This is the aspect of the game that separates the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees from most of their peers.
All three teams had above-average bullpens in 2008 and the Rays and Red Sox got consistently strong performance out of their starters. The Yankees' rotation was a nagging trouble spot throughout last season, so New York went out and snapped up two of the top starters on the free-agent market in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
Assuming all three teams can keep most of their arms healthy through the bulk of the season, pitching should once again pace the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees. While all three teams have various forms of offensive firepower, the ability to shut down the opposition's bats on a given night seems to supersede teams built mostly to outslug the other side.
Which group of pitchers would you be most comfortable running out there to open the season?
Rotation: James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, Jason Hammel/Jeff Niemann
Bullpen: Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, Joe Nelson, Brian Shouse, Jason Hammel/Jeff Niemann/Lance Cormier
Outlook: The Rays' five regular starters each reached double digits in wins last year, and they don't expect a drop-off with a new fifth starter. In fact, it's fair to expect improvement from Kazmir, in particular, and that could make this group even more dangerous. In the bullpen, Percival appears poised to start the season strong after looking better throughout the spring than he did at any time during the second half of 2008. Whatever happens there, the Rays have a string of depth and experienced hands behind him to provide support.
Rotation: Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny/Clay Buchholz
Bullpen: Jonathan Papelbon, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Takashi Saito, Ramon Ramirez
Outlook: The rotation will be strong even before John Smoltz steps in sometime during the summer, though Wakefield isn't as effective as he once was. Lester already is one of the best pitchers in the game and still has plenty of upside, and Buchholz has had a phenomenal spring. The bullpen beyond Papelbon is an interesting mix of young and old that should be plenty stable and versatile enough to allow Manager Terry Francona to mix and match at will.
Rotation: CC Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain
Bullpen: Mariano Rivera, Damaso Marte, Brian Bruney, Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, Phil Coke, Jonathan Albaladejo/Brett Tomko/Alfredo Aceves/Dan Giese
Outlook: If the Yankees are going to reassert themselves in the AL East, it's going to start with a retooled rotation. Of this group, Pettitte is the only one who took the ball every fifth day for the Yankees in 2008, and his 4.54 ERA was his highest since 1999. Nonetheless, Sabathia and Burnett should make a strong and immediate impact. The same goes for Wang, whose season ended in mid-June because of injury. The bullpen is a bit of a question mark after the ageless Rivera and could be an area the Yankees address with a midseason pickup.