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Brewers snubbed in Olney’s top rotations list

Buster Olney rated his Top 10 starting rotations in baseball Monday morning for ESPN Insider. You’d think the Brewers, returning all of their starters from a 2011 season in which they posted a team ERA of 3.63, would rank somewhere in the Top 10.

Nope. Olney left them off his list, which actually included 11 teams thanks to a 10th-place “tie.”

1. Phillies
2. Rays
3. Angels
4. Giants
5. Diamondbacks
6. Rangers
7. Tigers
8. Nationals
9. Mariners
10. Braves, Dodgers

It’s hard to argue with the top of the list. The Phillies won’t be bringing Roy Oswalt back, but will still have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels at the top of their rotation. The Rays have a similarily intimidating trio of David Price, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson. Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis aren’t exactly chicken liver at the bottom of the rotation, either. The Angels just signed the best free agent pitcher on the market to be their #3, which speaks to their own depth. The Giants still have Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain to go with Madison Bumgarner, who had a sneaky-good 2011 season and appears to be living up to potential as a top prospect.

Then things get a little weird.

Arizona certainly has a good rotation if Ian Kennedy‘s 2011 season proves to be something other than a fluke. Daniel Hudson is also coming off a good year and adding Trevor Cahill adds depth to the rotation, but it’s hard to see the upside of this trio matching that of the other teams in the Top 5. Josh Collmenter had a surprisingly good year at the bottom of their rotation, but at 5.83 strikeouts per 9 innings, he wasn’t missing many bats. They traded most of their upside away in the Cahill deal by sending Jarrod Parker to Oakland, but to be fair, it’s possible Trevor Bauer makes an impact in the majors this year. Still, it seems odd that Arizona would make this list while Milwaukee doesn’t — at the very least, they seem comparable in terms of depth.

Texas lost C.J. Wilson to the Angels, but won the bidding rights to Yu Darvish. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe Darvish won’t be joining the Rangers in 2012, but even if you assume the addition, it’s hard to project how he’ll fare in his first Major League season. Still, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland were very good in 2011 (fWARs of 4.2 and 3.6), and Alexi Ogando also fared well before running out of gas at the end of the season. Neftali Feliz finally joining the rotation should add even more upside to this group, but like Darvish, it’s hard to tell how he’ll hold up starting 30 games. If anything, based on potential, the Texas rotation should be ranked higher.

The Tigers’ inclusion may be more puzzling than the Diamondbacks’, considering Justin Verlander just won the MVP award based on the perception that he was the only pitcher worth anything on the team. Of course, that’s not entirely true — Doug Fister put up 2.4 fWAR for the Tigers after joining the team at the trade deadline, finishing the year with 5.6 combined fWAR. That’s more than a half-win better than Arizona’s ace, Kennedy (5.0). There are a lot of things about Fister’s 2011 season that could be considered red flags (low overall K-rate, luck in who he was facing, etc.), though, and the rest of the Tigers’ rotation outside of those two isn’t all that great. Max Sherzer and Rick Porcello have all the potential in the world, but Sherzer has a walks problem and Porcello only struck out 5.14 per 9 last year. The Brewers don’t have anyone as good as Verlander (who does?), but 2-5, an argument could be made that the Brewers are better.

The Nationals are another team on the list that might surprise some people, but 8th may actually be a good spot for them, depending on how strong Stephen Strasburg is out of the gate. I’ve liked Jordan Zimmermann for awhile, and he threw a very strong 160+ innings last year working his way back from injury (3.18 ERA, 3.16 FIP). They likely made the list thanks to their recent trade for Gio Gonzalez, and while I’m not optimistic Gonzalez’s impressive ERA numbers are going to look as good outside of the abyss in Oakland, this is a top 3 the Nats could really build around. If Strasburg wasn’t still working his way back from Tommy John surgery, they’d probably be a couple spots higher. The problem is who they’re going to use to fill out the bottom of the rotation. Ross Detwiler had a solid 10 starts in 2011, Tom Gorzelanny could end up in the rotation, and John Lannan is a decent enough bottom-of-the-rotation starter. But how much better is a top 3 of Strasburg-Zimmermann-Gonzalez than Greinke-Gallardo-Marcum?

Then there’s the Mariners — Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, and not much else. Jason Vargas seems like the only other Mariner to have a rotation spot guaranteed at this point, and he’s more of a Randy Wolf type. Hernandez is really, really good. Pineda could end up being just as good in his second season. But the rest of the rotation is looking like a scrap heap. Even if Danny Hultzen makes the team out of camp, he’ll be a rookie that a lot of people think could top out as a #3. That’s not a rotation that screams “Better than Milwaukee,” let alone Top 11.

As far as the co-10s go, it’s hard to argue much with Atlanta being on the list, who’s so deep in pitching they’re actively trying to deal Jair Jurrjens while his value is high. You can’t even really argue against the Dodgers all that much if Chad Billingsley can bounce back, although losing Hiroki Kuroda will hurt.

Olney does seem to think the Brewers can work their way into the discussion, but looking at some of the teams he’s included, it’s a little puzzling that they aren’t already there. Greinke and Marcum didn’t fare well in the postseason, and maybe that’s playing into the national media’s perception of the Brewers’ rotation. Over the course of 162 games, though, those two proved to be very good in their first seasons with the team.

Milwaukee isn’t even the only team in their division that should be a little miffed — the Cardinals should have gotten a mention, too. Chris Carpenter is getting old and Edwin Jackson is gone, but Jaime Garcia is still a solid #3 and they’ll be getting Adam Wainwright back.

In the end, we’re probably worrying too much about a throwaway day-after-Christmas piece. But it could also be indicative of the type of coverage the team could get to start the 2012 season. With Prince Fielder gone and Ryan Braun possibly serving a suspension, most national writers may think there’s no reason to pay much attention to the Brewers. Nevermind that they’ll be returning nearly their entire pitching staff, already patched up the defense a bit, and will be playing in one of baseball’s most winnable divisions.

If that’s the case, is it too early to bet on Ron Roenicke getting a good chunk of NL Manager of the Year votes again? The award typically ends up going to a team that “nobody saw coming”…if the Brewers compete in 2012, wouldn’t that fit the narrative?