I rank the National League teams in the following order, starting with the team that is most likely to win a five-game series strictly on the arm of their ace and finishing with the team least likely to pull it off:

 

1. San Francisco Giants -- Schmidt offers the best of all worlds.  He’s young and durable and capable of pitching twice in a short series.  He’s the clear-cut ace of the staff.  And best of all, he’s ridiculously good.  Not only that, but he’ll be pitching on the road in both of his starts this year, giving the Giants two games at home to try to win just one.

 

2. Chicago Cubs -- Another Wild Card contender that will be a beast should they reach the playoffs.  If Prior goes in Game One, you have to like their chances to win any series.  He’s finding his groove and doesn’t have much mileage on his arm this year.  Even if they go with Zambrano, they are still the second best NL team according to this ranking system.

 

3. Houston Astros -- More trouble for the Braves.  Let’s face it, no matter what happens, Atlanta has a tough road ahead.  If the Giants win the WC, Atlanta suddenly has to go to St. Louis to play the best team in baseball.  If the Cubs or Astros win, they welcome either a Prior-Zambrano-Wood-Maddux combo or the downright scary Oswalt-Clemens duo.  The Braves have to be cursing Florida right now for their recent collapse.  (Had the Marlins wrestled away the Wild Card, Atlanta would have hosted the reeling Dodgers.)  As for Houston, I’ve got them down here at #3, because either way you look at it -- whether they try a tired Clemens or select Oswalt -- there are some issues associated with Game Five.

 

4. Los Angeles Dodgers -- Finally, a team leading it’s division.  I think Odalis Perez is being overlooked and that he could be the X-Factor for LA. 

 

5. San Diego Padres -- They aren’t going to make the playoffs, but Peavy would turn them into a dangerous team to play.

 

6. St. Louis Cardinals -- They definitely have problems in this one area, but I like a nicked up Carpenter better than anybody the Braves have.

 

7. Atlanta Braves -- My how things have changed.  Then again, the Braves have made it this far haven’t they?  If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it is to never bet against Atlanta.

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America.  He can be reached at ahoff@uchicago.edu or by WIS sitemail at adamo112.

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