Now that free agent pitcher James Shields is officially off the market (signing a four-year deal with the San Diego Padres), we now have a clearer picture of how the starting rotations of the five NL Central teams will be staffed - at least for now. Once the season begins, there may be some changes - particularly at the lower end of the rotations, where the competition for the fifth spot usually has a good number of candidates - from aging veterans to unproven rookies.
For rating purposes, we'll compare each team's Number One Starter, their Number Twos, and so on and so forth. Included will be a brief picture of last season's performance and any significant issues that may be pertinent, such as the relative risk for arm/shoulder/elbow trouble.
Here we go:
1 - Cueto (CIN) 20-9 - 2.25 ERA - 243.2 IP - 160 ERA+ (Age 28) - After an injury-plagued 2013 season, he was the second-best pitcher in the NL last season.
2 - Wainwright (STL) 20-9 - 2.38 ERA - 227.0 IP - 154 ERA+ (Age 32) - Had a "dead arm" phase in the second half - Had minor off season elbow surgery which is a concern heading into the new season. When healthy, he's among the top 4 or 5 pitchers in MLB.
3 - Lester (CHI) 16-11 - 2.46 ERA - 219.2 IP - 155 ERA + (Age 30) - Had his finest season in 2014, but pitching for Oakland, inexplicably failed to hold the Royals at bay in the AL Wild Card game. Not a good way to end a season.
4 - Liriano (PIT) 7-10 - 3.38 ERA - 162.1 IP - 117 ERA+ (Age 30) - Health issues last year - could be a problem again in 2015.
5 - Garza (MIL) 8-8 - 3.64 ERA - 163.1 IP - 104 ERA+ (Age 30) - Durability and a volatile demeanor could be troublesome in 2015.
1 - Lynn (STL) 15-10 - 2.74 ERA - 203.2 IP - 134 ERA+ (Age 27) - Had his finest season, by far, in 2014, although pitching with low run support cost him some wins - Should be just as good - if not better - in 2015.
2 - Arrieta (CHI) 10-5 - 2.53 ERA - 156.2 IP - 151 ERA+ (Age 28) - Pitched extremely well last season with a relatively light workload - Will need to post similar results while eclipsing 200 IP to give team a reasonable shot at postseason play.
3 - Peralta (MIL) 17-11 - 3.53 ERA - 198.2 IP - 107 ERA+ (Age 25) - Thanks to getting a lot of run support, actually won more games than any NL Central pitcher not named Cueto or Wainwright in 2014 - Will he be so fortunate in 2015?
4 - Bailey (CIN) 9-5 - 3.71 ERA - 145.2 IP - 97 ERA+ (Age 28) - Will need to bounce back from a mediocre 2014 - Lower the ERA, increase the workload - Otherwise, it could be another painful season for the Reds.
5 - Cole (PIT) 11-5 - 3.65 ERA - 138.0 IP - 98 ERA+ (Age 23) - Has potential to have breakout season in 2015, but needs to work more than 200 IP to give Pirates a reasonable shot at a division title.
1 - Wacha (STL) 5-6 - 3.20 ERA - 107.0 IP - 115 ERA+ (Age 22) - If he's fully recovered from his shoulder problems, he should be able to dominate opposing lineups like he did late in the 2013 season (and postseason) - His workload will probably be limited by a cautious brain trust - still, 150+ IP would be a welcome asset to the pitching staff.
2 - Lohse (MIL) 13-9 - 3.54 ERA - 198.1 IP - 107 ERA+ (Age 35) - Not overpowering, but reliable - Age may start becoming a bit of a factor, especially if his not-so-fast-fastball loses some velocity in 2015.
3 - Leake (CIN) 11-13 - 3.70 ERA - 214.1 IP - 97 ERA+ (Age 26) - A steady workhorse - Should give Reds another 200+ IP in 2015.
4 - Hammel (CHI) 8-5 - 2.58 ERA - 108.2 IP - 128 ERA+ (Age 31) - Pitched well with a limited workload last season - Needs to double the output in 2015 to give Cubs any postseason hopes.
5 - Burnett (PIT) 8-18 - 4.59 ERA - 213.2 IP - 81 ERA+ (Age 37) - Pitching for a miserable Phillies team last season - Still durable after all those years, but age-related decline likely to continue - Probably should retire - Would be no surprise to see him released by the All Star break.
1 - Worley (PIT) 8-4 - 2.85 ERA - 110.2 IP - 125 ERA+ (Age 26) - Good numbers in limited action last season - It may not take long for this guy to supplant Burnett in the number three slot in the rotation.
2 - Fiers (MIL) 6-5 - 2.13 ERA - 71.2 IP - 178 ERA+ (Age 29) - Had the highest ERA+ in the division last season - but needs to at least double his innings pitched in 2015 to give rotation the necessary boost to stay in the race.
3 - Lackey (STL) 3-3 - 4.30 ERA - 60.2 IP - 86 ERA+ (Age 35) - Acquired from Boston prior to the trade deadline last season - Struggled in limited action - Whether or not he can bounce back in 2015 remains to be seen.
4 - Wood (CHI) 8-13 - 5.03 ERA - 173.2 IP - 76 ERA+ (Age 27) - Durable, but ineffective last season - He may not be able to improve in 2015 - The Cubs will be in trouble if he doesn't pitch more effectively this season.
5 - Cingrani (CIN) 2-8 - 4.55 ERA - 63.1 IP - 79 ERA+ (Age 24) - After showing flashes of brilliance when first called up in 2013, regressed significantly last season - Without vast improvement this season, the Reds will have serious issues.
1 - Hendricks (CHI) 7-2 - 2.46 ERA - 80.1 IP - 155 ERA+ (Age 24) - Encouraging results in limited exposure last season - If he can come close to duplicating this performance with 160+ IP, Cubs should easily escape the cellar.
2 - Locke (PIT) 7-6 - 3.91 ERA - 131.1 IP - 91 ERA+ (Age 26) - Assuming Burnett flops for the Pirates in 2015, the team will desperately need this guy to pitch better than last year - and work closer to 200 IP.
3 - Martinez (STL) 2-4 - 4.03 ERA - 89.1 IP - 91 ERA+ (Age 22) - Has the raw talent to develop into a top end of the rotation starter - If he does, Cards could run away with division title.
4 - Nelson (MIL) 2-9 - 4.83 ERA - 69.1 IP - 77 ERA+ (Age 25) - Expected to improve this season - Nowhere to go but up.
5 - Desclafani (CIN) 2-2 - 6.27 ERA - 33.0 IP - 61 ERA+ (Age 24) - Posted a decent 3.78 ERA in the minors last season - Significant improvement is critical in the fifth spot in the rotation if the Reds hope to have any chance at all in the division race.
OVERALL ROTATION RANKINGS
1 - St Louis Cardinals - The combination of Wainwright, Lynn and Wacha should be dominant in 2015.
2 - Chicago Cubs - The addition of Lester and the continued development of their younger talent brings some measure of credibility to a franchise desperate to win.
3 - Milwaukee Brewers - Lacking a true "ace", but still capable of keeping their team in most games.
4 - Pittsburgh Pirates - A shaky rotation with the potential to be a total disaster.
5 - Cincinnati Reds - After Cueto, a lot of question marks.