Over the span of one afternoon last July, the American League East's most dominant pitchers, Jon Lester and David Price, two near-icons for their respective franchises, were traded elsewhere. For the Red Sox and Rays, it signaled a move in a different (and less left-handed) direction. For the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Orioles, it signaled a victory of having to deal with the two southpaws and their combined seven All-Star appearances far less frequently.
Eight months later, the division's five teams are three short weeks away from competing in a pennant race that is more wide-open than perhaps any in more than a decade. Questions concerning starting rotations was a big focus of the off-season in the East. Is Boston's hoarding of number three starters strong enough? Will any Yankee starter make 30 starts this year (seriously, will they?)? Can the Rays' rotation mask the issues of an offense that figures to really struggle?
With no clear, take-it-to-the bank ace currently in the division, the moniker of "AL East's best" is up for grabs. These rankings are based on the likelihood of a strong 2015 season, not solely on talent alone. March Madness, indeed!
10. Clay Buchholz (BOS)
2014: 8-11, 5.34 ERA, 72 ERA+, 1.386 WHIP
Your guess is as good as mine. Everyone knows Buccholz's deal: supremely talented, but maddeningly inconsistent and prone to injury. Last year was the worst season in the right-hander's career since his age-22 season in which he made just 15 starts and was, you know, 22. Now entering his age-30 season, there is an imense amount of pressure on him to put together a full season of dominance, which he seemed destined for in 2013 before injuries. With the Red Sox lacking a true stud at the front of their rotation, it remains to be seen if Buchholz can fill that role.
9. R.A. Dickey (TOR)
2014: 14-13, 3.71 ERA, 105 ERA+, 1.229 WHIP
This much is true about R.A. Dickey; he shows up to pitch when he is asked to. The knuckleballer has led the league in games started three years running, and there's really no reason to think he couldn't continue that streak in 2015. Dickey seems unlikely to ever replicate the success of his 2012 season with the Mets that earned him a Cy Young award, but if he put up the same numbers he did a year ago, the Jays would take that. With Marcus Stroman out for the year, Dickey will be expected to step up as the ace, which we've seen he is capable of doing.
8. Wei-Yin Chen (BAL)
2014: 16-6, 3.54 ERA, 108 ERA+, 1.228 WHIP
People often criticize the Orioles for their lack of pitching depth and top-of-the-rotation pitchers, but Chen was a huge part of the team's success a year ago. In his third year since coming over from the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan, the left-hander posted a 3.89 K/BB ratio, utilizing his ability to pitch effectively in the strike zone to his advantage. Chen would be higher on this list if he weren't potentially a regression candidate, simply based on last year being much better than his first two years. If Chen can prove that 2014 was not a flash in the pan, then he has the ability to be the top left-hander in the division.
7. Michael Pineda (NYY)
2014: 5-5, 1.89 ERA, 206 ERA+, 0.825 WHIP
When he was on the mound last year, Pineda was not just one of the division's best starting pitchers, but one of the best in the entire AL. Unfortunately for Pineda and the Yankees, that was just for a total of 13 starts. No one doubts that he has the ability to be much higher, and potentially on top, of this ranking, but the durability factor hurts him more than anyone on the list. He was looked superb this spring, but there is only so much stock to be put in March stats. Big Mike was a top prospect coming up with Seattle, and whenever he's been healthy in his career, he's backed up that prospect status by pitching lights-out. Is 2015 finally the year we see that for 30+ starts?
6. Drew Smyly (TBR)
2014: 9-10, 3.24 ERA, 121 ERA+, 1.163 WHIP
Smyly, of course, was the Rays' prize from Detroit in return for Price last July. At the time, many thought Tampa had gotten fleeced in that deal, but the righty was very strong down the stretch. In seven starts, Smyly posted a 1.70 ERA with a minuscule .755 WHIP. Small sample size, yes, but a great small sample size. This will only be Smyly's second full season as a full time starter, as Detroit used him primarily out of the bullpen. Some shoulder tendinitis he's currently undergoing isn't the best start to his season, but he figures to only potentially miss one start. Listen, the Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon traded David Price for this guy. Doesn't that tell you something?
5. Rick Porcello (BOS)
2014: 15-13, 3.43 ERA, 116 ERA+, 1.231 WHIP
True, the Red Sox might not have an "ace", but is it completely out of the question for Rick Porcello to maybe act like one this year? Based off of what we saw from the 26-year-old last year, the Red Sox might have gotten a steal when they dealt Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit for him in the offseason. Porcello posted a career-best 3.43 ERA and a league-best three shutouts. He barely walked anyone (1.8 BB/9) and was durable (204.2 innings pitched). Porcello had been a regular in the Tigers' rotation since 2009, but certainly took a backseat to names such as Verlander, Scherzer and Price. Fenway Park might hurt Porcello, who doesn't strike out many, but he's good enough to adjust.
4. Chris Tillman (BAL)
2014: 13-6, 3.34 ERA, 114 ERA+, 1.230 WHIP
Tillman's case as a rotation "ace" has become a highly debated one over the past two seasons. The righty started both of the team's postseason series' openers last October, but someone had to start those games. Tillman may not quite be an "ace" in the terms of being a dominant hurler with dominant stuff, but he wins and is effective, and isn't that pretty much just as good? At the very least, he's the best pitcher on a team that won 96 games last year. The Orioles are counting on big comeback seasons from Chris Davis/Manny Machado/Matt Wieters, but they're also counting on another strong, borderline All-Star campaign from Tillman. 413.2 innings pitched from Tillman the past two years shows he's a workhorse.
3. Chris Archer (TBR)
2014: 10-9, 3.33, 112 ERA+, 1.279 WHIP
Putting Archer third on this list might be viewed by some as a stretch, but I believe the 26-year-old is about to have a breakout campaign. Archer's 2014 was strong, and in fact, statistically less impressive than his 2013 campaign when he came in third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Archer could afford to throw more strikes (3.3 BB/9 in '14), and command has reportedly been his focus this spring, in addition to mastering a new pitch, a changeup. Look for increase in swings and misses from hitters against Archer in 2015.
As a side note, Archer is hands-down the division's best pitcher when it comes to toying with the Yankees. In six career starts against the Bombers, he's 5-0 with a 1.93 ERA and a 0.762 WHIP. Yikes.
2. Alex Cobb (TBR)
2014: 10-9, 2.87 ERA, 130 ERA+, 1.136 WHIP
David Price is gone. It's difficult to determine what to expect from Matt Moore when he gets back. Alex Cobb is officially the guy in St. Petersburg. A year ago, Cobb finished as a top-10 hurler in ERA, WHIP, hits per nine, strikeouts per nine and adjusted ERA+. Cobb has never made more than 27 starts in a season, a hurdle he will need to get over this season if Tampa has any shot to compete. A two-year ERA of 2.82 indicates that Cobb has perennial top-of-the-rotation ability. It's impressive that he has been so easily gotten back into form following that scary comebacker during the 2013 season. Cobb left Tuesday's start with forearm tightness, so that could be something to look at as April draws near. However, the righty shows all the signs of a pitcher entering his age-27 season about to hit his prime.
1. Masahiro Tanaka (NYY)
2014: 13-5, 2.77 ERA, 140 ERA+, 1.056 WHIP
Okay, so maybe Tanaka's inclusion on this list at its top isn't totally in line with my earlier statement about predictability of success in 2015 being crucial. Tanaka could make 30 starts this year; he could also make ten or less. However, this much is likely: when Tanaka is healthy this season, he figures to pitch at a level at or near to where he was in the season's first half in 2014. That Tanaka was the best pitcher in the division, probably the best pitcher in the American League, and perhaps the best pitcher in all of baseball not named Clayton Kershaw. I've written before about the potential greatness of 2015 for Tanaka and the nearly-as-likely pitfalls of a disappointing season that could lay ahead for the Japanese righty. There's not a pitcher on this list that has more of his team's success riding on their success than Tanaka does for the Yankees. If he's healthy, that will only mean good things.