Q: Which teams have the best starting pitching rotations going into spring training?
— Stephen Shoemaker, Tulsa
A: You've hit on the most important factor in determining a team's upcoming season. So here are the top 14, in relative order:
Tampa Bay Rays: One through five, it's hard to beat David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Wade Davis and/or Jeff Niemann. One of the latter two could be traded, as Moore has emerged as the game's top pitching prospect.
Philadelphia Phillies: Nobody's top three is better than Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. But it's dicey after that, with Roy Oswalt gone, Joe Blanton coming off injury and Vance Worley having to prove he can do it again.
Los Angeles Angels: C.J. Wilson was the ace on the AL pennant-winning Rangers' staff, and he slides to the No. 3 spot here — behind Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, and in front of Ervin Santana. The question is the fifth spot, with reclamation project Jerome Williams the early leader.
St. Louis Cardinals: Who wins a World Series without its ace? And now Adam Wainwright returns to head a talented, veteran rotation that includes Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, with top prospect Shelby Miller in the wings.
San Francisco Giants: Nothing's changed here — Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and an emerging Madison Bumgarner could be on the verge of becoming the game's new top trio. But Ryan Vogelsong won't sneak up on anybody this season, and can the Giants get enough out of Barry Zito or another fifth starter?
Texas Rangers: Ron Washington has plenty of quality choices, but unless Yu Darvish or perhaps Derek Holland break out, there is no ace. Depth isn't a problem with Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando.
Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander leads the way, of course, but how good this rotation will be depends on Doug Fister, expected improvements from Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, and top prospect Jacob Turner in the five spot.
Milwaukee Brewers: A note of caution: The fivesome of Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shawn Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson made all but six of the Brewers' 162 regular-season starts. That rarely happens two years in a row.
Miami Marlins: The key is Josh Johnson's return as a Cy Young candidate, which would take pressure off Mark Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano.
Atlanta Braves: Health questions on Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson keep the Braves from being ranked higher at this point. But all three should be OK, and how about all the young talent -- Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado?
Arizona Diamondbacks: The emergence of Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson transformed the D-backs in 2011. Trevor Cahill is a nice upgrade, Joe Saunders was re-signed, and if the league catches up with Josh Collmenter, there are a couple of quality young arms knocking on the door.
New York Yankees: Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda fit nicely behind CC Sabathia, but how much will the Yankees get from Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes?
Boston Red Sox: Who slots in behind the big three of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Bucholz? The leading options at this point are Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg's health is paramount here. But the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson are big, and Jordan Zimmermann is emerging.
Q. Has a historically fiscally prudent team ever hit the wall as fast as the Twins? Carl (Pohlad) traded Johan Santana, but his kids gave big contracts to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Which was right?
— Larry Faria, Ocean Beach, Calif.
A. The Twins certainly have been a case study for the dangers of a mid-market team heading into a new stadium, haven't they?
Amazingly, the Twins' payroll doubled from about $65 million in 2009 to about $113 million in 2011. But as soon as they jacked up the payroll due to increased revenues, injuries struck their three highest-paid players, leaving them little financial recourse. You saw the result: a 99-loss 2011 season in which Joe Mauer (82 games), Justin Morneau (69) combined to appear in only 151 games, and Joe Nathan saved only eight games.
As I've written several times before, I don't have a problem with huge average annual salaries; my problem with these mega-contracts always is length. I would pass on all of them — Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Alex Rodriguez, Mauer, etc., etc, because history overwhelmingly shows they will be highly cost-inefficient over the latter few seasons.
Owners of major-market teams can afford to swallow some of those later-year losses — and if their teams win a World Series in the meantime, you can make the argument that it's worth the expense.
But a franchise such as the Twins will pay the price when things go wrong — which they do more often than not. It's not necessarily wrong in principle, but it is very risky, and the younger Pohlads got burned in 2011, and things don't figure to get much better in 2012.
Another example was the Rockies giving Mike Hampton $121 million and Denny Neagle $55 million in 2001. Things went south in a hurry, the team entered a total rebuilding mode by 2003, and it took six years to fully rebound and land in a World Series.
Q. Was there ever a time when managers or coaches could go to the mound a third time in an inning before removing a pitcher?
— TerpFan88, Washington, D.C.
A. I couldn't find a timeline on when the current rule went into effect, but personal experience takes me back to the late-1960s, and things haven't changed in that time.
Q: Looking a few years down the road, do you think Jim Edmonds belongs in the Hall of Fame?
— Marty Igel, St. Louis
A: If there was a Hall of Fame for highlight-reel catches, Edmonds would be a no-brainer. Nobody in recent history made more of them, and that's a big reason why he won eight Gold Glove Awards. Edmonds also made four All-Star teams, won one Silver Slugger Award and had two top-five MVP finishes.
That said, I think the offensive numbers likely will leave him a bit short of Hall of Fame election: .284 batting average, .376 on-base percentage, 1,949 hits, 393 homers, 1,199 RBI, .527 slugging percentage. He also never led the league in any single-season offensive category.
I see Edmonds' Hall of Fame candidacy falling into the near-miss category that currently includes Dale Murphy, Larry Walker and Bernie Williams — and could be very similar to that of Andruw Jones. Although on Edmonds' behalf, his career numbers also closely parallel those of Hall of Famer Duke Snider.
One thing I've learned about Hall of Fame candidacies after 14 years of being a voter is that they can undergo dramatic changes over the 15-year voting time frame on the writers' ballot. Edmonds certainly will merit serious consideration when he becomes eligible for election in 2015.
ATLANTA (AP) - Matt Harvey pitched six hitless innings, John Buck homered and the New York Mets held off another Atlanta comeback, beating the Braves 4-3 Tuesday in the first game of a doubleheader.
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.