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4/27/2007 10:02:00 AM

The Wild Card: Which Kids are Alright?

Homer Bailey
Coming soon to a ballpark near you: Homer Bailey.
J. Meric/WireImage.com
By Cliff Corcoran

You don’t have to look any further than the money lavished this past offseason on Barry Zito ($126 million), Daisuke Matsuzaka ($103.1 million), Gil Meche ($55 million), Ted Lilly ($40 million), Adam Eaton ($24.5 million), and Jason Marquis ($21 million) to see that starting pitching is the most valuable commodity baseball.

That’s why last year’s crop of young hurlers was so exciting. Rookie Justin Verlander helped lead the Tigers to the World Series and won the American League Rookie of the Year award; Jered Weaver and Francisco Liriano dominated; the Giants’ 21-year-old phenom Matt Cain spent his first full season in the majors; and Cole Hamels invented socks. Then there was Cleveland’s Jeremy Sowers and the Marlins’ trio of 22-year-old starters led by no-hit artist Anibal Sanchez. What the game needed most, it was finally getting: an influx of talented, young, starting pitchers.

This year, Mike Pelfrey and Jason Hirsh, both of whom made their major league debuts in 2006, and the White Sox’s John Danks, who made his debut this season, broke camp as members of the Mets’, Rockies’, and White Sox’s rotations respectively, but the biggest debut of them all happened Thursday night in the Bronx. Twenty-year-old Phil Hughes, rated by both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America as the top pitching prospect in the minor leagues coming into the 2007, struck out five Blue Jays in 4 1/3 innings in an expectedly rocky but overall impressive debut for a 20-year-old with just three starts above double-A on his resume.

Hughes will likely return to the minors for more seasoning before establishing himself as a permanent part of the Yankee rotation later in the year, but his arrival, as well as the approaching end of April, begs a look at what this year’s crop of young starting pitching talent might yield:

Tim Lincecum, Giants
Drafted out of the University of Washington last June, the 22-year-old Lincecum is known as "Seabiscuit" because of his small stature (5’10" 155 lbs.). Next to Hughes, he is the pitching prospect most likely to make a major impact this season. Lincecum dominated the high-A California League in six starts late last year (48 strikeouts and 25 base runners in 27 2/3 innings) and jumped straight to the triple-A Pacific Coast League this year. In four starts in the hitting-happy PCL, Lincecum has struck out 32 in 25 innings while allowing just 20 base runners and just one run. In San Francisco, fifth starter Russ Ortiz has faired better than expected, but it would seem to be just a matter of time before the bottom drops out. In the meantime, there are some whispers that Lincecum could be called up to help out in the Giants’ bullpen.

Homer Bailey, Reds
Bailey, like Hughes, is a big, hard-throwing, soon-to-be 21-year-old righty who was drafted out of high school in 2004. Also like Hughes, Bailey split 2006 between the high-A Florida State League and Double-A. Unlike Hughes, his organization’s major-league rotation is flourishing, though, like Russ Ortiz, one doesn’t imagine that Kyle Lohse, Eric Milton, and converted reliever Matt Belisle will all be able to maintain their solid early-season performances. Bailey, meanwhile, has had a solid start to his triple-A career with Louisville (1.69 ERA, 0.98 WHIP), but his strikeout rate, which had been consistently more than ten-per-nine innings over the last three levels, has thus far dropped by nearly half.

Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Gallardo is another 2004 high school draft pick who answers to the same description as Hughes and Bailey. Despite being a few ticks down on most prospect boards, Gallardo has suffered no strikeout deflation over his first four starts in the PCL. After allowing four earned runs in his PCL debut (but still striking out seven in five innings), Gallardo has dominated in his past three outings, allowing just seven hits in 18 innings and striking out 26. He could be the first of the pitchers on this list to make a permanent move into his organization’s major-league rotation, as Ben Sheets’ fragility could create a large enough opening for Gallardo to come up and establish himself.

Matt Garza, Twins
Drafted out of Cal State Fresno in 2005, Garza made nine starts for the Twins last year but the results were poor and, despite a strong spring showing, he landed back in Triple-A Rochester this spring. That doesn’t sound so unfair when talking about a 23-year-old in his third professional season, but the fifth starter the Twins took north instead was Sidney Ponson, the washout who was released by three teams in a 12-month span from September 2005 through August ’06. It should come as no surprise to anyone, least of all the Twins, that Ponson has posted a 8.44 ERA and a 2.06 WHIP over his first four starts. Unfortunately, Garza’s return to Triple-A hasn’t gone as well as his original five starts there last year, and he missed his last turn with neck problems. That might temporarily turn attention to the Red Wings’ finesse righty Kevin Slowey, also a 23-year-old 2005 college draftee, who has dominated in his first three Triple-A starts, local lefty Glen Perkins (who currently resides in the Minnesota bullpen), or 2006 disappointment Scott Baker, who’s heating up with Rochester. Garza, however, remains the name to watch in this organization.

Adam Miller, Indians
This 22-year-old high school product was slowed by elbow concerns in 2005, but got back up to speed at Double-A Akron last year to reestablish himself as one of the top pitching prospects in the game. His early returns from Triple-A Buffalo have been mixed, but the Indians’ rotation has struggled in the early going, and the return of Cliff Lee from the DL may not be enough. Don’t be surprised if Miller rides a hot streak to Cleveland sometime around midseason.

Luke Hochevar, Royals
Hochevar was twice drafted by the Dodgers. Selected out of high school in 2002, he didn’t sign. Selected again out of the University of Tennessee in 2005, he drew out negotiations, twice switched agents, once reneging on a deal in the process, and ultimately failed to sign again. He spent 2006 pitching in the independent American Association until the Royals made him the first overall pick in last year’s draft and signed him to a four-year major league deal worth $5.3 million. Having made just four starts in A-ball last year, he’s essentially beginning his professional career at Double-A Wichita this year and seems to have found his groove in just his third start at that level. In his third and fourth starts of the young season combined, Hochevar has struck out 18 in 14 2/3 innings while walking none and allowing three runs on eight hits. He’s actually a month older than Zack Greinke, and there’s no one blocking his path to the Royals’ rotation.

Jeff Niemann, Devil Rays
Drafted out of Rice in 2004, Niemann didn’t make his pro debut until 2005, quickly shooting up to Double-A, but also having his season cut short by shoulder surgery. After returning in the second half last year, the 6’9", 280-pound 24-year-old is off to a solid, but not overwhelming start with Triple-A Durham. Provided he stays healthy, there’s no reason not to expect him to find a place in the dismal Devil Rays’ rotation later this year.

Philip Humber, Mets
Niemann’s teammate at Rice, Humber was taken one pick earlier in the 2004 draft (third overall to Niemann’s fourth). Like Niemann, Humber didn’t make his pro debut until 2005 only to have that season cut short by Tommy John surgery. After getting back on the horse last year, Humber pitched his way from rookie ball to double-A and topped it off with two hitless innings for the big club in a late-September call-up. This year he’s at Triple-A New Orleans, where he’ll be ready to swap places with struggling fellow rookie Pelfrey. Not that Humber doesn’t have his own issues. Though he’s been strong overall, he gave up four runs in three innings in his second of four starts thus far. Curiously, he struck out six in that outing. In his other three "good" starts combined, he’s struck out just 11 in 18 innings, a rather pedestrian rate given his typical pace of one per inning.

Andrew Miller, Tigers
The sixth overall pick in last year’s draft out of the University of North Carolina, Miller’s contract required him to see some action in the major leagues last year, which he did, handing out ten walks in 10 1/3 relief innings for the Tigers after dominating just five relief innings for their high-A Florida State League team in Lakeland. This year, the 21-year-old lefty is back with the Lakeland Flying Tigers and has thus far alternated impressive and unimpressive starts. His most impressive statistic thus far is his 4.36 groundout-to-flyout ratio. That won’t get him back to the bigs this year on its own, but he’s still a name to watch, especially in this organization, which proved last year that it’s not afraid to skip levels with college pitchers.

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posted by SI.com | View comments |  

Comments:

Posted: April 27, 2007 4:22 PM   by Anonymous
There's a lot of hype about Astros lefty Troy Patton who's currently pitching in AA Corpus Christi. I believe he was taken out of high school the same year as Phil Hughes & Homer Bailey.

Do you think Patton has a change at being a future ace or is he more of a back end of the rotation guy? From what I've heard he's got a pretty nasty arsenal of pitches.
Posted: April 30, 2007 1:19 AM   by Anonymous
Saw Lincecum in spring training in Scottsdale. Second coming of Roy Oswalt. Dude is straight NASTY.
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