As a wise man once said, you can't start a fire without a spark. And when it comes to igniting conversation among fans, nothing creates the spark as well as an entirely subjective, definitely debatable list. Spring Training is upon us, and it's time to get the conversation going in earnest. So for the next four days, we're going to take a stab at listing the top 10 teams in each of the game's four primary areas -- starting pitching, relief pitching, offense and defense. Finally, on Friday, we're going to take those four lists into account, factor in managerial mastery and front-office faculty and come up with baseball's top 10 teams heading into the pitcher-and-catcher report dates. And then, in the comments section below, we're going to argue about it until our keyboards collapse.
It's going to be fun ... most likely. So let's get it going with starting pitching. Here are the top 10 rotations: 10. Nationals: The eye-popping Stephen Strasburg is back, though his innings will be limited after elbow reconstruction, likely to a number similar to Jordan Zimmermann's 161 1/3 innings pitched in 2011. But having Strasburg in the mix and Zimmermann at full strength is a solid start, and the Nats have amped up their assemblage by bringing in Gio Gonzalez, one of the better young lefties in the game, and Edwin Jackson, who fits in fine as a No. 4. Jackson is durable, his fielding independent pitching rates have actually improved in each of the past four seasons, and, at 28, he's in his prime. One concern with Gonzalez is that he had the second-highest walk rate (4.05 per nine innings) of any qualifying Major League starter last year. But the strength of this rotation is the upside of its top three arms, and that's one reason the Nats will be an intriguing team to watch. 9. Yankees: New York somehow patched together a serviceable rotation last year by getting more than anybody anticipated out of Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and rookie Ivan Nova. Rightly, the Yankees were not content to go with the same arrangement after another postseason disappointment, and so, in one fell swoop on a January evening, they reeled in Hiroki Kuroda on a one-year deal and pulled the trigger on the trade that netted hard-throwing right-hander Michael Pineda (9.1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 2011) from Seattle. Suddenly, what had been viewed as a weakness now looks like a strength. The Yanks have taken some of the pressure off CC Sabathia, who has averaged 256 2/3 innings pitched between the regular season and postseason the past five years. It will be interesting to see how well Pineda's stuff plays in Yankee Stadium -- his fastball lost several ticks in velocity down the stretch in his rookie year -- but there's no denying this unit looks a lot better on paper than it did at the end of last season. 8. Braves: There's a reason the Braves, in the wake of a brutal collapse from the good graces of a seemingly assured Wild Card spot, have tinkered little with their roster this winter, and their rotation is it. Now, how sound was that thinking? Well, much depends on the health of Tommy Hanson, whose shoulder issues in the second half of '11 are cause for concern. Jair Jurrjens was sidelined by knee problems down the stretch after an incredible first half, and the fact that his name was so prevalent in trade rumors raises eyebrows. Oh, and Tim Hudson is coming off back surgery. All those injury situations cause a lot of uncertainty atop the rotation, which is why the Braves are not higher on this list. But they have a lot of upside in youngsters Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran, who combined for 50 starts as rookies last season. 7. Tigers: The knock on the Tigers for much of last season was that, beyond Justin Verlander, they had little consistency in the rotation (heck, that notion survived enough to help Verlander win the MVP award). The No. 5 spot, in particular, was a black hole. Detroit addressed that issue with the late-July acquisition of Doug Fister, who had a 1.79 ERA and a ridiculous 229 ERA+ down the stretch. Max Scherzer's overall ERA from '11 (4.43) doesn't wow you, but it's worth noting that he had nine starts in which he allowed five earned runs or more (compiling an 11.77 ERA in those starts) and a 2.46 ERA in his other 24 starts combined. Rick Porcello hasn't lived up to the promise of his rookie year, but he's just 23 years old. Will Verlander repeat his historic season? Probably not. But he's nonetheless one of the best in the business, and the Tigers will be much more settled in the back end of the rotation if former No. 1 Draft pick Jacob Turner pans out as expected. 6. D-backs: Arizona plays its home games in a hitter's park, but don't tell that to a starting staff that was one of only six in the big leagues to compile more than 1,000 innings last year, while posting a 3.84 ERA along the way. Ian Kennedy stepped up to be an ace, and Daniel Hudson had the 10th-best walk rate (2.03 per nine innings) in the National League. To that, the D-backs have added groundball machine Trevor Cahill, and Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter are suitable back-end starters. What makes the D-backs all the more dangerous is that they might have three former No. 1 picks -- Wade Miley, Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer -- in line to contribute by year's end. That kind of depth goes a long way in a 162-game season. 5. Rangers: It's impossible to know what to expect from a club that will have such an unproven commodity -- Yu Darvish -- in such a prominent role. But even if Darvish, who had a 57-percent groundball rate in the Japanese Pacific League last year, winds up performing no better than your average No. 4 starter, the Rangers still have enough depth of talent to make this list. We witnessed Derek Holland's coming-out party last October, and Colby Lewis has been good for 400 innings and an adjusted ERA of 110 over the past two seasons. Matt Harrison was durable and dependable, posting a 3.39 ERA in 30 starts. If Neftali Feliz is as successful in his reliever-to-starter conversion as C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando were, then the Rangers will once again have one of the deepest and most reliable rotations in the game. 4. Giants: The Giants' vaunted rotation carried them to a World Series crown in 2010. And even though they were unable to claim another NL West title, let alone a championship, it was certainly through no fault of the starting staff, which had the second-best starters' ERA to that of the Phillies. The Giants have $33 million locked into Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain this year, and for good reason. Lincecum has a 138 ERA+ dating back to 2007, and Cain has a 125 mark going back to 2005. If Ryan Vogelsong delivers anything resembling his out-of-nowhere 2011 campaign (13-7, 2.71 ERA), then that's a dynamic 1-2-3 punch. And Madison Bumgarner made great strides as last season went along, posting 13 wins overall and a 2.52 ERA in the second half. Jonathan Sanchez was once a big part of the rotation picture, but he faltered and was shipped off to the Royals for Melky Cabrera. That leaves Barry Zito and Eric Surkamp fighting for the fifth spot of what should once again be one of the game's great rotations. 3. Rays: This is the great equalizer in the game's most daunting division. It's the reason the low-budget Rays are counted as contenders despite having to face the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox 18 times a year. And the Rays get bonus points for the fact that this unit is entirely homegrown. When James Shields makes his first start of 2012, he'll be the first Rays pitcher over the age of 30 to make a start since May 2007. With that youth has come durability. Rays starters worked 1,058 innings last season, the most of any American League team. And they led the AL in starters' ERA with a 3.53 mark. Shields finished third in the league in ERA, and he, David Price and Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson all performed at least 10-percent better than the league average, according to Fangraphs.com. Matt Moore joins this group after striking out 15 batters in his first 9 1/3 Major League innings last year. 2. Angels: It was proven in the postseason that Wilson is slightly overmatched in the "ace" role, but he won't have to wear that label in Orange County. The native son has returned home to join Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana in what is a remarkably deep and experienced staff (and now they should actually have some offensive support). Among AL starters last year, Weaver was second only to Verlander in ERA (2.41), WHIP (1.01) and adjusted ERA (158). According to Fangraphs, Haren was third among AL starters in Wins Above Replacement (6.3), trailing only Verlander and Sabathia, while Wilson (5.9) was fourth and Weaver (5.6) fifth. What's particularly tantalizing about this starting group is what Santana did in the second half, when he posted a 2.78 ERA and threw a no-hitter against the Indians. And don't forget about Jerome Williams, who returned from obscurity to go 4-0 with a 3.86 ERA in 10 appearances. We could go back and forth as to whether the Angels or Rays have the best starting staff in the AL, but we'll give the Angels the slight edge by virtue of their experience. 1. Phillies: The expectations surrounding Philadelphia's staff going into last season were as unfair as they were enormous. And yet, even with Roy Oswalt battling back issues, the Phils were who we thought they were, as Dennis Green would say. Far and away the best starting staff in the game, they led the Majors in starters' ERA (2.86) by nearly half a run. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels ranked first, fifth and 13th, respectively, among all Major League starters in Fangraphs' WAR calculations. What's scary is that Hamels is entering a contract year, which we know to be a motivator for many players. Now, will Vance Worley provide an encore of his rookie season, when he won 11 of his 21 starts? Some scouts thought he benefited from a fair share of good fortune last season, but nobody's asking him to carry the staff, what with those three horses in front of him. Worley and Joe Blanton will just be asked to be serviceable back-end starters. Even with Oswalt completely out of the picture, the Phils starting staff profiles as the best in the game. But as this list proves, they'll have a lot of competition for that standing as the year progresses. Honorable mention: Park factors and weak NL West offenses help, but the Dodgers had one of the best starting staffs last year, and Clayton Kershaw is going to be a force for a long, long time. ... The Brewers had the 10th-best starters' ERA (3.78) in the Majors, and it's a contract year for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. ... The Cardinals have depth and might still land Oswalt, but there are concerns about the 36-year-old Chris Carpenter's innings total from 2011 (256 1/3), and Adam Wainwright will be on an innings limit following Tommy John surgery. ... The Marlins could be dangerous in the starting five, with a healthy Josh Johnson at the forefront. What remains to be seen is whether reports of improved velocity from Carlos Zambrano, that wildest of wild cards, prove true. ... The Red Sox rotation, more than fried chicken and beer, was directly responsible for the club's historic collapse. But with Clay Buchholz back and the potential upside of Alfredo Aceves or Daniel Bard, it could emerge to be an elite unit.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.