All general managers need 5 starting pitchers and although the better ones come first, each starter has the same potential to influence their team. Since 3 of the names mentioned above call the NL Central home let's focus on the middle division of the senior circuit. As a refresher, the teams, for now, include the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, the 2012 NL Central winning Milwaukee Brewers, the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Houston Astros.
The above chart shows a few important statistics and other information concerning these players' 2011 seasons. In looking for patterns we can rule out experience because although all are veterans, some much more than others. Their ages all seem similar with Jake Westbrook the outlier at age 34. Other than age, these pitchers all display an interesting characteristic of 5th starters (at least in the NL central). That is that none of these players would be considered strikeout pitchers. In fact, 2 out of 5 are ground ball pitchers, namely Westrbook and Maholm. Eric Bedard's 8.7 K/9 shows a pitcher who still gets a good mix of swings-and-misses as well as called strikes. Interestingly, but not necessarily connected, Bedard also garnered the highest WAR last season.
So, it seems as though in this division the Cubs, who are rebuilding, and the Pirates, who look to improve upon 2011 but most likely won't win the division in 2012, have the best 5th starters. Either the Cardinals or Reds will win the 2012 NL Central, and neither of their 5th starters could muster more than 1.5 WAR last season. In addition, both Jake Westbrook and Mike Leake have FIP numbers over 4, which is above the league average. FIP, or fielding independent pitching, is a good indicator of future performance but not for evaluating a single season. One explanation for this disparity could be that both the Reds and Cardinals rely more heavily on their top-tier starters and care less about the back end of the rotation. Another explanation could be that these teams rely more on their offenses, thus they place less importance on pitching due to their offenses' ability to neutralize a mediocre pitcher. Both the Cardinals and Reds have dynamic offenses, something none of the other NL Central teams have, thus I would say this is the reason.
Finally, let's consider another idea. Who is the best 5th starter in Major League Baseball? I like using WAR because it is a statistic that denotes value. According to WAR statistics, Rangers RHP Alexei Ogando is the best 5th starter in MLB. His 3.6 WAR in 2011 is equivalent to Jaime Garcia, Gavin Floyd, and Derek Holland. Even Phillies rookie Vance Worley(2.5) captured a higher WAR than Maholm. The problem lies that both Ogando and Worley could be considered 4th or 5th starters on their respective teams, but in fairness because I have been using MLB.com's depth charts as references I must stay consistent.
Often times fifth starters are young pitchers getting their first chance in the big leagues, and others are fading old timers, once good, but now banished to the great hall of the pedestrian. In the end I think there should be a quest, especially amongst contending teams, to find the best fifth starter. All 5 guys in every rotation start almost the same number of games, and each game means just as much as the next. Thus, why not try to get the best man for each slot. Paul Maholm may have signed with the Cubs, and kudos to GM Jed Hoyer for stealing him from the many contenders who should have signed him. As usual, Hoyer and the rest of the Theo Epstein bunch remain ahead of the curve, but the main message is that each player on a team matters, so choose wisely and always attempt to make the right choice.