With both Kansas City and Cleveland basically signaling the white flag before the battle's even started, this division looks essentially like a three-team race between Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota right now. Kansas City sold off two of its top players, while the Indians essentially decided to bring back last season's 69-win team. As far as 2011 is concerned, there are basically three teams that are trying to win and two teams that aren't.
And if you look solely at each team's rotation, you'd be able to tell pretty quickly which ones belong to which teams. Chicago has Jake Peavy penned in as their fifth starter once he's healthy... and Luke Hochevar is Kansas City's de facto ace. Unless you're going solely off of draft pedigree, I think it's easy for you guys to tell what I'm getting at. Figuring out who's at the top is going to be far more difficult than slotting someone at the bottom, so let's dig it now.
(And as a side note, if you think that I've missed someone who's likely to be a rotation candidate this spring, let me know in the comments. I don't think I missed anyone obvious, though.)
5) Royals: Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, Bruce Chen, Vin Mazzaro, Sean O'Sullivan, Kevin Pucetas
This list pretty much sums up why nobody is taking the Royals seriously next season. 2012 is an entirely different story, but the club's rotation going into next season is pretty ugly. They don't have a single pitcher that firmly projects as above-average or better; ZiPS projects Francis for a team-best 4.50 ERA next season. There are a couple of things to like here, though. Hochevar has showed continued improvement over the past three seasons and saw his velocity tick up last year, so I wouldn't be surprised if he turned in a solid 2.5-3.0 WAR performance next season even if the projection systems aren't as bullish. And Francis could easily surprise people and turn in a solid performance next year; his peripherals were solid in 2010 and he could end up being a big-time bargain for the Royals if he can stay healthy. But when it would take some genuine luck to get even one above-average starter in your rotation, that's generally not a good sign.
4) Indians: Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, Mitch Talbot, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff
Rather than seek out veterans that could eat up some innings on a non-contender, Cleveland is opting to let some of its young pitchers loose and let them take some lumps. The top of the rotation is headed by the extreme groundball combo of Carmona and Masterson, both of whom had GB rates over 55% last season (a mark that only 9 qualified starters eclipsed last year). Some wonder whether Masterson would be even better in the bullpen given his extreme platoon split, but he's clearly one of the five best starters in the organization at the moment. Of the other guys left, Carrasco is really the only one that could be more than a solid No. 4 starter; he's always had the stuff, but it's taken him years to improve his approach as a pitcher. This rotation could end up being decent next season if Carrasco takes a step forward and they don't have to depend on guys like Huff.
3) Tigers: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Phil Coke, Brad Penny, Andy Oliver, Charlie Furbush
They have the most dominant one-two punch in the division with Verlander and Scherzer, but this rotation could easily be categorized as boom-or-bust. At this point, Verlander is clearly one of the best pitchers in baseball, but there's not a sure-thing in the rotation behind him. Nobody is questioning Scherzer's stuff, his power arsenal can be devastating, but some evaluators out there still wonder if he's truly equipped to be a starter long-term. He kept thriving as a starter even as some evaluators ticketed him for the bullpen due to somewhat violent mechanics, and as this point he's a 26-year-old with two 3+ WAR seasons under his belt already. The mechanics could catch up to him, or he could end up leading the AL in strikeouts. I'd believe either one. And we just don't really have a good idea of what the rest of the rotation can do. Porcello is still regarded as one of the best young pitching talents in the game, but people are still waiting for him to begin missing bats. Coke, Penny, Oliver and Furbush combined to make 15 MLB starts last season; we'll see if the Tigers can coax two MLB-quality starters out of that bunch. Verlander and Scherzer are enough to foster some hope, but those two won't be enough to carry the entire rotation.
2) Twins: Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Jeff Manship
The Twins won the division last season using essentially this group of starters, so it's not surprising that they're willing to give it another go. Liriano broke out in a big way last season and gives the Twins a bonafide ace. Pavano, Baker and Slowey all project as above-average or better, although it remains to be seen whether Slowey can be a 200-inning pitcher. They have dominance at the top and depth at the bottom; you could win some playoffs games with a group like this one. And if you don't like walks, then this is your group. Here are the 2010 walk rates for each of the guys listed above: 2.72, 1.51, 2.27, 1.68, 2.41, 2.24, 1.86. They're not going to overpower anyone (well, maybe Liriano will), but one thing they won't do is shoot themselves in the foot.
1) White Sox: Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson, Jake Peavy, Chris Sale, Lucas Harrell, Tony Pena
When this rotation is healthy, few teams west of Philly can boast a stronger group from top to bottom. Buehrle might average 86 MPH with his fastball, but he's essentially a lock for 200+ innings and 3+ WAR. Danks, Floyd and Jackson have shown continued improvement over the past couple years; each posted 3.8 WAR or higher last season and they all have the potential to exceed that mark again in 2011. The No. 5 spot in the rotation is murky, but the upside is massive between Peavy and Sale. And even if Peavy doesn't return until June and Sale is the club's closer, this is still an obvious strength given how good the front four guys are. When you look at this group of guys and where some of them started, it's hard not credit Don Cooper for everything he's done in Chicago. People love what Dave Duncan does for the Cardinals in St. Louis, but there's no doubt that the AL has a similar equivalent in Mr. Cooper.