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Seven to watch

White Sox's McCarthy tops list of breakout players

Posted: Tuesday March 29, 2005 11:42AM; Updated: Wednesday March 30, 2005 2:55PM
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Brandon McCarthy
Brandon McCarthy has struck out 14 batters and walked three in 19 innings this spring.

Not since Albert Pujols walked into the Cardinals' camp has a young player unexpectedly created the kind of Spring Training buzz that right-handed pitcher Brandon McCarthy has for the Chicago White Sox. McCarthy, 21, may not make the Sox's Opening Day roster, but he'll be with the big club sooner rather than later after what he's done in Arizona.

"He's the next Jack McDowell," said one Sox source recently. "No, wait. He's even better. He's what Bret Saberhagen was at that age. He's another Saberhagen."

Saberhagen took the Royals to the World Series at 21. McCarthy, like McDowell and Saberhagen, is rail-thin (6-foot-7, 180 pounds) but with power stuff that belies his physique. He allowed one run in his first 15 1/3 innings before Texas hung seven runs on him in less than four innings in his most recent start.

"He can pitch," Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said. "He'll throw 3-2 changeups. He knows what he's doing.

"I know if something happens [to one of the starting pitchers], I'll grab him. I know he can handle it. He doesn't get nervous at all. I don't care where he was last year, Rookie, Single-A, whatever. I might have brought him up last year if I knew about him then. Last year we tried about 20 different fifth starters. Nothing worked. This year, I know he's sitting there for me."

McCarthy led the minor leagues with 202 strikeouts last year, though he made only four appearances above A ball. The Sox rotation is set -- for now -- with Freddy Garcia, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras. But teams rarely get through May without needing a replacement starter. And McCarthy appears too good to hold back.

Spring Training is a notoriously dangerous time to make evaluations on players because of a variety of factors, including the dry air and altitude of Arizona, the head start some players get from playing winter ball, the lack of pressure situations and the penchant of veterans to use spring games simply to get into baseball shape rather than concern themselves with results.

But Spring Training is all we have to go by right now. So as the start of the real fun looms, and with the proper amount of skepticism that always is applicable to Cactus and Grapefruit League results, here are a half dozen more players who, based on how they've looked in March, join McCarthy among the seven potential breakout players of 2005:

2. A.J. Burnett, RHP, Marlins

He is the Mark Prior of the NL East. If healthy and effective all year, Burnett has the stuff to carry the Marlins into the playoffs. If not, Florida could be just another team. The signs are good for the Fish. Forget his 4.85 spring ERA. He's been healthy and touched 97 on the radar gun his last time out. Last year after coming back from Tommy John surgery, he had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career and held opponents to a .296 OBP, also the best of his career. And pitchers typically are better the second season after the surgery.