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Written by Lewie Pollis (Contact & Archive) on January 31, 2011
I gave my picks for the best position players in the American League, along with my projections for how they'll fare in 2011, on Wednesday. That was the easy part. Today, we move on to pitching -- five starters, three relievers and my completely unscientific, best-guesstimate predictions for each.
Pitchers are notoriously hard to project, as they are more prone to injuries and inconsistency, and because so much of what they do is dependent on the fielders behind them.
With that in mind, here's the rotation:
Where else would we start if not with the reigning AL Cy Young? Last year, King Felix led the majors with his 2.27 ERA and was named the Junior Circuit's top hurler despite earning just 13 wins.
But while Hernandez is sure to be an elite starter again in 2011, expect his numbers to come down to earth. FIP and xFIP, better estimators of pitching talent than ERA, have Felix at 3.04 and 3.26, respectively, last year. He's outperformed his peripherals three years in a row, but don't expect his .263 BABIP to last.
Francisco Liriano: 16-8, 2.92, 204 IP, 211/63/11, 5.7 WAR
Last year's best pitcher no one cared about, Francisco Liriano rediscovered his pre-Tommy John surgery stuff in 2010 after two seasons of scuffling. With his strikeout, walk and groundball rates all approaching his 2006 levels, Liriano re-emerged as an ace for the Minnesota Twins, going 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA.
And yet, Liriano was even better than his superficial stats would indicate. His 3.06 xFIP was the best in the league, and his 2.66 FIP and 2.93 tERA reinforce the notion that he would have been a Cy Young contender if not for his .331 BABIP.
Justin Verlander: 16-11, 3.14, 218.2 IP, 209/65/21, 5.7 WAR
You might not think of an elite pitcher when you hear Justin Verlander's name, but the 27-year-old lefty ranks in the top five in wins (83), strikeouts (958) and WAR (25.3) over the last five seasons. In 2010, he produced one of his finest seasons to date, earning 18 victories with a 3.37 ERA.
Like Liriano, Verlander was plagued by bad luck last year -- impressive though his ERA was, his 2.97 FIP was even better. And, at age 28, there's no reason to think he can't continue to pitch at a high level. In fact, he could still get better.
Jon Lester: 17-7, 3.04 ERA, 205.2 IP, 223/69/17, 5.7 WAR
It can't be easy to carry the Boston Red Sox' rotation on one's shoulders, but that's exactly what Jon Lester did in 2010. He overcame an increase in his walk rate by posting a career-best 53.6 percent GB rate. He won 19 games with a 3.25 ERA.
What can we expect from Lester going forward? It's reasonable to think he can cut down on the walks, but he doesn't need to make any adjustments to maintain his status as an ace. Still, at 27, he could improve -- if he can maintain his worm-burning ways and get his K/9 rate over 10, you're looking at a Cy Young threat.
After years of waiting for Jered Weaver to emerge as an elite starter, he delivered in 2010, posting a 3.01 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Don't count on him maintaining a HR/FB rate below eight percent, but his FIP (3.06) and age (28) suggest that he'll be an ace again in 2011.
The AL's pitching isn't as good as the NL's, but that doesn't mean narrowing down this list was easy. CC Sabathia is a sure bet to do well in 2011, though the three-year negative trends in his strikeout and walk rates are worrisome. Twenty-five-year-old David Price looked fantastic in his first full season, but his peripherals aren't strong enough (yet) to support an ERA south of 3.00. Same goes for Clay Buchholz. And Dan Haren is a good bet to rebound with the Angels.
Now, onto the relievers, who are even harder to predict.
Joakim Soria: 34 saves, 1.97, 67.1 IP, 76/17/6, 2.0 WAR
With apologies to Brian Wilson and Mariano Rivera, the Kansas City Royals' Joakim Soria is simply the best reliever in baseball. Armed with great control (2.2 BB/9), improving groundball tendencies (48 percent GB rate) and a 9.7 K/9 rate (actually a down year for him in that respect), Soria notched 43 saves with a sparkling 1.78 ERA in 2010. He enters the season at age 26, meaning -- scary as it sounds -- he could still be developing.
Mariano Rivera: 36 saves, 2.34, 63.2 IP, 52/14/7, 1.8 WAR
There are a couple red flags in Rivera's 2010 stats that could mean trouble: his strikeout rate fell by more than three strikeouts to an unintimidating 6.75 K/9, and his xFIP (3.65) was his worst since tracking began in 2002. Still, Mo has outperformed his peripherals eight times in his last nine seasons and 12 of his last 14. He'll find a way to shut teams down.
Neftali Feliz: 42 saves, 2.54, 74 IP, 80/20/7, 1.7 WAR
Neftali Feliz began the 2010 season as a 21-year-old set-up man. Within a few weeks, he was the closer on a team that would win the AL pennant; at the end of the season, he was named Rookie of the Year. Assuming he isn't moved to the rotation, there's no reason to think he won't continue humiliating teams foolish enough to be losing to the Rangers in the ninth inning. He's a guy to watch for years to come.
Lewie Pollis is a freshman at Brown University. For more of his work, visit WahooBlues.com. Follow him on Twitter @LewsOnFirst or @WahooBlues.