Where are the pitchers who will curb the proliferation of offense? Ball clubs involved in the arms race think the answers are coming from outside North America, which explains the fierce bidding wars the past two years for righthander Hideki Irabu of Japan, righthander Livan Hernandez of Cuba and other foreigners. And if teams are wrong—if the import business brings more Ariel Prietos than Hideo Nomos—baseball, already suffering from a lost generation of good young pitchers, will continue to look more like the All-Star Game's home-run-hitting contest on a daily basis.
"The quality of pitching coming into the game is so slim that once you get past the fifth or sixth round of the draft, there are almost no pitchers left," says White Sox general manager Ron Schueler.
"You don't see young pitchers come in as starters anymore and surprise you with how good they are," Cards closer Dennis Eckersley says.
Between 1983 and '86, six pitchers 26 or younger debuted who would win 19 or more games in one of those seasons: Orel Hershiser, Bret Saberhagen, Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens, Tom Browning and Ted Higuera. A decade later, just one pitcher who broke in between 1993 and '96 made that kind of impact, even prorating their stats for starts missed because of the strike in '94 and '95: Andy Pettitte of the Yankees. Pettitte was one of only nine 26-and-under pitchers last season who reached the pedestrian standards of 10 wins and 200 innings pitched. The others were the White Sox' Wilson Alvarez, the Padres' Joey Hamilton, the Brewers' Scott Karl, the Expos' Pedro Martinez, the Twins' Brad Radke and Frankie Rodriguez, the Cubs' Steve Trachsel and the Dodgers' Ismael Valdes.
Some of the hardest-throwing young pitchers now become relievers, such as the Dodgers' Darren Dreifort, the Padres' Trevor Hoffman, the Angels' Troy Percival, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera and the Braves' Mark Wohlers. But many of the young starters who were expected to make a major impact have failed so far because of injuries. That group includes two pitchers selected with the first pick of a draft, Brien Taylor of the Yankees (1991) and Paul Wilson of the Mets ('94). Others derailed by injuries were Jason Bere of the White Sox, Cal Eldred of the Brewers, Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher of the Mets, Steve Karsay of the Athletics, Carlos Perez of the Expos, Roger Salkeld of the Reds and Aaron Sele of the Red Sox. Another hurler, Todd Van Poppel of the Angels, has been a bust because of poor mechanics and an inflated reputation coming out of high school.
In recent years no team has produced more good young pitchers than Los Angeles. During an extra-inning spring training game last year, they used four pitchers younger than 24 who cracked 95 mph on the radar gun: Dreifort, Valdes, Chan Ho Park and Antonio Osuna. Of that group only Dreifort was born in the U.S. The Dodgers also signed and developed Pedro Astacio and Ramon Martinez, who are currently in the Dodgers rotation, plus Juan Guzman ( Toronto), Pedro Martinez ( Montreal) and John Wetteland ( Texas). All are 30 or younger.
"You're going to see more and more pitchers coming out of Mexico and Latin America," Dodgers scout Mike Brito says. "You don't see kids playing basketball like they do here. They play baseball all the time there." Of the 133 pitchers in the Dodgers organization at the start of spring training, 60 were born in 12 foreign countries. The Braves' minor league system includes 20 foreigners among 94 pitchers.
The next group of potential impact starters who have yet to pitch regularly in a rotation includes Karsay, 25, who has recovered from elbow surgery; Park, 23, who is taming his tendency toward wildness; and Carl Pavano, 21, a Red Sox prospect whom one scout calls "maybe the best pitcher in baseball on his way up." All these young guys have to do now is stay healthy enough to change one of the most hostile climates for pitchers the game has seen.