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4/12/2007 12:27:00 PM

AL West: Santana's Main Competition

John Lackey
With a strong supporting cast around him, John Lackey will get plenty of wins this season.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
By Gennaro Filice

When it comes to the AL Cy Young Award, the conversation starts and ends with a certain southpaw from the Twin Cities -- and rightfully so. Since 2003, no hurler has been nearly as dominant as Twins ace Johan Santana.

As evidenced by the 2005 season, though, when Bartolo Colon won the AL Cy Young award, Johan's mere presence isn't always enough to sway voters. So if not Santana, then who?

Some will look to dominant-but-fragile Roy Halladay, or perhaps one of the league's overwhelming closers. And after his one-hit shutout of the Red Sox on Wednesday night, Felix Hernandez suddenly has a bandwagon all to his own. But I'm looking squarely at one darkhorse candidate who may be the most underappreciated pitcher in baseball: Los Angeles' John Lackey.

Lackey is coming off a solid season in which he posted a 3.56 ERA with 190 strikeouts and 23 quality starts (the second-highest total in the AL to Santana). Lackey also enjoyed a stretch of 30 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Lackey kicked a tradition of starting slow last season, and he's flourishing out the gates once again. Through his first two starts, Lackey is 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA.

Unseating Johan in the Cy Young hierarchy is about as easy as hitting one of his changeups, but here are three reasons why I believe that Lackey, who is just hitting his prime at age 28, could be the man to steal the Cy away from Santana in '07:

1. Durability: The imposing Texan gets the most out of his 6-foot-6, 245-pound frame. Since his first full season in the bigs in 2003, Lackey has averaged just over 207 innings pitched per season and has never missed a start due to injury. Lackey's on the hill every five days. Period.

2. 'Pen support: Leave the game with a lead, and a win is guaranteed. With a stellar bullpen that includes mainstays Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields and newcomer Justin Speier, Lackey won't lose many Ws after hitting the showers.

3. Sex appeal: Like any other award, the Cy Young is in large part a popularity contest. And Lackey definitely has the stuff to fire up the masses. Lackey's impetuous personality on the mound parallels his aggressive approach to pitching. Lackey gets right after hitters with an overpowering arsenal and he's compiled 389 Ks over the last two seasons. He's the unquestioned ace of what should be a bona fide pennant contender.

  • Speaking of sex appeal ... King Felix's one-hitter last night wasn't too hard to watch. The last pitch of the game said it all. Kevin Youkilis, a solid contact hitter, hopelessly flailed at another one of Hernandez's cartoon curveballs for strike three. For the night, Felix's mid-to-high 80s curveball and low 90s slider were simply unhittable. Both offspeed pitches rarely rose above the belt and violently broke at the last possible second.

    But the most impressive part about the start is that Felix dominated without consistently locating his fastball. Many pitchers will tell you that the best pitch in baseball is a well-placed fastball, and Felix just didn't have it for much of the night, especially early in the count, forcing him to work from behind. Though mindboggling velocity gives him leeway on location, if Felix can learn to place his heater, he'll battle Johan for the strikeout crown.

    One other thing I noticed was Hernandez constantly shaking off second-year catcher Kenji Johjima. Those two need to get on the same page for the phenom to max out his talent.

  • In his first season as Texas' full-time catcher, Gerald Laird hasn't jumped out the fastest start at the plate (.174 BA). But on Tuesday, he did something no other catcher has ever done: nail speedster Carl Crawford trying to steal twice in one game. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon refrained from praising Laird's arm, though, telling MLB.com, "That first base area was rather damp."

  • Through the season's first 10 games, the A's are scoring an AL-low 2.8 runs per game. As Athletics Nation notes, the A's exploded for three runs in the first inning of Wednesday's game, but were one-hit for the rest of the game.

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    posted by SI.com | View comments |  
  • Comments:

    Posted: April 12, 2007 12:53 PM   by Jim Little
    Colon winning the Cy Young in 2005 was a joke. Santana ranked 1st or 2nd in the AL for ERA, Ks, WHIP, IP and BAA. Colon was #3 in one category, #8 in another and out of the top 10 in the other 3. All he had on Santana was wins, more of a team stat than anthing else. The Twins that year had the 2nd least amount of runs scored in the AL...the Angels pounded the ball, providing more wins for a less dominant pitcher...
    Posted: April 12, 2007 1:57 PM   by Jim Little
    Sorry, I was wrong on my info.

    Santana ranked 1st in WHIP, Ks and BAA, and 2nd in ERA and IP.

    Colon ranked 3rd in WHIP, 8th in ERA, 13 in BAA, 7th in IP, and 8th in Ks...

    Still, you can see, Santana dominated...additionally, Santana had 1 more complete game and had 2 shutouts to Colon's zero...Santana had more QS and his BB/IP was better as well
    Posted: April 12, 2007 2:27 PM   by Anonymous
    Santana should win again, in his first two starts he is pitching like its the second half of the season. As we all know Santana usually heats up the 2nd half of the season, so to see him pitching the way he is this early might prove to be one of the best pitching years any of us have seen in 20 years.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 3:13 PM   by Anonymous
    I really hope we get a chance to see Felix and Johan square off. I know he was inconsistent last year but Hernandez is looking other-worldy and it's only April. That said, it's early and Santana is certainly the more established pitcher. If Lackey, Rich Harden, Hernandez, and Santana all stay healthy, this should a closer call than previous years.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 3:43 PM   by Anonymous
    As a very, VERY disappointed Red Sox fan, I can assure you all that King Felix definitely has the stuff to make a run at a Cy Young. And soon. At 21, he lacks experience and needs to locate better. But the fact that he can dominate like he has in his last two starts without those two assets means he's doing it almost purely with talent. Barring injury, imagine what he'll be doing in another two or three years... Damn.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 3:58 PM   by Anonymous
    Don't forget about Verlander, 2 games, 0.00 ERA, opponents batting average .116. No sophmore jinx so far.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 5:48 PM   by Anonymous
    i hate when people say santana should have won the cy young in 2005 just b/c he was 'pretty good' and he won in 04' and 06'. the best pitcher in the american league in 2005 was mariano rivera. period. he deserved the cy young more than santana, more than colon, more than anyone else in the al. and b/c santana is who he is, mo gets no respect in 2005. in case everyone forgets, mo came in 2nd in cy young voting, not santana. santana was 3rd. that should've been mo's cy young, not santanas, and definitely not bartolo colons.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 6:05 PM   by Anonymous
    This is going to be a great year to watch those four you mentioned. Felix lost weight and had everyone exicited in spring training, Rich Harden is awsome when he is healthy, Santana like always will be up there, and Lackey is good.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 6:28 PM   by Anonymous
    Somebody may beat Santana in the Cy Young voting but nobody will ever unseat Santana as the best pitcher in all of baseball. Look at 2005. Bartolo Colon won the award based on wins and popularity. He was popular only because he played in LA. And wins are based on your team as a whole. Santana led Colon in every other catagory but wins.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 7:32 PM   by Bigsocks
    As a Twins fan, I almost -almost, mind you- hope that Santana doesn't win the Cy again. If he does, it means that we're even less likely to be able to retain him once his contract is up.
    how can you call halladay fragile?
    it's obvious that this comment is made without any thought. The main reasons why halladays been out in the last two seasons were for fluke line drives that came back at him.... nothing to do with being fragile
    yeah poster I agree, Colon winning it was a joke. Mariano Rivera clearly deserved to win the Cy Young, and probably the MVP that year instead of Arod.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 11:28 PM   by Anonymous
    Look out for Verlander. He's on pace with Santana.
    Posted: April 12, 2007 11:37 PM   by Anonymous
    There's Santana & everybody else, usurping him will be a major task. Hernandez has the tools but needs to refine them, Lackey is great but he is not a guy that you can pencil in wins for. If Hernandez has a breakout 20 win year w/ 200innings+ & excess of 200Ks he will be the next great pitcher inline,,the torch passes every few yrs, Johnson, Rocket,Pedro,Johan, if he can stay heathy Hernandez has such a high ceiling at 21....As for Matzusaka, he will not be able to replicate Nomo-mania..Nomo's first year the guy was lights out ...Matzu is very good, but he wont dominate the league the way Johan does or how Hernandez can
    Posted: April 13, 2007 10:15 AM   by Jim Little
    Santana was more than 'pretty good' in '05...

    Like I already wrote...

    Santana ranked 1st in WHIP, Ks and BAA, and 2nd in ERA and IP.

    Can't get much more dominant than that...

    As far as Verlander goes, I like him, but Bonderman is the true ace of that staff and neither one of them are close to Santana.
    Posted: April 13, 2007 10:42 AM   by Jim Little
    as far as one poster's comments about Santana:

    'As a Twins fan, I almost -almost, mind you- hope that Santana doesn't win the Cy again. If he does, it means that we're even less likely to be able to retain him once his contract is up.'

    Pohland is the richest owner in baseball, who just got a mostly public funded stadium approved. If he doesn't pony up the money needed for Santana, then the Twins fans will have one person to look to and blame for that...Pohlad.

    Santana needs to have a good year, a CY type year, for the Twins to make the playoffs.
    Posted: April 13, 2007 12:17 PM   by Anonymous
    if the Cy young is about sex appeal, then you shouldn't count out dice-k. He is the most celebrated pitcher in baseball and he will get many votes if he wins 16-17 games with a low ERA, he will probably get the award.
    Posted: April 14, 2007 2:45 PM   by Anonymous
    Counting a winner for the award this early is very pre-mature...let's see what Dice-K has to offer...he's been impressive so far...
    I am also a lifelong Red Sox fan and I was equally impressed/disappointed with Hernandez' performance the other night vs. the Sox. Since we won't have to face him very often,I'm glad to see him finally living up to that vast potential.And while I agree completely that Santana is far and away the best pitcher in the AL (and all of baseball), I think we're going to see a great seasonlong Cy Young race between as many as 8-10 pitchers. At season's end, I'm sure we'll be down to only 2-3 bonafide candidates but with Santana,Lackey,King Felix,Dice-K,Harden,Verlander,Bonderman, Beckett,etc. I think it's going to be a crazy year for AL pitchers. And don't forget Papelbon. The way he's looked thus far,he's not going to allow a baserunner all year. He may not pitch 200 innings like the starters but so far he's been the most dominating pitcher in baseball. And don't let me forget Halladay,even though he's on the Jays, I gotta give props where due. He is one of the best there is. Dark horse-Sabathia.
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