2013 MLB Season Preview: The Year in AL Pitching

Doug Pensinger

Possible performances to anticipate in the latest in our series of coming attractions.

The Aces

Had I written a preview of this sort last season, I could just copy and paste it here and it would be mostly accurate. Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, and David Price will continue to rule the league, and while their numbers will contain some small changes -- a dip in strikeout percentage here, an extra home run there, perhaps a BABIP-induced change to ERA -- the story for aces is largely written. There's always the risk of injury, of course; Sabathia may bear watching in this regard having undergone surgery to remove bone spurs in his pitching arm this offseason, but barring disaster, I should be able to reuse this paragraph in my 2014 preview.

We know all about the sure things, but there are a few pitchers teetering on the cusp of earning the "ace" title who hope to have repeat performances this season. Despite three top-10 Cy Young Award finishes, Jered Weaver of the Angels isn't always in the group picture with Verlander, Sabathia, Hernandez, and Price. He had the most wins in the AL last season (20), but on a performance level the season wasn't his best. He should be able to repeat the high win total with the support of a strong Angels offense, but he'll have to arrest a two-season decline in his strikeout rate to be worthy of those wins on a qualitative basis.

Perhaps the most exciting of the potential aces is Chris Sale of the White Sox. Last season, the 23-year-old lefthander surprised everyone by not only holding up to an increased workload, adding 121 innings over 2011, but emerging as the ace of the rotation. Striking out 25 percent of the batters he faced (fourth in the league) and finishing with a 3.05 ERA. Sale's performance was comparable to what the other aces accomplished last year, and he earned a vote of confidence from the organization in the form of five-year, $32.5 million contract extension. The critics are concerned about his endurance and awkward mechanics, but even if some regression is inevitable, as long as he's throwing an unhittable slider he'll continue to be a pitcher worth watching.

It's likely that Matt Harrison will continue to be overshadowed by Yu Darvish again next season, but given the way he's developed over the last two seasons, he should be just as exciting to watch. Despite flying under the radar, Harrison's 2012 performance was good enough to land him third on the rWAR list for pitchers. Harrison threw 213 innings with a 3.29 ERA and is good at forcing groundballs. While he may never rise to the level of Price or Verlander, much like Sale, should be interesting to see if a young pitcher can take another step forward.

The Rebounds

If I were John Lackey, I'd ask the folks at Fenway Park to play LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" before every start this season. It doesn't have to be the whole song, they could just loop the part that says, "Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years," and for Lackey that would be true. Lackey has yet to prove himself to the Boston faithful -- he was bad in 2010 and worse in 2011 before undergoing Tommy John surgery -- but it's still too soon to think the years of success he had in Anaheim are behind him. During his rehab, Lackey has worked hard on all aspects of his game. He's mentally stronger, 20-pounds lighter, and is inching closer to his pre-injury velocity. He may not be perfect, but at least he's trying. Then again, that's the sort of work ethic you'd hope to see from a pitcher that's earning more than the entire Astros roster this season.

It's easy to forget that Ricky Romero* was the Blue Jays' Opening Day starter last year. He pitched dreadfully and posted one the seasons highest walk rates (12.7 percent) and the highest ERA (5.77) among qualified AL starters. After a rough spring, he's been optioned to High-A Dunedin. The move makes sense -- unlike last season, when the Jays were scrounging for healthy arms, they now have R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson -- but I had hoped that minor elbow surgery, plasma injections in both knees, and mechanical improvements would keep the lefty in the majors. The move is reminiscent of what the Jays did with Roy Halladay in 2000, when the future Cy Young winner lost his mechanics. Romero is older and lacks the same potential for greatness, but here's hoping being sent down works half as well for him as it did for Halladay.

*Romero could also ask the Blue Jays entertainment team to play "Mama Said Knock You Out", as well, considering his nickname is RR Cool Jay. I've never heard anyone really refer to him as that, but Baseball-Reference is gospel.

The Royals improved their rotation this offseason with the additions of James Shields and Wade Davis in the trade that sent Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and a couple of less interesting prospects to Tampa. There was a period of time before that trade where acquiring Ervin Santana seemed like it might be their biggest move of the offseason, troubling given just how poorly Santana pitched last season. He gave up the most home runs in the league (39), his home run percentage as likewise the worst on the circuit, and his walk percentage was (by a small margin) the highest it's been since 2008 (ranking in the league's bottom 12). While Shields and Davis provide some stability, the Royals are hoping that Santana won't get hit as hard and as often as he did last year in Anaheim.

The Closers

It's hard to do a season preview for relief pitchers. Their specialized roles and pivotal performances are undoubtedly important to the game, but their performance levels (and sometimes the players themselves) bounce around like pinballs because of the volatility of bullpen arms. Yesterday's washed up good-for-nothing reliever is just a few solid innings away from becoming today's dominant closer. Conversely, today's best closer is just a few blown saves away from finding himself as an unsigned free agent -- just ask Jose Valverde, who led the league in saves in 2011 but has yet to sign with a team this offseason. Closers get all the attention, even if they're not necessarily because they are the most fascinating -- I'd rather watch Hector Santiago throw a screwball, Pat Neshek's submarine arm action -- but as long as teams continue to prop up closers as late-inning demigods, I have to write about them.

The Orioles think they have found a franchise closer in Jim Johnson, who led the league in saves last year with 51 in 54 chances. If he starts blowing saves like Kevin Gregg did in 2011 -- which he might since he's a reliever and things like last season's .252 BABIP are extra-vulnerable to swings of luck in small samples -- the Orioles still have Pedro Strop and Darren O'Day to man the late innings, both of whom could fill that role in a pitch. Of course, any pitcher, or position player for that matter could be a closer, so, if Buck Showalter wants to make Nolan Reimold his next closer before the season is over, that is within his rights.

The foregoing is, of course, a bit of hyperbolic satire on the mostly undeserved reverence with which closers are treated -- a case which the emergence of Johnson from the pile of nondescript middle relievers makes in boldface numbers.

I know two things for certain about Fernando Rodney: His crooked hat drives me mad, and he's a huge archery fan. But there's one thing I don't know for certain -- is he a dominant closer? Last season, Rodney pitched 74 innings, the second highest of his career, and his 0.60 ERA was certainly impressive. His WBC outings were also strong, and he's probably worth watching for his antics alone (no word if he'll keep a plantain holstered in his pants all season), but his 27 percent strikeout percentage isn't indicative of his career performance. More than likely, Rodney will continue to shoot his imaginary bow and arrow in the ninth inning, but it's plausible to think it might happen a little less often this season.

Offseason trade rumors can be exhausting. The Tigers have been rumored to be close to deals with nearly every closer in the league, but so far they haven't pulled the trigger. There's still time to flip starter Rick Porcello for an experienced closer, but if a trade doesn't happen, rookie Bruce Rondon will get the ninth-inning nod. Rondon's fastball velocity is excellent (97-100 mph), but his command, especially on his slider, could cause issues. He averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings in the minors, shooting up to 7.9 in Toledo. I've often described Rondon as possessing the heat of Joel Zumaya and the command of Rick Ankiel. While I can't promise you he'll be the closer forever since Jim Leyland will have him on an incredibly short leash this season, I can promise you will be entertained.

Jim McIsaac

Finally, no closers preview would be complete without mentioning Mariano Rivera, who will retire after this season. Rivera is special because he has consistently spit in the face of notions about closer volatility and unpredictably, turning in strong performances year after year. In his last season in pinstripes, Rivera will continue to confuse hitters with his cutter for the 19th season, and he'll add a few more saves to his record as the all-time saves leader... that is if the Yankees have enough offense and pitching for save opportunities to be in play.

Honorable Mentions

I feel like I'm at the end of my Oscars speech and I'm running out of time. The music is playing softly in the background, getting louder, and Woody Allen is trying to drag me off of the stage, but I still have a few more pitchers to mention:

  • Sophomores: Jarrod Parker, Matt Moore, and Yu Darvish all return for their second seasons in the majors. All three are expected to settle into their rotation spots nicely, but there have been plenty of pitchers who showed a lot of promise only to turn into Brian Banninster. Also exciting for Darvish: the Rangers (and Kia) are setting up Kia Yuniverse, a section of the ballpark where dedicated Yu fans get t-shirts and K cards for all of his home starts.
  • New Teams: R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Ryan Dempster, Tommy Hanson, James Shields, Joe Saunders, Jason Vargas, Wade Davis, Vance Worley Brett Myers will all be starting for different teams this year. It's always interesting to see how pitchers adapt to new ballparks, teammates, and leagues.
  • From the Bullpen to the Rotation: Starter turned reliever Brett Myers will transition back to the rotation with the Cleveland Indians this season. The Astros used him in relief last season, as did the White Sox. Myers has improved his command and he's a good fit for the Indians, who could use an innings eater in an inexperienced rotation. Suddenly increasing a pitcher's workload always promotes concern (especially with younger arms), but in 2010 and 2011, Myers threw 223 and 216 innings respectively, so there's a good chance he's up for the challenge.

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