The National League has its share of the game's greatest pitchers. Clayton Kershaw has been the league's best pitcher over the last two seasons, winning one Cy Young award and deserving another, and Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Matt Cain, and Johnny Cueto round out a fantasy rotation of senior-circuit studs. In the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball, but Aroldis Chapman is hot on his heels, and Sergio Romo, though radically different in style, could join the conversation in this, his first full season in the ninth-inning role. Those guys are the sure things. Or as sure as any pitcher can be, and I'll always tune in to see them work, but I'll be following the bold names below just as closely:
Beyond the preceding octet of aces, there is a group of pitchers who have comparable ability but have yet to fully convince me that they belong among the elite. Primary among these is Stephen Strasburg, who has yet to qualify for an ERA title in the majors, and his rotation mates Gio Gonzalez, who still seems like a good pitcher who was lifted by luck (on fly balls and balls in play), run support, and a wins-happy electorate to a third-place Cy Young finish last year, and Jordan Zimmermann, who is one season ahead of Strasburg's pace and needs to pitch deeper into games to qualify as a true stud (Zimmermann didn't throw an eighth-inning pitch in 2012 and finished the seventh inning just once in the second half). Madison Bumgarner, who is still just 23, belongs on this list as well.
The Comeback Attempts
A year ago, Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum would have been up there with the studs, but both had career-derailing 2012 seasons and have thus far had brutal springs. Lincecum was the worst-qualified starting pitcher in baseball last year per ERA+, and Halladay battled shoulder problems to a draw at best. This spring, Lincecum has had to contend with a blister and posted a 10.97 ERA in four starts. Halladay, meanwhile, has seen his fastball velocity drop into the mid-80s. Both are still expected to open the season in their team's starting rotation, but it's a legitimate question as to how long they'll remain there.
Other veteran aces looking to revive their fortunes in 2012 are Dan Haren, who signed a one-year deal with the Nationals after a season marred by back problems, and Josh Beckett, who perked up after joining the Dodgers last August and tends to have his best seasons in odd-numbered years. Out in the bullpen, Heath Bell will look to put a miserable season in Miami behind him and prove that, after an offseason of befuddling moves, Diamondbacks' general manager Kevin Towers at least hasn't lost his knack for assembling outstanding bullpens.
Halladay, Haren, and Beckett all battled injuries in 2012 (and Lincecum sure looked like he had one as well), but all of them finished the season as active players. There's a significant list of NL pitchers who finished the year on the disabled list who bear watching this season. Chief among them is Chad Billingsley, who was on a second-half roll for the Dodgers when he was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament and shut down in late August. Billingsley chose a platelet-rich plasma injection and rehab over Tommy John surgery and is on pace to open the season in the Dodgers rotation (despite bruising a finger on his pitching hand in bunting practice).
Others who were unable to avoid Tommy John surgery last year include Brandon Beachy, Dan Hudson, Scott Baker (now a Cub), prospect Arodys Vizcaino (also a Cub), and Padres Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland, all of whom could return sometime around mid-season.
Then there's Matt Garza, who last pitched in July due to a stress fracture in his pitching elbow and will open this season on the disabled list due to a latissimus dorsi strain suffered in camp, Jaime Garcia, who was pulled from a playoff start due to a torn labrum which had previously cost him two and a half months of the regular season (Garcia chose the Billingsley path in an attempt to avoid surgery and has had no setbacks thus far this spring), and Brandon McCarthy, now a Diamondback, whose 2012 season was ended by a comebacker that fractured his skull (he recovered fully) and who is also a near-lock to miss time due to chronic shoulder injuries.
One of the most compelling aspects of the baseball season is the emergence of new talent, and the National League is rich with pitching prospects on the verge of their first significant major league exposure. Leading that pack is the Braves' Julio Teheran, a former top-five prospect who had a dismal 2012 but seemed to get back on track in winter ball after a dinner with Pedro Martinez and has been dominating this spring. He'll be the Braves' fifth starter to open the season. Also in their team's Opening Day rotations will be the Cardinals' Shelby Miller, Baseball America's number-six prospect heading into the season, and the Mets' Matt Harvey. Harvey lost his rookie status last year but did so impressively with a 2.73 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings across his first ten major league starts. Harvey could be joined latter this year by Zack Wheeler, BA's number-11 prospect whose chance to break camp with the team was ruined by an oblique strain. Miller, meanwhile, will be joined on the Cardinals' roster by fireballing righty Trevor Rosenthal, who struck out 40 men in 31 1/3 innings between the regular and post seasons last year with a fastball that averaged, averaged, 98.5 miles per hour per BrooksBaseball.net. Another compelling prospect due who could find themselves in a major league rotation later this season is Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon of the Pirates. Cole, the top pick in the 2011 draft, cracked Triple-A last year and could make his major league debut mid-season. Taillon, the second overall pick in the 2010 draft (behind Bryce Harper), will open the season in Double-A, but could debut as a September call-up. Lefty Tyler Skaggs was part of a similarly heralded duo with the Diamondbacks last year, but now that Trevor Bauer is in Cleveland, stands alone atop their system and could rejoin their rotation (he was there briefly at the end of last year) before his 22nd birthday in mid July.
The Closer Battles
Carlos Marmol and Brandon League will open the season as the closers for the Cubs and Dodgers, respectively, but one wonders just how long they'll be able to keep their jobs. Marmol briefly lost his job last year and was nearly traded in the fall. If Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa gets off to a good start, and he has looked good in camp, the Cubs could make a move. Out in L.A., Kenley Jansen was thriving as the Dodgers' closer last year when a recurrence of an irregular heartbeat put him on the shelf and handed the job to deadline pickup League, who was subsequently re-signed to an outsized contract ($27.5 million for four years). Jansen had surgery to correct the heart issue this offseason and is clearly the superior pitcher. If he proves healthy and League falters, Jansen should reclaim the job, though League's contract suggests he may have a longer leash than you'd otherwise expect.
The Strikeout Machines
Not counting Jansen, there are seven relievers in the NL who are not in line to close for their teams but struck out 11 or more men per nine innings in a minimum of 30 innings pitched last year -- Phillies lefties Antonio Bastardo (14.0 K/9) and Jeremy Horst (11.5), Brewers late-bloomer Jim Henderson (13.2), Diamondbacks set-up man David Hernandez (12.9 K/9), Padres LOOGY Joe Thatcher (11.1), new Brave Jordan Walden (11.1), and Rockies lefty Rex Brothers (11.0). Pitchers with that ability to miss bats always bear watching. Walden, who closed for the Angels in 2011, is stuck behind Kimbrel, but Hernandez and Brothers appear to be closers in waiting behind veteran firemen, though Brothers needs some more refinement before he's ready to assume that role. The other lefties are unlikely to shake the LOOGY label.
It will also be interesting to see how Tyler Clippard holds up after leading the majors in relief innings over the last three seasons, averaging 84 innings and 100 strikeouts per season over that span.
The World Baseball Classic Stars
Puerto Rico made it to the WBC finals thanks in large part to the right arms of Brewers minor leaguer Hiram Burgos and veteran journeyman Nelson Figueroa. Burgos, a 25-year-old righty starter, reached Triple-A last year but is nonetheless stuck behind a pile of better rotation prospects. In the WBC, however, he proved he can be effective in long relief outings and thus may have found a quicker path to the majors. Figueroa, who turns 39 in May and hasn't pitched in the majors since 2011, is in camp with the Diamondbacks and at the very least raised his profile by pitching Puerto Rico to victory over Team USA with six scoreless innings in the semifinals.
There's no room in the Dodgers' rotation for Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, or Ted Lilly right now, though injury or poor performance could quickly create some. If that doesn't happen early, however, the Dodgers will likely try to find these three established major league starters homes in other organizations. Meanwhile, former closers Brian Wilson and Francisco Rodriguez remain free agents. Rodriguez, who is still just 31, posted an ERA worse than league average for the first time in his career in 2012 and failed to distinguish himself in Venezuela's first-round exit from the WBC. His penchant for off-field violence has surely contributed to his struggle to find work for the coming season. Wilson, meanwhile, was non-tendered by the Giants after a season lost to Tommy John surgery. He has said he will not look for a new team until he's ready to pitch, which could be early this season as his surgery was performed last April.
After six major league seasons as a pitcher, Micah Owings was invited to Nationals camp as a first-baseman this spring and has proceeded to hit .375/.394/.656. Owings, is a career .283/.310/.502 hitter in 219 major league plate appearances, so he has a real chance to emerge as a right-handed power threat off the Nationals bench at some point this season. The big question is if his pitching days are behind him or if he could be an extremely rare two-way player.
The Marlins are the only team not represented above.