Ranking the AL East rotations

Life is tough in the American League East. You don’t have to tell the Orioles or any Orioles fan that. It’s a division filled with top stars, top lineups, big payrolls, excellent farm systems and top pitching rotations.

If you don’t pitch well, you will get destroyed in this division, which features some of the best pitchers and rotations in the AL. Here is how I rank the starting fives in the East.

1 - Tampa Bay Rays
James Shields
David Price
Jeremy Hellickson
Matt Moore
Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis

Shields, coming off a season where he went 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA along with 11 complete games and four shutouts, has already been named Tampa Bay’s opening day starter. He heads up what might be baseball’s best rotation and one that had four pitchers throw 180 innings or more last year. Tampa has a mediocre offense but will still likely contend for the playoffs because of those names listed above. Matt Moore may be as talented as any of them and the rookie phenom will be the fourth starter on this team. That helps make Tampa’s rotation the envy of just about any other team out there.

Here is a remarkable stat that is coming to an end on opening day because Shields turned 30 in December. The Rays’ starting pitcher has been under 30 for the last 764 games, dating to May 24, 2007. That is a major league record that is soon to end but may stand in the record books for quite a while.

2 - Boston Red Sox
Jon Lester
Josh Beckett
Clay Buchholz
Daniel Bard
Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller or Felix Doubront

This could be a formidable group even with Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey on the disabled list. Lester and Beckett are both top starter talents and Aceves could be a strong No. 5 if he gets the nod out of the Boston ‘pen. Bard was a starter in college at North Carolina and will likely move to the rotation, too.

3 - New York Yankees
CC Sabathia
Hiroki Kuroda
Michael Pineda
Ivan Nova
Freddy Garcia or Phil Hughes

Kuroda could prove to be an even better acquisition than Pineda, as he has pitched to an ERA of 3.45 with a WHIP of 1.19 the last four years with the Dodgers. The Yankees are expressing concerns over Pineda right now with his fastball velocity down in camp. Nova came up huge for the club last year with 16 wins, as did Garcia. Sabathia, of course, is a legit No. 1 and major workhorse to lead this five.

4 - Toronto Blue Jays
Ricky Romero
Brandon Morrow
Brett Cecil
Henderson Alvarez
Dustin McGowan

Romero and Morrow may have as much talent as any club’s top two pitchers, but Morrow needs to start pitching like it. While he has averaged an impressive 10 strikeouts per every nine innings in his career, his lifetime ERA is 4.37. Top prospect Kyle Drabek got a chance last year, but fizzled then with an ERA of 6.06.

5 - Baltimore Orioles
Jake Arrieta
Wei-Yin Chen
Jason Hammel
Tommy Hunter
Zach Britton

I’ll go along with those that have predicted Arrieta will get the opening day start. With this rotation right now, it’s still all guess work, but this is my guess today at the starting five. That list above leaves out several pitchers that could make it including Brian Matusz, Dana Eveland and Tsuyoshi Wada and longshot candidates that include Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen, Alfredo Simon and Armando Gallaraga.

I see Britton as talented as any pitcher listed above, but listed him fifth due to his bout with shoulder inflammation that has limited him somewhat so far in camp.

I have heard some positive reports on Hammel from those that have watched him pitch in Florida with one observer comparing his raw stuff favorably to the man he was traded for, Jeremy Guthrie. But he’ll have to prove to everyone that he is better than his career ERA of 4.99 and WHIP of 1.47.

Chen was an interesting signing and the O’s inked him to a three-year deal worth $11.38 million. Chen posted impressive stats the last four years in Japan with a combined ERA of 2.48 and just 2.2 walks per every nine innings. He was ranked the 19th-best free agent on Keith Law’s top 50. One concern are reports that his fastball velocity dropped to the high 80s and low 90s last year and, in fact, his strikeout rate has dropped four years in a row.

That five would also give the Orioles a mostly mid-20s rotation with Chen and Arrieta 26, Hunter 25, Britton 24 and Hammel 29.

After a season where the O’s had the worst starting pitching ERA in baseball at 5.39 and fewest quality starts with 60, it’s clear that one of those numbers must go up and one down in 2012.

By the way, if this is the starting five for the Orioles, those five would make a combined total of around $8.3 million this year. Sabathia alone will earn $23 million in 2012.

What is your take?: How do you rank the AL East rotations? Who is the best pitcher in the division and who is a sleeper to break out this year? What is your prediction on the Orioles’ starting five at this point in camp? Are you encouraged by the pitching so far in Florida?

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