Javier Vazquez gives New York Yankees a fistful of aces

Baltimore Sun

Javier Vazquez's return to New York brings with it a certain amount of intrigue. But it also underscores this point: The Yankees again will be the team to beat in 2010.

Good teams start with good starting pitching. And after trading for Vazquez and re-signing Andy Pettitte, the Yankees have more of it than any American League team.

The group of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Pettitte and Vazquez matches up with the Giants' top-heavy rotation led by Tim Lincecum, which last season held hitters to a .234 average and struck out 8.2 per nine innings.

After the trades involving Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Vazquez, I did a simple statistical analysis to rank the top rotations in the majors. I looked at only four starters per team, as few teams are set five across. They were rated off their 2009 performance on success (wins and ERA), durability (innings) and stuff (strikeouts per nine innings).

Here's how the baker's dozen of top rotations stacks up:

1. Yankees and Giants, tie: Vazquez's transition back to the AL (and specifically to New York, where his ERA spiked to 4.91 in 2004) is a question. Injury risk is high, given an average age of 33.3 for Sabathia & Co. Lincecum and Matt Cain can challenge the Mariners' tandem of Lee and Felix Hernandez and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter as the best in the majors. Rising prospect Madison Bumgarner could give the Giants a fierce top three once he arrives.

3. Phillies: Halladay should dominate in the National League. There's depth but no clear-cut No. 2 among Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton. Hamels must shake off a disappointing 2009.

4. Cardinals and Rockies, tie: The key in St. Louis, as always, will be Carpenter's health. Newcomer Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse provide depth. Can Jorge De La Rosa repeat his 2009 success for Colorado? That's a key for a Rockies staff fronted by Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook.

6. Red Sox: If John Lackey pitches better than he did last year, the Red Sox could outperform all the teams listed ahead of them. They have an excellent 1-2 in Josh Beckett and Jon Lester and depth in Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Junichi Tazawa and Michael Bowden.

7. Tigers: Max Scherzer nicely replaces Edwin Jackson, but the bottom of the rotation is a question mark. You also have to wonder how Justin Verlander will hold up after Jim Leyland used him like a modern-day Bob Gibson in 2009. But Verlander and Rick Porcello are a formidable 1-2.

8. Mariners and Cubs, tie: The Seattle outlook gets cloudy fast after Hernandez and Lee. Ian Snell and Ryan Rowland-Smith are keys. The Cubs are this high because Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Randy Wells combined for a 3.40 ERA last season, but Lilly's recovery from shoulder surgery is a flashing caution light.

10. Rays: Some see Tampa Bay as an also-ran because of the Yankees and Red Sox. Not true. In James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann and David Price, the Rays have an upwardly mobile rotation. Those four average 26.3 years, making this the youngest collection of solid arms in the majors.

11. Braves: Atlanta is trying to win with pitching, as it did for so long behind the old Big Three. Tommy Hanson is as impressive as any baby-faced pitcher, and the Braves have depth, which was why they could trade Vazquez. But only Jair Jurrjens reached 200 innings last season.

12. White Sox: If Jake Peavy delivers 30 starts, this group should wind up better than this ranking. Few are mentally tougher than Mark Buehrle, and he sets the tone for John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Freddy Garcia is penciled in as the fifth starter, but Daniel Hudson could be an impact arm.

13. Angels: Lackey will be missed, but Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Scott Kazmir and Ervin Santana are solid. Durability is a question; only Weaver and Saunders topped 150 innings.

Holliday shopping: The Cardinals remain engaged in a waiting game with Matt Holliday. It has been about two weeks since they put their best offer on the table for the guy who protected Albert Pujols after arriving in a midseason trade, and GM John Mozeliak hasn't been convinced another team is interested in outbidding him.

The Red Sox are the only other team known to have bid for Holliday, and they turned to Mike Cameron after signing Lackey. The Orioles have interest - and would be a great fit - but haven't had the muscles for a bidding war since landing Miguel Tejada in 2004.

The Yankees are the 900-pound gorilla in the room, but they seem more intent on signing a complementary player such as Reed Johnson than on opening their wallet for another huge signing.

"We'll continue to look at any remaining pieces, but it won't be a big piece," GM Brian Cashman said after trading Melky Cabrera to Atlanta in the Vazquez deal. "Any speculation about some high-end player who has big ability and dollars attached on a large scale would be inappropriate."

The last word: "The acquisition of a franchise talent is not about a wristwatch. … It's about the club recognizing the benefit of having that player and how they'll be dramatically impacted by the loss of that player. When that realization takes place ... then you have an agreement." - Agent Scott Boras on the slow market for Holliday.

Phil Rogers covers baseball for the Chicago Tribune. progers@tribune.com

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