Posted: Tuesday February 7, 2006 12:03PM; Updated: Tuesday February 7, 2006 12:57PM
Rich Harden struck out 121 batters in 128 innings last season.
As eagerly anticipated paired collocations go, pitchers and catchers is right up there with strawberries and cream, rock and roll and Turks and Caicos. The fun begins next week, to the percussive beat of catchers' mitts popping across Arizona and Florida. For every team, it is music that is filled with dreams. Every camp includes the hope that there is one pitcher, if not more, ready to have that breakout season.
Eventually, more hearts are broken than personal records. But the occasional breakout pitcher can define a season, if not a championship. Just ask the Chicago White Sox. Who saw Jon Garland and Jose Contreras coming? Neither pitcher ever had won more than 13 games in a major league season, and yet they combined to go 33-17 for the Sox.
Of the hundreds of pitchers in big league camps last spring, Garland, 26, and Contreras, 34, were two of only seven pitchers who won 15 games for the first time in their careers -- those who made good on the hope of a breakout season. The others were the Marlins' duo of Dontrelle Willis, 23, and Josh Beckett, 25; the Indians' Cliff Lee, 27, and Jake Westbrook, 28; and the Brewers' Chris Capuano, 27.
Throw out Contreras for a minute, because his success pitching in Cuba before leaving for the United States cannot be ignored. The other six breakout pitchers were all between 23 and 28 and pitched for teams that finished .500 or better. With those parameters in mind, who will be the breakout pitchers of 2006? Here they are, my top 10 pitchers likely to win 15 games for the first time.
Remember, this definition of breakout is based on wins -- you know, that old-fashioned stat that doesn't take into account such matters as run support, defense and peripheral numbers. But this is an exercise in trying to find young pitchers who can influence a pennant race, not discovering the next John Patterson, a breakout pitcher of another kind (3.13 ERA, but nine wins for the last-place Nationals in '05). So don't expect to find any Marlins here. (Ages are as of Opening Day.)
1. Rich Harden, 24, Athletics A non-throwing injury to a young pitcher can turn out to be a blessing, saving some wear and tear. Harden tore the labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder last season and missed about 12 starts. He still won 10 games, limited hitters to a .201 average and exhibited a remarkable ability to maintain his premier power stuff deep into games.
2. Chien-Ming Wang, 26, Yankees The cool right-hander is a strike- and groundball-throwing machine, getting through his average inning as an AL rookie with only 13.7 pitches. Pitching for a team loaded with offense, Wang is a near lock to win 15 games -- but only if he stays healthy, which is still a concern among the New York executives.