Ranking the Top 10 AL Cy Young Candidates as Spring Approaches

Josh CohenCorrespondent IIJanuary 11, 2013

Ranking the Top 10 AL Cy Young Candidates as Spring Approaches

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    Yet again, the American League is loaded with pitching talent, setting the table for another dramatic Cy Young race in 2013.

    According to Adam Berry of MLB.com, last year's AL Cy Young voting was the closest since 1969, with David Price edging out Justin Verlander 153-149. Price and Verlander each received 28 votes, with Price picking up one more first-place vote and Verlander nabbing one more third-place vote.

    Rare as it was for the Cy Young balloting to be that close, it's anyone's race this season. Last year's contenders are at the peak of their powers, but up-and-comers and new AL arrivals will make them work for the league's top pitching honor.

10. James Shields

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    James Shields is about to get some more recognition.

    The former Tampa Bay Ray is now a Kansas City Royal. Shields is the first legitimate ace the downtrodden franchise has had in ages, and if he can pitch the Royals to respectability, he's going to garner some awards buzz.

    Back in 2011, Shields came as close as he ever has to a Cy Young, leading the Rays with 16 wins, 225 strikeouts and a 2.82 ERA. He put up those stellar numbers by leaning on his heavy fastball and whiff-inducing curve, a combo that makes him as dangerous as any pitcher in baseball.

    If Shields gets back to his 2011 level of production, carrying Kansas City along with him, he's going to be one of the biggest stories of the 2013 season.

9. C.J. Wilson

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    When he's on his game, C.J. Wilson can prevent the best batters in baseball from hitting it out of the infield.

    Wilson makes his living forcing grounders, frustrating opposing batters with a barrage of sinkers and cutters. Unlike most ground-ball pitchers, however, Wilson knows how to make guys miss. He racked up 173 strikeouts last season, but his peak was in 2011, when he punched out 206 batters.

    The difference between 2011 and 2012 for Wilson was a matter of control. He recorded 91 walks in 2012, the fourth-most in baseball and enough to render his extra-base hit prevention moot.

    If Wilson can get back to keeping the basepaths clean in 2013, the Angels' monster lineup will give him all the runs he needs. With that support, Wilson is a good bet to put up one of those gaudy win-loss records that Cy Young voters drool over.

8. Jake Peavy

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    Jake Peavy was back in his old form again last season, but you wouldn't know it at first glance.

    It was enough of an accomplishment that Peavy, who has been harried by injuries in recent years, made it through the full season in 2012. An 11-12 record wasn't much to celebrate, but it was another step towards becoming the guy who won the NL Cy Young in 2007.

    On the other hand, Peavy's mediocre record was largely the product of poor run support. He received just 4.38 runs per game from his offense in 2012, offsetting his 194 strikeouts and 1.10 WHIP.

    When he's healthy enough to take the mound, few pitchers have better command than Peavy. He's superb at keeping runners off the basepaths, and if the offense cooperates, his numbers should look a lot more attractive to voters in 2013.

7. Chris Sale

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    In his third big-league season, his first as a starting pitcher, Chris Sale drew comparisons to Randy Johnson. This is not a joke.

    Measuring in at 6'6", Sale is not as imposing a figure on the mound as the Big Unit, but his slider is as nasty as they come. It's unquestionably his go-to pitch in big situations, using his low-arm angle to generate ridiculous movement.

    That slider allowed him to make a seamless transition from the bullpen to the rotation, compiling a 17-8 record with 192 Ks and a 3.05 ERA.

    The scariest thing about Sale is that he's still getting better, further developing a changeup he used sparingly as a reliever. If that becomes a legitimate weapon against righties, Sale could be unstoppable.

6. Felix Hernandez

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    Felix Hernandez is no longer the pitcher he was in 2010. Then again, no one is.

    That was when King Felix won the AL Cy Young with a 13-12 record on a last place Seattle Mariners team. His 2.27 ERA and 232 strikeouts don't do justice to how dominant Hernandez was, very clearly pitching better than anyone in baseball without any support from his team.

    Now the Mariners have Kendry Morales in the middle of their lineup, giving hope that Felix will get the slightest bit of run support. However, he has posted an ERA over 3.00 in each of the past two seasons, which certainly won't be enough to win the Cy Young on a non-playoff team.

    Hernandez doesn't have to match his 2010 season to be a Cy Young contender, but he does have to get closer to his old form.

5. Yu Darvish

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    Last season, major league batters adjusted to Yu Darvish. Then Darvish adjusted back.

    From May through August, Darvish never posted a monthly ERA lower than 4.15, allowing at least five earned runs in five starts during that stretch. Batters remained patient when Darvish struggled with his control, and he finished fourth in the majors with 89 walks.

    In his final seven starts of 2012, including the one-game playoff against the Baltimore Orioles, Darvish was a completely different pitcher. He allowed just 11 earned runs in those seven games, striking out 56 and walking nine.

    Though Darvish struggled for much of 2012, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball when he got it together. If he can carry that momentum into 2013, watch out for him.

4. R.A. Dickey

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    The reigning NL Cy Young winner will be in the AL hunt next season, and he still only places fourth.

    Knuckleballers are incredibly rare in the majors nowadays, but R.A. Dickey throws the pitch unlike anyone else. He can get it up into the low-80 and throw it as slow as the mid-60s, giving him a range of speeds at which he can throw his dancing, spin-less pitch.

    As a New York Met, Dickey went 20-6 with 230 strikeouts and a 2.73 ERA. Now with the Toronto Blue Jays, he's going to face a whole new set of hitters who haven't seen his unconventional arsenal.

    That said, there are three AL aces who are still better than NL's best in 2012.

3. Jered Weaver

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    Even though he suddenly lost interest in striking guys out, no pitcher in baseball allowed a lower on-base percentage last season than Jered Weaver.

    Back in 2010, Weaver led the majors in punch-outs with 233, but he regressed all the way to 142 in 2012. Though his strikeouts have dropped in the past two seasons, he has posted career-bests in wins, ERA and WHIP in that time frame.

    Rather than trying to do everything himself, Weaver has focused on putting his fielders in the best position to help him. The result for Weaver has been a less dominant style with greater command of his pitches.

    Like Wilson, Weaver is set to get a major boost from the Angels' offense. He's the ace for a legitimate juggernaut, and he's the likeliest candidate to lead the AL in wins in 2013.

2. David Price

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    You can't go wrong with any of the pitchers this high up on the list, and David Price has as good a chance to win his second consecutive Cy Young as anyone.

    Price has an incredible repertoire of pitches. He can work his fastball up to triple-digits and drop his changeup into the mid-80s. On top of that, he tortures lefties with his two-seamer and righties with his cutter, giving him an arsenal that can beat any batter.

    In 2012, Price had as strong a case for the Cy Young as he could have had, compiling a 20-5 record with 205 strikeouts and a 2.56 ERA. When he's on the mound, Price can simply do it all: blow the ball past batters, catch them looking and induce easy outs when the ball stays in play.

    He's as dominant as any pitcher in baseball, but after the 2012 voting, Price isn't the favorite heading into next season.

1. Justin Verlander

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    When in doubt, go with the most dominant pitcher in baseball.

    Justin Verlander is the guy who led the league with 239 in strikeouts in 2012, the third time in his career he has done so.

    He throws perhaps the heaviest fastball in baseball, with the unique ability to dial it down to 94 or up over 100, and he complements it with three-plus breaking pitches. He can use any of them as out pitches, giving him unmatched versatility on the mound.

    Last season, Verlander turned in a 17-8 record with a 2.64 ERA, falling just short in the Cy Young balloting after taking home the award in 2011. Politics could have been the difference in the result; Verlander had just won, so some voters might have been more inclined to pick Price.

    In 2013, Verlander no longer has to deal with that stigma. Rather, voters will see him as a guy who just got passed over in 2012.

    He's a superb talent in his own right, but with those voting quirks on his side, Verlander has to be considered the front-runner for the AL Cy Young.