Young starters trying to make the long-term leap
Somewhere between the promise of a Johnny Cueto or Clay Buchholz and the $15 million guaranteed payout that Fausto Carmona just received as a 19-game winner, there exists a world of ambitious young starters trying to bridge the gap from hopeful to fulfilled.What does this pitcher look like? He's typically 25 or 26 years old, and chances are he tore up the minor leagues amid lots of acclaim. Maybe he got sidetracked by an injury after that, or changed teams, or lost some confidence while coming back to earth. Several pitchers who fit the profile have gotten off to impressive starts in 2008. The nine starters listed below entered this season with an aggregate 110-137 record and 4.95 ERA in the big leagues, but they've shown signs that something better is just around the corner. This week's edition of "Starting 9" is devoted to young starters looking to become this year's answer to Carmona or the Mets' John Maine. Who has the best chance to make the long-term leap? We rank them according to their chances.
Some people in the Toronto hierarchy think McGowan has a better arm than Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett. His fastball registers between 92 and 95, and he complements it with an above average slider and curveball and the occasional changeup. He has classic swing-and-miss caliber stuff. It's been a winding road for McGowan since the Jays picked him right after Adam Wainwright and Aaron Heilman in the 2000 draft. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2004 and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes that same year. McGowan has had to work hard to find a nutritional and workout routine that allows him to maintain his strength and stamina over the course of a seven-month season. But his time is coming. "I love this guy,'' said an AL personnel man. "He's a scout's dream. He's got a great body, a great arm action and a great delivery. He's what you're looking for right there.''
You could file the Royals bullpen under "well-rested" after Greinke and Brian Bannister became the first Kansas City pitchers to throw back-to-back complete games since the immortal Blake Stein and Mac Suzuki in 2000. The last time two Royals were 3-0 after their first three starts? It happened in 1984, courtesy of Larry Gura and Bud Black. This is precisely what the Royals hoped for when they gave the supremely athletic Greinke a $2.475 million draft bonus in 2002. But detours can take all sorts of forms. Greinke was diagnosed with depression and a social disorder, and took a hiatus from the game in 2006 before counseling and medication helped get his career back on track. Now that the "savior" tag is off and Greinke is free to just pitch again, it's clear what the fuss was all about. He toyed with the Tigers and Yankees in his first two outings, then deftly changed speeds while recording 15 ground ball outs in a win over Seattle on Monday. Greinke has only nine strikeouts in his first 24 innings, but the kid is resourceful enough to win in any number of ways.
The Angels needed someone to step forward when John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar began the season on the disabled list, and Saunders obliged. He looked solid in the Cactus League, and he's carried it over with strong outings against Minnesota, Cleveland and Seattle. Saunders, the only Virginia Tech product in the major leagues, is familiar with the whole dues-paying concept. He missed the entire 2003 season with a shoulder injury, did three tours with Triple-A Salt Lake and took a late pounding last season following a 6-0 start in Anaheim. Saunders' fastball isn't overwhelming, but he goes right at hitters and induces lots of ground balls. His changeup is also effective enough to give him a fighting chance against righties. "Some of the sabermetricians might not like him because he doesn't strike out a ton of hitters,'' said a scout. "But he's an aggressive, fearless pitcher, and he seems to really step up when the light is shining brightest. He's durable enough to carry a 200-inning workload, too. That's a No. 3 starter for me.''
Bannister doesn't have the raw stuff or the ceiling of some of the pitchers below him on this list, but he's off the charts in terms of smarts and pitchability. Outside of Greg Maddux, there might not be a pitcher in the game right now so consistently described as "cerebral.'' Bannister came into his own last year after Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore stole him from the Mets in a trade for reliever Ambiorix Burgos. He won 12 games despite a mediocre strikeout-to-walk ratio and nondescript gun readings. The stat folks love him regardless, now that it's come to light that he's so sabermetrically-inclined. Bannister studies tendencies and knows which hitters are inclined to hack at a first-pitch fastball, so he adjusts accordingly. He's conversant in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) and knows his way around the Baseball Prospectus Web site. Bill James and Joe Kerrigan would love him. "I'm starting to believe,'' said an American League assistant GM. "His stuff isn't overwhelming, but he's a great competitor and a very smart, command-type pitcher. Right now I think he's more mid-rotation than a frontline guy.'' So what does Bannister ultimately become -- the next Kevin Tapani? If he develops into a right-handed version of his father, Floyd (a 134-game winner in 15 big league seasons), that wouldn't be too shabby.
Jackson is Exhibit A that even the most hyped talents need patience and time to find their niche. In 2004, Baseball America ranked him among the top prospects in the game. This was shortly after the Dodgers rushed Jackson to the majors and he celebrated his 20th birthday and beat Randy Johnson on the same day. Jackson was born in West Germany, the son of an Army sergeant, and was a high school outfielder in Georgia when the Dodgers chose him in the sixth round of the 2001 draft. He sailed through the minors on the strength of an upper-90s fastball, but velocity has carried him only so far in the majors. "His fastball is kind of straight, and he doesn't have a great foundation right now,'' said an American League scout. "When things go wrong, he doesn't have a great idea how to get out of that inning or make that pitch. But he's starting to figure some things out.'' Jackson ranks high in the makeup department, and he maintained a professional comportment while going a dispiriting 5-15 last season. Things were so bad at one point that scouts removed the "win" from the end of his name and jokingly referred to him as "Ed'' Jackson. Jackson induces a lot of check swings, a sure sign that hitters don't recognize his slider until it's too late. But he won't take the next step until he's able to display better control night in and night out.
Two years ago the Rangers were counting on Thomas Diamond, Volquez and John Danks -- the young trio known as "DVD'' -- to end the franchise's run of nondescript pitching. It didn't quite work out that way. Diamond went down with a major elbow injury, and Danks left for Chicago in the Brandon McCarthy trade. Volquez looked overwhelmed in two early call-ups, and the Rangers sent him all the way back to Class A Bakersfield to work on his maturity issues and the subtleties of pitching. After Volquez did his penance in the minors, Texas traded him to Cincinnati for Josh Hamilton. Volquez has quickly warmed to life in Cincinnati, where he's developing a friendly competition with hot rookie Johnny Cueto and found a veteran mentor, Mario Soto, to help him with his signature pitch, the changeup. Volquez's long-term success will hinge on whether he's able to throw strikes and develop a consistent breaking ball to complement his fastball and terrific change. He's induced a lot of funky, awkward hacks with the pitch in the Grapefruit League and his first two starts. Still, it wouldn't be a complete surprise if he winds up in the bullpen down the road.
Eveland is only 25 years old, but he's already playing for his third professional organization. The Brewers drafted him in the 16th round six years ago, then traded him to Arizona, which sent him to Oakland in the Dan Haren deal last December. Last year was pretty much a washout for Eveland. He tore the tendon sheath in the middle finger of his throwing hand, spent three months on the disabled list, and pitched a total of 24 innings. To compensate for the loss of work, he spent the winter pitching in Mexicali, Mexico. Eveland runs his fastball to the plate at 93 mph and throws his curve and changeup in the low 80s, so he's not your stereotypical slop-balling lefty. He's had a problem keeping the weight off, but showed up at camp in better shape this spring. Even though he was outpitched by Chicago's John Danks on Tuesday, Eveland's early results have been encouraging.
Floyd's penchant for exhaustive self-analysis helped brand him as "soft'' in Philadelphia, and his shortcomings were made more stark by the rapid ascent of fellow uber-prospect Cole Hamels. Pitchers usually don't give thanks when they're traded from the National League to the American League, but the Phillies did Floyd a favor when they sent him to Chicago in the Freddy Garcia deal. Floyd's curveball has always been a show-stopper, and when he's on his game he has plenty of fastball and an adequate changeup. But the Phillies thought he was guilty of drifting back in his delivery and had become too deliberate and robotic on the mound. He never embraced the organization's efforts to change that. Until Floyd strings together two or three good months, the questions will persist -- that he's too nice a kid, too plagued by self doubt and too lacking in the requisite mean streak. But he sure didn't look tentative in throwing 7 1/3 no-hit innings against Detroit last weekend. His teammates all noticed. "It's still just two starts, but you see a difference in his demeanor on the mound, how he carries himself, the way he walks around in the clubhouse,'' catcher A.J. Pierzynski told the Chicago Sun-Times. "He feels he belongs here.''
Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell both logged 200 innings last season. Now the Pirates are hoping for a rebirth from Duke, a former chic prospect who went south in 2006. Duke broke onto the scene with an 8-2 record and a 1.82 ERA in 14 starts in 2005 before regressing badly. He hurt his elbow, and chafed as former pitching coach Jim Colborn tried to alter his delivery. The clash of wills led to confusion and a tentative approach, and Duke's velocity dipped and his command suffered as a result. "He has kind of a hitch at the top, there's some across-your-body stuff and landing issues -- a lot of things a pitching coach might want to clean up,'' said a scout. "Colborn might have made all the right moves. But if a pitcher has had some success, you take the risk of him going backwards before he goes forward, and he might lose it mentally.'' Duke has a better rapport with new Pirates pitching coach Jeff Andrews, who worked with him in the minors, and he's healthy this year. But he still tops out at 88 mph and has little margin for error. Duke's ERA looks good, but opposing hitters are batting .329 against him in 18 1/3 innings. That had better change in a hurry.
Bench guys• Mike Pelfrey, Mets: He's given New York an early lift in the absence of Pedro Martinez. • Shaun Marcum, Blue Jays: He's 2-0 and third in the American League in strikeouts. • Jonathan Sanchez, Giants: He has 21 strikeouts in his first 15 innings. • Micah Owings, Diamondbacks: Three wins and a 2.29 ERA to go with that .222 batting average. • Boof Bonser, Twins: Three straight quality starts for the Johan Santana-less Minnesota rotation. • Justin Germano, Padres: No earned runs allowed in his first 13 innings. Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
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