Looking for the first loser: Who is the second-best rotation in the NL?

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt comprise what is considered the best rotation in the National League. (File photos)

Unless you have spent the last two months holed up in Charlie Sheen's hotel room, you've probably heard that the Phillies are supposed to have a pretty good rotation this season. To fans at the ballpark, that means the potential for a lot of victories. To sports writers filing on deadline, that means the potential for a lot of quick games.

But while the Phillies will enter spring training with the best on-paper rotation in the majors, they aren't the only National League team who has improved its starting pitching. In the process of preparing a series of preview stories that will run this week, I began to wonder how the rest of the league stacks up against the fearsome foursome of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. To provide something of an objective answer, I compiled projected rotations for each of the 16 National League teams. I then tallied stats over the previous three seasons for each team's top four projected pitchers. I limited it to four not out of disrespect for a guy like Joe Blanton, who I've written plenty about in this space since the Cliff Lee trade, but because in a lot of cases it is difficult to pinpoint who will enter the season as the No. 5 starter. Besides, in a playoff series, it is the top four guys who matter.

Here are the results broken down into five categories:

Top Four Projected Starters: 2008-10

1. Phillies 2,634.1
2. Dodgers 2,144.0
3. Brewers 2,013.1
4. Cubs 1,998.2
5. Marlins 1,952.2
6. Giants 1,949.0
7. Braves 1,862.0
8. Rockies 1,720.2
9. Reds 1,578.0
10. Pirates 1,527.2
11. Nationals 1,518.0
12. Astros 1,516.2
13. Cardinals 1,455.0
14. Mets 1,351.2
15. D-Backs 1,296.2
16. Padres 1,251.2

1. Cardinals 2.96
2. Phillies 3.11
3. Giants 3.31
4. Braves 3.47
5. Dodgers 3.51
6. Brewers 3.58
7. Astros 3.71
8. Marlins 3.87
9. Rockies 3.95
10. Cubs 4.00
11. Reds 4.04
12. Padres 4.05
13. Mets 4.11
14. Pirates 4.50
15. D-Backs 4.57
16. Nationals 4.70

1. Giants 8.8
2. Marlins 8.4
3. Dodgers 8.0
4. Brewers 8.0
5. Astros 7.8
6. Phillies 7.7
7. Rockies 7.4
8. Padres 7.3
9. Cubs 7.2
10. Reds 7.1
11. Cardinals 7.0
12. Braves 6.4
13. D-Backs 6.3
14. Pirates 6.2
15. Mets 5.8
16. Nationals 5.4

1. Phillies 1.7
2. Cardinals 2.5
3. Marlins 2.6
4. Braves 2.8
5. Brewers 2.9
6. Dodgers 3.0
7. Padres 3.0
8. Reds 3.2
9. Cubs 3.2
10. Astros 3.3
11. Pirates 3.3
12. Nationals 3.3
13. Mets 3.3
14. Giants 3.4
15. D-Backs 3.4
16. Rockies 3.7

1. Cardinals 0.7
2. Braves 0.7
3. Rockies 0.7
4. Giants 0.8
5. Dodgers 0.8
6. Mets 0.8
7. Phillies 0.8
8. Brewers 0.9
9. Cubs 0.9
10. Pirates 0.9
11. Marlins 1.0
12. Nationals 1.0
13. Astros 1.0
14. Padres 1.1
15. Reds 1.1
16. D-Backs 1.3

So who comes the closest to the Phillies in terms of enviable starting pitching?

1) Giants: RHP Tim Lincecum, RHP Matt Cain, LHP Jonathan Sanchez, LHP Madison Bumgarner, RHP Barry Zito

Upside: Cliff Lee labeled the Giants the team to beat in the National League the other day, and one look at their rotation tells you why. Lincecum's ERA jumped by nearly a full run last year, but he still finished with a 3.43 ERA, 9.8 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in 212.1 innings, while Cain and Sanchez both had career years. Zito figures to be one of the top No. 5 starters in the league.

Downside: Bumgarner is just 21 years old and needs to show he can have success over an entire season, Sanchez has huge raw talent but is a roll of the dice in terms of his command on any given day. All four young starters are coming off their first shortened offseason thanks to the World Series run.

2) Cardinals: RHP Chris Carpenter, RHP Adam Wainwright, LHP Jaime Garcia, RHP Jake Westbrook, RHP Kyle Lohse

Upside: Their top four starters have combined for a 2.96 ERA over the last three seasons, thanks in large part to the dominance of Carpenter and Wainwright, perhaps the closest any team comes to Halladay/Lee at the top. Garcia was a phenom in his rookie season. If Lohse can regain the form he had in 2008 -- 3.78 ERA in 33 starts -- and Westbrook can extend the success he had after the Cardinals acquired him in 2010 -- 3.48 ERA in 12 starts -- the Cardinals will be solid 1 through 5.

Downside: Lohse is a big IF, and Westbrook is more of an innings-eater. Depth is a question mark. Behind Lohse are 40-year-old veteran Miguel Batista and former Pirate Ian Snell, both in camp on minor league deals.

3) Dodgers: LHP Clayton Kershaw, RHP Chad Billingsley, LHP Ted Lilly, RHP Hiroki Kuroda, RHP Jon Garland

Upside: The Dodgers are one of the few teams who can rival, and perhaps even surpass, the Phillies in terms of pitching depth. Despite signing Garland, who thrived last season in San Diego, they brought back Vicente Padilla, who at 33 years old is coming off a season in which he posted a 4.07 ERA, 8.0 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 in 16 starts. Padilla will pitch out of the bullpen, while 25-year-olds John Ely (5.49 ERA, 6.8 K/9, 3.6 BB/9 in 18 starts) and former Phillies minor leaguer Carlos Monasterios (4.38 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 in 32 games, 13 starts) will provide further organizational depth. Kershaw, Kuroda and Billingsley each started at least 31 games and logged 190+ innings with ERAs under 3.60 in 2010, while Lilly went 7-4 with a 3.52 ERA, 9.0 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 down the stretch.

Downside: You can argue that the Dodgers lack an elite No. 2 -- or No. 1A -- like Lee, Wainwright or even Matt Cain. But with a bullpen that features Hong-Chih Kuo and Jonathan Broxton on the back end, L.A. could win a lot of games with pitching this season.

4) Braves: RHP Tim Hudson, RHP Tommy Hanson, RHP Derek Lowe, RHP Jair Jurrjens, LHP Mike Minor

Upside: Hudson and Hanson are a dynamic 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, and if Jurrjens can reclaim the form he displayed in 2009 (2.60 ERA in 34 starts) they could have the best Top Three behind Philly, San Fran and St. Louis.

Downside: Although the Braves have a lot of contenders for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, Minor and righty Brandon Beachy are unproven, while veterans Kenshin Kawakami and Rodrigo Lopez haven't been too impressive recently. After making 65 starts in 2008 and 2009, Jurrjens suffered through an injury-plagued 2010, missing time early in the season with a strained hamstring and late in the season with a meniscus tear that required surgery but is not expected to hamper is preparation for 2011. Jurrjens posted a 4.64 ERA in 20 starts.

5) Brewers: RHP Zack Greinke, RHP Yovani Gallardo, RHP Shaun Marcum, LHP Randy Wolf, LHP Chris Narveson

Upside: Milwaukee landed a bona fide ace in Greinke, a pitcher who can go toe-to-toe with any of the top pitchers in the NL, Phillies included. Gallardo has started 61 games over the last two seasons but has yet to break the 200 inning barrier, logging 185.2 in 2009 and 185 in 2010. Last year he went 14-7 with a 3.84 ERA, 9.7 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9. Marcum's health may be the key in how talented this Brewers rotation is: His elbow has sent him to the disabled list in each of the last three seasons. He missed all of 2009 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and last July missed time with elbow inflammation. Nevertheless, he started 31 games for the Blue Jays last year, posting a 3.64 ERA, 7.6 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 in 195.1 innings...Wolf rebounded from a rough start to post a 3.56 ERA in his last 18 starts, and that included an outing against Pittsburgh in which he allowed 12 earned runs in 5.2 innings. Narveson spent most of last season in the rotation, posting a 4.99 ERA, 7.4 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in 167.2 innings over 37 games, 28 starts. Providing depth is 28-year-old lefty Manny Parra who has a 5.13 ERA over four seasons, including 74 starts. Former first-round pick Mark Rogers could also provide depth.

Downside:  Wolf needs to pitch like he did in the second half. Depth is a big question mark. An injury could really land Milwaukee in trouble.

6) Cubs: RHP Ryan Dempster, RHP Carlos Zambrano, RHP Matt Garza, RHP Carlos Silva, RHP Randy Wells

Upside: If the combustible Zambrano and Garza both pitch to their potential, the Cubs could be as solid 1 through 3 as any team behind the Phillies.

Downside: There could be a big drop-off behind Garza. Is Carlos Silva back? His last two solid seasons -- in 2005 and 2007 with the Twins -- have been followed by stinkers. Last year, he went 10-6 with a 4.22 ERA, 6.4 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 for the Cubs, but made just one start in the last two months of the season thanks to a heart problem and elbow tendinitis. According to the Chicago Tribune, he'll compete for one of the last two spots in the rotation with Andrew Cashner, Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, Jeff Samardzija and James Russell. Wells ERA jumped from 3.05 to 4.26 between his rookie and sophomore seasons, but his rate stats remained the same (6.7 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9 in 2010). Coleman made eight starts, Samardzija struggled again, making three spot starts and four relief appearances. The 24-year-old Cashner spent all last season as a reliever (4.80 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 5.0 BB/9).

Dark Horses

1) Marlins: RHP Josh Johnson, RHP Anibal Sanchez, RHP Javier Vazquez, RHP Ricky Nolasco, RHP Chris Volstad

Upside: The Marlins? Really? The last time Vazquez was in the National League, he went 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA in 219.1 innings for the Braves in 2009, including several dominant starts against the Phillies. If he looks more like that pitcher and less like the one that posted a 5.32 ERA for the Yankees last season, the Marlins could have a formidable 1-2-3 punch with Cy Young candidate Johnson and fellow young righty Sanchez (3.55 ERA, 7.2 K/9, 3.2 BB/9 in 2010).

Downside: Johnson was shut down late last season due to back and shoulder soreness. Nolasco is coming off meniscus surgery but is expected to be ready for spring. The Marlins will have some depth in the minors with Alex Sanabia, lefty Sean West and prospects Elih Villanueva and Tom Koehler, both expected to pitch at Triple-A. The 22-year-old Sanabia was forced into action last season and posted a 3.73 ERA, 5.8 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 in 72.1 innings. Still, there's the potential for a big drop off after Sanchez.

2) Rockies: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, LHP Jorge De La Rosa, RHP Jhoulys Chacin, RHP Aaron Cook, RHP Jason Hammel

Upside: Jimenez's dominance speaks for itself. A lot depends on 23-year-old righty Jhoulys Chacin, who was dominant last season as a rookie, posting a 3.28 ERA, 9.0 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9 in 28 games, 21 of them starts.

Downside: Veteran sinker baller Cook's production has dipped in each of the last two seasons, including 2010, when he posted a 5.08 ERA in 127.2 innings over 23 starts...De La Rosa missed time last season with a torn tendon in his finger, posting a 4.22 ERA, 8.4 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9 in 20 starts.

3) Astros: RHP Brett Myers, LHP Wandy Rodriguez, LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Bud Norris, RHP Nelson Figueroa

Upside: Only 10 pitchers in the majors have bettered the 3.36 ERA and 538 innings that Wandy Rodriguez has posted over the last three seasons: Jon Lester, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and Roy Halladay...Myers is coming off a rebound season in which he went 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA, 7.2 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 over 223.2 innings in 33 starts. It was his best season as a pro, the type the Phillies hoped would come with regularity when they inserted him into their rotation as a 21-year-old back in 2002....Happ went 5-4 with a 3.75 ERA, 7.6 K/9 and 4.4 BB/9 over 72 innings in 13 starts after the Oswalt trade.

Downside: Inexperience and the uncertainty of Myers, who has yet to string two great seasons back-to-back. Figueroa has never made more than 13 starts in a season. Last year he went 5-3 with a 3.22 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9 and 1.2 HR/9 in 18 games, 10 starts, 67 innings for the Astros after making 13 appearances, one start for the Phillies...Providing depth will be 27-year-old Felipe Paulino (5.11 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 4.5 BB/9 in 19 games, 14 starts in 2010). 20-year-old prospect Jordan Lyles, ranked 91st by Baseball America prior to 2010 posted a 3.57 ERA, 7.8 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 at double and Triple A last season (six starts at Triple A - 5.40 ERA).

4) Reds: RHP Bronson Arroyo, RHP Johnny Cueto, RHP Edinson Volquez, LHP Travis Wood, RHP Homer Bailey

Upside and downside: The Reds rotation is chock full of potential and question marks. Can Volquez, who returned late last season from Tommy John surgery, recapture the magic he had as a 24-year-old in 2008, when he made 32 starts and went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA? Can Cueto shake off his late-season struggles (4.57 ERA in his final 11 starts) and continue the steady improvement he has shown over his first three big league seasons? Can Wood extend the success he had in his first 17 big league starts over an entire season? Can Bailey finally reach the level many expected when he was one of the top 10 prospects in the game before the 2007 and 2008 seasons? The Reds have some depth, with Mike Leake, the 2010 first-round draft pick who jumped straight to the majors and had some success before fading down the stretch (6.61 ERA, .332 BAA in his final 10 games, eight of them starts). Former Phils minor leaguer Matt Maloney made a couple of spot starts last season and will provide some depth.