Two years ago, the Tigers had one of the best starting rotations in MLB history. They accumulated 29.3 WAR in 2013, which led the majors by a wide margin. It was the second-best total in MLB history, and the best since 1970. That same rotation struck out 8.79 batters per nine innings, which set an MLB record at the time (the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays both broke that record last season).
The Tigers' rotation took a step back in 2014, but they still led the AL Central with 19.6 WAR. They also led the American League with 1007 innings pitched, the only AL team to reach the four digit mark. However, their 3.38 FIP was second in the division, and their 3.89 ERA was third. Of course, this was largely thanks to an ineffective Justin Verlander and a rotating crew of minor league starters subbing in for an oft-injured Anibal Sanchez.
At the start of the 2014 offseason, the Tigers looked to have the best rotation in the division heading into 2015. While Max Scherzer would be lost to free agency, the Tigers still had David Price, Rick Porcello, Sanchez, and a healthy Verlander on staff. One week ago, they added right-hander Shane Greene to the fold, giving them a starting five that would rival anyone in the American League.
Things have changed significantly in the last week, though. The Chicago White Sox acquired Jeff Samardzija from the Oakland Athletics earlier this week. Samardzija joins left-handers Chris Sale and Jose Quintana atop Chicago's rotation to give them one of the most underrated starting units in the majors. Sale allowed a 2.17 ERA and 2.57 FIP in 174 innings last year, finishing third in the AL Cy Young voting. Quintana was just 9-11, but allowed a 3.42 ERA and 2.81 FIP in 200 1/3 innings.
The White Sox still lack consistent options in the final two spots of their starting five, however. John Danks has regressed significantly over the past couple seasons, while right-handers Andre Rienzo and Chris Bassitt were both traded this week. Top prospect Carlos Rodon will likely see some MLB action this year, but probably won't start the season with the big league club.
The Indians' rotation posted the best strikeout rate in MLB history last season, but their starting five saw a sharp drop-off after AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar will be relied upon to contribute a full season's worth of innings, but both need to take a step forward from their 2014 numbers. Carlos Carrasco dominated down the stretch last year, but has yet to put together a full season at that level of production. Regardless of who their fifth starter is, the Indians have a high octane rotation that could break out for a monster year in 2015.
The Royals' rotation will see a major drop-off in production from last season's division-leading 3.60 ERA. James Shields is a free agent, and the Royals also missed out on replacement candidate Ervin Santana. Jason Vargas overperformed for most of the season, but struggled down the stretch and finished the season with a 3.71 ERA. Jeremy Guthrie was an innings eater, topping the 200 inning plateau with a 4.13 ERA and 4.32 FIP.
The young arms are intriguing, though. Yordano Ventura was everything that we expected, allowing a 3.20 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 183 innings. Had he not faded down the stretch, he would have finished higher than sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Danny Duffy developed some shoulder inflammation down the stretch, but was arguably the Royals' best starter for large stretches. Brandon Finnegan, the flame-throwing left-hander who made a name for himself out of their bullpen during the playoffs, may eventually transition to the rotation as well.
Then there are the Minnesota Twins. Phil Hughes posted a phenomenal 11.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2014, but his 3.52 ERA was somewhat lacking for a top-of-the-rotation arm. Ricky Nolasco was a colossal disaster as the team's top free agent signing, so they went out and did it again by picking up Ervin Santana. Kyle Gibson, Trevor May, and Tommy Milone will contribute some innings as well.
Do any of these teams top the Tigers? This question largely hinges on what Justin Verlander we see in 2015. Will the dominant Verlander from 2011 and 2012 return? Or is the Verlander we saw in 2013 the new norm? David Price should rival Kluber and Sale as one of the best pitchers in the division, while a healthy Sanchez could be one of the best number two starters in baseball, let alone the AL Central.
However, the subtraction of Porcello and additions of Greene and Simon change things. Can the two repeat their 2014 production? Simon was an All-Star after allowing a 2.70 ERA in the first half, but fell off considerably after the All-Star break. Greene was solid in a short stretch, but his minor league numbers suggest that this might not be sustainable.
What do you think? Do the Tigers still have the best starting five in the AL Central?