2012 NL Cy Young: Cole Hamels and 10 Dark-Horse Candidates
Spring training is the time of year when every team thinks they can win the World Series, every player thinks he can be the MVP and every pitcher thinks he can win the Cy Young.
In reality, though, not every team is good enough to win the World Series and not every player can win MVP or the Cy, so some favourites start to emerge. The Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies are all spoken of as championship contenders, while Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw are in the conversation for Cy Young favourite.
However, there are always dark horses in the race. You might not think they have much chance—indeed you might not think they have any chance at all—but how many people thought Justin Verlander could be AL MVP in 2011?
Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
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It's easy to overlook Cole Hamels as a pitcher, given that he is the third man in a rotation headlined by Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Hamels really came to prominence during the Phils' championship run in 2008, when he won both the NLCS MVP and World Series MVP Awards.
His regular-season form has been excellent too, though. He has posted an ERA below 3.10 in three of the last four years. He has finished in the top six in voting twice but is still overshadowed by his Cooperstown-calibre teammates.
Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
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There are not many players as hyped as Stephen Strasburg. There are even fewer who actually have a good chance of living up to people's lofty expectations. He's a rare talent.
After being selected as the No. 1 overall pick a few years ago by the Nationals, Strasburg raced to the majors and instantly impressed. He was slowed down by having to undergo Tommy John surgery, but that has tempered neither the hype nor his potential.
Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
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Matt Cain has emerged as a great starting pitcher.
The 27-year-old has been both durable and consistent, pitching at least 200 innings in each of the last five seasons. In the last three years, he has made 99 starts and has a sub-3.00 ERA.
Cain has twice received Cy Young votes, finishing 12th in 2010 and eighth in 2011.
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
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Adam Wainwright has not started a major league game since September 2010, having missed the entire 2011 season with Tommy John surgery. Had he pitched, the Cards would probably have won the World Series in a less dramatic fashion, and he wouldn't be considered a dark horse in 2012.
It's difficult to predict how strong he will be coming off the injury, though, so one cannot really list him as a "favourite," even though the talent is there. Wainwright finished third in 2009 and second in 2010, with 39 total wins between the two seasons and 425 strikeouts.
If he is healthy—and he has certainly looked it this spring—he has a great shot at going one better than he did two years ago.
Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals
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With Strasburg's return and the acquisition of Gio Gonzalez, the Washington Nationals suddenly became a legitimate pitching force in the ultra-competitive NL East.
Gonzalez had a great 2011, when he was with the Oakland Athletics. He made his first All-Star team, won 16 games, had an ERA of 3.12 and struck out 197 batters in 202 innings.
Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals
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There is a lot to like about Jordan Zimmermann's game. In his first full season as a starter, he posted a 3.16 FIP and 1.15 WHIP. His losing record was more a testament to his team's poor offense than to his pitching.
The biggest thing going against Zimmermann is his lack of strikeouts. It's hard to see a pitcher with a K/9 below seven seriously contending for the Cy Young unless he's totally dominant. However, his K/BB ratio was 4.00 last year, which placed him 11th across all of baseball.
His control is great and his fastball is good enough to project that his strikeout numbers will improve.
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds
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Johnny Cueto would have been in the running for the Cy Young Award last year had he not been limited by injuries. He did not start his first game until mid-May but after he did, he was brilliant.
He pitched to a 9-5 record, with a 2.31 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. The Reds are poised for a strong run at the NL Central title in 2012 and Cueto figures to be a big part of that.
Mark Buehrle, Miami Marlins
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The Miami Marlins are almost unrecognisable from the team that took the field in 2011. A new stadium, new name, new uniforms, new coaching staff and a whole raft of new players have given the Marlins a new look and new hope.
One of these players is starting pitcher Mark Buehrle. In his 12 years in the major leagues, all of which were with the Chicago White Sox, Buehrle has been remarkably consistent. He has 11 straight seasons of pitching 200 innings and has twice led the leagues in IP and games started.
The closest he has ever come to winning the Cy Young was a fifth-place finish in 2005. A move to the offensively-weaker National League should help him, though.
Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves
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Injuries shortened Tommy Hanson's 2011 season, limiting him to just 22 starts. He still pitched well, though, with an 11-7 record and 3.60 ERA.
In his career, he is 32-22 with a 3.28 ERA and a WHIP below 1.2 and strikes out almost a batter an inning.
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
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Madison Bumgarner has only had two full seasons in the majors but has already been mightily impressive. A .500 record last year hid how well he actually pitched. He threw over 200 innings, had an ERA of 3.21 and struck out 191.
He also had a brilliant 4.15 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
His young age and fears of regression keep him from being a front runner, but his talent has him right in the mix.