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Rotation Rumble

PECOTA is optimistic about a big step forward from Phil Hughes. (AP)

This week at Baseball Prospectus, I've delved into the PECOTA projections of each team's rotations in both leagues, identifying not only the winter's most impressive additions but also the top Terrific Tandems, Big Threes, Front Fours, Fab Fives and Six-Packs according to our playing time-adjusted WARP projections. On Wednesday, I tackled the NL, where the Brewers won the winter via their additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and where last year's Championship Series participants, the Phillies and Giants, tower head and shoulders above the competition across every grouping. Today, I dig into the AL, where the situation is more fluid, particularly when it comes to the AL East.

According to PECOTA, the Yankees have the advantage up front:

Terrific Tandems: Unlike the NL, there's no runaway winner in this category, with the top four teams separated by about half a win apiece and teams four through seven separated by less than half a win combined. Even given their failure to sign [Cliff] Lee, the Yankees wind up with the AL's top tandem courtesy of CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes (5.5 and 3.6 WARP, respectively), in large part because the big man owns the league's second-highest WARP forecast behind Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez. Ranking a surprising second is the Angels' duo of Dan Haren and Jered Weaver (4.5 and 4.1), with the former about to begin his first full season with the Halos and the latter fresh off a breakout season in which he produced his best strikeout, walk and homer rates while throwing a career-high innings total. Running third is the Tigers' power duo of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer (4.5 and 3.5), who forecast for just shy of 200 strikeouts apiece. Coming in fourth is the pair of Red Sox who finished as the league's top tandem last year, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz (4.1 and 3.3) — even with the latter's ERA projected to rise by more than a run, from 2.33 to 3.56, due primarily to regression from a .263 BABIP. Running fifth are Hernandez and Jason Vargas (5.9 and 1.4), almost entirely on the strength of the King. The Lee-less Rangers pair, Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson (3.6 and 3.5), ranks sixth, with a presumably healthy Jake Peavy and John Danks (4.0 and 3.0) rounding out the league's top half.

The deeper you go, the more ground they lose to the Red Sox:

Front Fours: We're into the serious stuff, the potential best-of-seven series rotations, and it's here where Yankee general manager Brian Cashman's failure to formulate a backup plan lest he miss out on Lee and lose Andy Pettitte to retirement becomes apparent, as both the Angels and Red Sox blow past. The Halos' Ervin Santana (1.8) makes for a fairly formidable fourth, bettered only by Boston's Lackey (2.5), who makes up nearly two wins on the Pinstripes' putative fourth, Garcia (0.6). Via Rick Porcello (1.4) and Mark Buehrle (1.7), just 0.3 wins separate the Yankees, Tigers and White Sox at this level. The Rangers lose a bit of ground on the pack above them via Derek Holland (1.3), while the Rays finally crash the upper ranks via their homegrown quartet of David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and James Shields (3.6, 2.7, 2.1, and 2.0, respectively); that's Hellickson with the highest forecast of any AL rookie hurler.

By the time the sextets are considered — that is, the presumptive starting fives plus the top alternate — the Yankees' unit ranks sixth in the league, projected for a combined 11.7 WARP. Topping the table are the Red Sox (14.1 WARP), with the Angels, White Sox, A's and Rays between the two Beasts of the East. That's something of a surprise given the collective 4.84 ERA the Bosox got from Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Dasiuke Matsuzaka last year, but PECOTA is quite optimistic regarding that trio's rebound, because their peripherals (0.9 HR/9, 3.5 BB/9, 7.3 K/9) were solid enough to produce a collective 4.19 SIERA and a projection for a 4.02 ERA.

It's unfair to suggest PECOTA's being particularly one-sided when it comes to the ongoing grudge match, for it sees Sabathia (235 innings, 3.19 ERA) providing a carbon copy of his 2010, Hughes shaving more than half a run off his ERA (to 3.64) while pushing to 195 innings, and A.J. Burnett at least partially rebounding (185 innings, 4.49 ERA, 1.5 WARP) from his dismal 2010. As anticipated, it's the lesser lights who are miscast as adequate back-rotation solutions for a contender which cause the Yanks to sag relative to the Sox, with Freddy Garcia projected for a 4.81 ERA, and David Phelps, Ivan Nova and Bartolo Colon called out for being the replacement-level fodder that they are, with ERAs around 5.00, and WARPs requiring electron microscopes to see. Indeed, among the Yankees' ready options, the system is most optimistic about Sergio Mitre (4.59 ERA, 0.4 WARP over 95 innings), hardly a comforting thought.

Of course, it's fair to point out that projection is not destiny. Despite the weight of the information that goes into PECOTA via multi-year track records, minor league translations, and cross-matching with approximately a bajillion player-seasons since World War II, no projection system can tell you that this young hurler will take a big leap forward by ironing out his mechanics, polishing his third pitch, and suddenly missing more bats while lowering his walk rate — and it's exactly such breakthroughs (or conversely, breakdowns) which cause pitchers to progress in such nonlinear fashion.

Good or bad, the news is that unlike the NL, there's very little separating the top AL rotations, with one injury, moderate upgrade, or even adjusted innings assumption potentially upsetting the order. Overall, the system is still quite sanguine about the Yankees, forecasting a 92-win campaign, just one win behind the top ranked Sox, and with a 70.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. Given the current state of the Yankees' starters, that's hardly a bad starting point.