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01/27/10 1:00 AM EST

Teams building with top-flight arms trios

Stockpiling aces is proving successful postseason formula

Though every starting rotation in this era includes five pitchers, perhaps the most important number for teams who have visions of playing deep into October is three.

When the Red Sox made their big splash for John Lackey in December -- investing some five years and $82.5 million -- they weren't just getting an upper-echelon starter. They were also forming what could emerge into the best big three in the Majors in 2010.

Consider that Lackey, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have all won the clinching game of a World Series, and they've all been counted on multiple times to pitch the opening game of a postseason series.

So while the massive audience that makes up Red Sox Nation pleaded for another big bat this offseason, it says something that general manager Theo Epstein's big move was for a top-flight arm.

"I think it's going to make us all a lot smarter," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "Every time Theo asked me a question during the Winter Meetings, I would always say 'a pitcher.' And now we have a chance to run out a really solid pitcher every day. It's very exciting. And again, it's on paper right now, but it'll be our responsibility to go down to Spring Training and make it all work. But it's very exciting."

For three out of every five games, the Red Sox will trot out a pitcher who creates that belief from his teammates that they will find a way to win that night.

Over the course of a 162-game season, and perhaps even more in the month of October, that type of mentality that permeates a team -- and also demoralizes the opposition -- can be invaluable.

And that's why teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, Cardinals, D-backs and Giants, to name a few, feel so good about their chances in 2010. They have formidable trios at the top of their rotations.

A side benefit of teams that have three front-line starters is that a friendly competition typically develops from within.

Beckett, Lester and Lackey share a common thread with many of the other top starters in the game -- their competitive fire is part of what sets them apart.

"I would've worked hard regardless of who's here," said Lackey. "But when you have other good starting pitchers in your rotation, there can be a friendly, competitive thing going on in a rotation that can do nothing but improve you and make you better."

The other top trios

For proof of how invaluable a strong front three can be, look no further than the most recent World Series champions.

How good a trio were CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte last fall? Yankees manager Joe Girardi got through the entire postseason starting nobody else. Of course, Sabathia's ability to pitch on three days' rest played a big role in that, but it was still a reminder of how three strong front men can cover up lack of depth lower in the rotation.

With that three back in two for another season, and Javier Vazquez added to the mix, the Yankees will vie with the Red Sox to have the best starting pitching in the American League East, and perhaps all of baseball.

Sabathia is a horse worthy of any plaudit he is given. Pettitte has more postseason wins than anyone else. Burnett, even if he remains an enigma at times, has electric stuff and is capable of a dominant start on any given night.

The team the Yankees beat in the World Series -- the Philadelphia Phillies -- subtracted their standout performer from October. But if you are going to trade Cliff Lee, you might as well do so in exchange for Roy Halladay, who has the durability and talent to carry a team through a postseason like Sabathia did last year. And if Cole Hamels can regain his 2008 form, either Joe Blanton or the emerging J.A. Happ could give the Phillies that prime front three that any top contender needs.

In the category of most improved big three, the winner is probably the D-backs. The biggest key to that is simply the return of ace Brandon Webb, the 2006 NL Cy Young Award winner, from a shoulder injury that limited him to one start last year. They still have the ever-solid Dan Haren, who has quietly won 14 games or more in each of the last five seasons. Then, there is the key new acquisition in the form of Edwin Jackson, whom general manager Josh Byrnes pried loose from the Tigers in the three-way Curtis Granderson deal. Jackson, 26, has come into his own the last two years, winning an aggregate 27 games.

"Obviously the starting rotation has been a priority for us the last several years and we've invested quite a bit of our resources in it," said Byrnes.

But the D-backs don't have the only trio that could stick out in the National League West. Don't forget about the Giants, who have as good a tandem as any team in the game in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. The key, however, is Barry Zito. Though the lefty has struggled in large spurts since signing his big deal in San Francisco three years ago, he is coming off a strong second half when he posted a 2.83 ERA over his final 15 starts. Only once over that span did Zito allow more than three earned runs.

Though the biggest move the Cardinals made this offseason was retaining slugger Matt Holliday, they also landed a starting pitcher with pretty good upside in Brad Penny. Before his shoulder problems of 2008, Penny posted back-to-back 16-win seasons in Los Angeles. Last year, he was regaining his strength and his mechanics and struggled in Boston, but gave the Giants a lift down the stretch. And it's not like Penny -- who sits in the mid to upper 90s -- needs to be an ace in St. Louis. You want a pair of aces? The Cards have Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

"You saw those guys can pitch last year," Penny said. "I'm excited to be a part of it. I know they work hard. From everyone I've talked to, they told me they're dedicated. And you've got a great catcher [Yadier Molina] behind the plate. That's going to make it a lot of fun for me."

The Cubs are the one team in the NL Central that can compete with St. Louis from an upper-rotation standpoint. Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster is a three that can dominate. But they need to stay healthy. Zambrano and Lilly both spent time in the disabled list last season.

Of course, the Mariners have two studs at the top of their rotation in Felix Hernandez and Lee. If they are in contention, don't be surprised if general manager Jack Zduriencik goes out and gets another big-time starter, which would put Seattle in the category of elite rotation trios.

In just adding Lee, however, the Mariners have made themselves players.

"You're always looking for pitching. In this case, a left-hander, in this ballpark with our defense and what he's accomplished ... it was exciting to be able to acquire him," said Zduriencik.

Which rotation could surprise the most? Perhaps the Braves, who have two emerging young starters in Jair Jurrens and Tommy Hanson, not to mention a hero of postseasons past in Derek Lowe.

Rotation trios can have rings attached

Several of the World Series champions of the last decade have been lifted by the upper portion of the rotation. In 2008, Hamels took his game to another level, and the Phillies reaped the benefits. Jamie Moyer and Brett Myers also played key roles. The 2007 Red Sox had two accomplished big-game pitchers in Beckett and Curt Schilling, and Daisuke Matsuzaka won 15 games as a rookie.

In 2005, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was stacked in the first four spots, getting big efforts from Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras en route to the franchise's first title in 88 years. A year before, it was the Red Sox who ended more than eight decades without a championship and it also started with the starters, led by a pair of potential Hall of Famers in Schilling and Pedro Martinez, and rounded out by Derek Lowe, who won all three postseason clinchers.

The 2003 Marlins? They were very much about their arms during that World Series upset over the Yankees, getting big performances from Beckett, Penny and Carl Pavano. In 2001, Schilling and Randy Johnson were so dominant for the Diamondbacks that they all but willed that team to glory. And a solid third starter emerged during that year's postseason in Miguel Batista.

Of course, a big similarity the 2009 Yankees shared with the 2000 team that opened the decade with a championship was the horses up front. Back then, manager Joe Torre had Roger Clemens, Pettitte and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez.

This time of year, rotations can only be stacked up on paper and not reality. Does Epstein think this is the best rotation he's had during his tenure with the Red Sox?

"Unfortunately there's sometimes a disconnect between how things look on paper and how they play out in reality," Epstein said. "Those grand pronouncements are always better made in hindsight I think, or retrospectively. We'll wait on that. I will say that it's good to be operating from a position of strength in the rotation."

The other teams that share that trait will inevitably be the ones that vie with the Red Sox to be baseball's next World Series champion.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.