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What R.A. Dickey might mean: Analyzing American League East rotations

12.16.12 at 10:02 am ET

The Mets floated their Cy Young Award winner out into the lobby conversations at the winter meetings, seeing if a team wanted to pay the price for acquiring a top-of-the-rotation talent (albeit a 38-year-old one). Evidently, they got the bite they were looking for.

According to multiple reports, as of Sunday morning the Blue Jays were close to acquiring R.A. Dickey in exchange for a package that would include top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud.

For Red Sox followers, the move seemingly hasn’t sent the ripple of anxiety that the Angels’ acquisition of Josh Hamilton did a few days earlier (or, for that matter, the one that the Blue Jays-Marlins deal produced earlier in the offseason).

Sure, Dickey won the Cy Young. OK, he led the major leagues with 27 quality starts (10 more than the Sox’ leader, Jon Lester). And it is understood that when he went up against American League East teams, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, in June last season, the results were back-to-back complete-game one-hitters.

But there is his age and his arsenal: Thirty-eight with a knuckleball. Sox faithful have seen the good and bad of  that combination before with Tim Wakefield. And while the former Red Sox hurler did turn in a 32-appearance, 12-win season at the age of 38 in 2004, he wasn’t considered a difference-maker in the mold of Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling .

Make no mistake about it, judging by the investment, the Blue Jays are banking on Dickey being at least in the neighborhood of a Martinez or Schilling.

So while some analyzing the American League landscape might dismiss the Dickey acquisition, it could very well be one of the most important moves made in what has become a fascinating division race. It is, after all, widely believed that the true separator for the division’s five teams will be starting pitching, with the team that emerges from the winter with the best rotation becoming the head-and-shoulders favorite.

National League or no National League, Dickey won 20 games on a 74-win Mets team. He pitched 233 2/3 innings, totaled a 2.73 ERA and struck out more batters (230) than any other NL hurler. Make all the league adjustments you want, he is someone who most likely represents a significant alteration to the AL East blueprint.

So where does that leave the division’s starting rotations? Let’s take a look:


Current rotation: Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, John Lackey, Felix Doubront

What they’re counting on: The way this works is if Lester and Buchholz find their top-of-the-rotation mojo — the kind that allows them to go up against any lineup at any time — while Dempster and Lackey provide much-needed consistency when it comes to getting past the 200-inning barrier. This was a starting staff that logged the seventh-fewest innings in the majors last season, with just one pitcher going over 190 innings (Lester). The wild card will not only be Doubront, who has shown flashes of All-Star stuff, but potentially Franklin Morales. While Morales might currently be slated for the bullpen, it shouldn’t be forgotten that in his first seven starts he compiled a 3.35 ERA and .199 batting average against.

What they’re worried about: While Lester and Buchholz have spent at least a portion of their existence in the rarified air befitting a big league ace, there have been bumps in the road. For Buchholz there have been the injury-induced detours, and Lester has to bounce back from a season in which the Red Sox went 13-20 in his starts. The difference this time around is that there figures to be even less room for error, without the top-of-the-rotation fallback plans seemingly at the ready.


Current rotation: CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova

What they’re counting on: Even with all the age and chaos seemingly surrounding the Yanks heading into ’13, they can hang their hats on the fact they possess the second surest one-two, top-of-the-rotation punch in the division (after Tampa Bay) with Sabathia and Kuroda. The 32-year-old Sabathia is still delivering ace stuff, while reaching 200 innings for a sixth straight season despite injuries in 2012, finishing with an opponents batting average (.238) 17 points better than the year before. And Kuroda is coming off having the second-most quality starts of any pitcher in the division. Pettitte figures to be Pettitte, while Hughes stepped up to turn in a 16-win season and seemingly is ready to start taking some pressure off the top guys. As as far as No. 5 guys go, the potential of Nova (remember ’11?) isn’t a bad place to start.

What they’re worried about: Even though they have the workhorses, there is also an understanding that even the most stout of innings-eaters eventually start going the other way. And if Sabathia and Kuroda can’t provide the top-of-the-rotation production expected, the fallback plans might make the Yankees somewhat uneasy. The guy who was supposed to help such a transition, Michael Pineda, doesn’t figure to be ready until the season’s second half due to shoulder surgery in 2012.


Current rotation (assuming Dickey trade goes through): Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero

What they’re counting on: Even if Dickey settles into mere mortal status, the Jays’ starters potentially represent the most upside of any group in the division. You have an ERA champ of just two years ago who is in a contract year (Johnson), another pitcher who is one year removed from a 32-start season in which he totaled a 2.92 ERA (Romero), a lefty who has pitched upwards of 200 innings in every season since ’01 (Buehrle) and a 28-year-old who might be emerging as a dominant starter, as a 2.96 ERA in 21 ’12 starts might suggest (Morrow).

What they’re worried about: There is the adjustment that will come with transitioning their top three starters from the National League to the AL East. There are also the lingering injury concerns that will follow both Johnson and Morrow, tempering optimism that the starting staff will be able to improve on a dismal 916 innings (26th overall). But perhaps the biggest difference-maker when it comes to this rotation trending one way or another (besides Dickey) is the production of Romero, who experienced a horrific downturn in ’12, finishing with an ERA of 5.77 in 32 starts.


Current rotation: David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann

What they’re counting on: This group doing what it’s done for the past few years — keep the Rays atop the division without having the kind of offensive support their divisional rivals possess. And you know what? Even without their former No. 2 starter, James Shields, nothing figures to change. Price is still among the best in baseball, with Hellickson, Moore, Cobb and Niemann all representing a new wave of elite arms in the division.

What they’re worried about: There is a concern that the piece of the equation that will be the most difficult to replace when it comes to Shields is innings. Other than Price, none of the potentially electric arms in the Rays’ rotation has eclipsed 189 frames. Shields did average 220 innings over the past six seasons. “They have another year of experience. Even though they have great work ethic, I would anticipate it’s going to be better,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon recently told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. “Even though their preparation has been good, I want it to get better. Find those innings through method, as opposed to just saying, ‘I’ve got to step up.’ So the methodology has got to continue to get better that permits them to become 200-plus-inning pitchers.”‘


Current rotation: Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Brian Matusz

What they’re counting on: Hammel and Chen have to be close to the pitchers they evolved into in ’12. Perhaps the most important aspect of the equation is that a few pitchers in the group approach 200 innings. Chen led the way with 192 2/3 innings, with Tommy Hunter coming in second at 133 2/3 innings. After Chen, no pitcher made more than 20 starts. The hope is that top prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman can eventually be integrated as foundational pieces in the rotation for years to come, while a crowded group sorts itself out in spring training.

What they’re worried about: The future could be bright for the staff thanks to the likes of Bundy, but they have been down this road before. Matusz was once considered an untradeable anchor before taking a turn for the worse. For the present, the O’s simply need the kind of consistency Hammel, Chen and Gonzalez provided while they make their next move. The problem is that the plan revolved so much around a lock-down bullpen, something that may prove elusive given the typical volatility of bullpens. (The only three teams to have their bullpen throw as many innings as Baltimore were Colorado, Kansas City and Minnesota — none winning as many as 72 games.)

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