Ranking the Top Cy Young Candidates on MLB Opening Day 2013

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2013

Ranking the Top Cy Young Candidates on MLB Opening Day 2013

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    Pitchers are like general managers, peanut vendors and clubhouse attendants.

    Every team has them, yet some are far more successful (and entertaining) than others.

    Yet only a handful are truly worthy of being mentioned as a candidate for his respective league's Cy Young Award, the highest individual honor that the game can bestow on an active pitcher.

    If you ran a ballclub and found your team's season hanging in the balance, these are the guys you want toeing the rubber, whether it's in the first inning or the ninth.

    Let's take a look at the Top 10 contenders for the award in the American and National Leagues, plus a pair of long-shot candidates who, while worthy of inclusion, would need multiple things to fall their way to have a chance in what are sure to be hotly contested races yet again.

AL Long Shot: Brett Anderson, Oakland A's

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Never received any votes

    Injuries, including Tommy John surgery that cost him much of the 2012 season, have kept Brett Anderson from reaching his potential.

    Now healthy, the 26-year-old southpaw leads a young Oakland rotation on its quest to defend the American League West crown, a feat that will be substantially easier if Anderson can stay on the field.

    It's possible that Oakland may look to limit his workload. Anderson has never eclipsed 180 innings in any season as a professional and threw only 60 innings in 2012, 25 in the minors and 35 down the stretch for the A's.

    He's not much of a strikeout pitcher, averaging fewer than seven per nine innings. But Anderson keeps the ball on the ground and has the pure stuff to be among the league leaders in ERA and WHIP.

AL Long Shot: Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Second (2005)

    Six times, most recently in 2011, Mariano Rivera has garnered support in the Cy Young voting, finishing in the top three four times and never lower than eighth.

    Over the past decade, Rivera has posted eight seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA—and chances are that had he been healthy last season, he would have made it nine, as he had a 2.16 ERA at the time of his devastating knee injury at the end of May.

    Really, the Cy Young Award is the only thing missing from his resume.

    While he might be the longest of long shots, can you think of a more fitting way for the icon to close out his legendary career?

AL No. 10: James Shields, Kansas City Royals

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Third (2011)

    Tasked with leading Kansas City's beleaguered starting rotation back from the edge of oblivion, "Big Game" James Shields was one of the biggest names in baseball to switch teams this past winter.

    As durable a starter as there is in the league, averaging 222 innings per season since 2007, Shields has only found himself in the Cy Young conversation once, in 2011. That season, Shields went 16-12 for the Tampa Bay Rays, pitching to a 2.82 ERA—more than a full run lower than his career mark of 3.89.

    While the 30-year-old has posted a combined 3.15 ERA over the past two years, it's more likely that he finishes 2013 with a number closer to his career mark—and that's likely to sour his chances with voters.

    That said, Shields has never pitched on a team with a lineup as potentially explosive as what he has with the Royals. A 20-win season is certainly not out of the question.

AL No. 9: R.A. Dickey, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Career Cy Young Awards: One (2012, New York Mets)

    The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey is coming off the most impressive season ever by a knuckleballer. He went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.05 WHIP for the New York Mets, leading the league in innings pitched (233.2) and strikeouts (230).

    Now part of a small group of pitchers who switched teams following their Cy Young season, Dickey is expected to be just as dominant with the Toronto Blue Jays. Yet coming off such a season doesn't guarantee the same level of success the following season.

    Just take a look at the most recent Cy Young winners to be traded before the following season, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez:

    Clemens '98 (Toronto) 20-6 2.65 1.90 234.2 271
    Clemens '99 (NY Yankees) 14-10 4.60 1.47 187.2 163
    Martinez '97 (Montreal) 17-8 1.90 0.93 241.1 305
    Martinez '98 (Boston) 19-7 2.89 1.09 233.2 251

    It should be noted, of course, that there has been rampant speculation about Clemens and PEDs, as well as the age difference between the two pitchers: Clemens was in his mid-30s at this point, while Pedro was in his mid-20s.

    Asking a 38-year-old Dickey to replicate his historic 2012 campaign might be asking too much.

    Then again, maybe not.

AL No. 8: Josh Johnson, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Fifth (2010)

    It's easy to forget just how good a pitcher Josh Johnson is when he's healthy and at the top of his game.

    From 2009 through the beginning of 2011, Johnson went 29-12 with a 2.64 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over 70 starts for the then-Florida Marlins, finishing in the top five of the 2010 NL Cy Young race after leading the league with a 2.30 ERA.

    Shoulder inflammation ended his 2011 season prematurely, leading to a disappointing 8-14 record and 3.81 ERA, with the second-lowest strikeout rate per nine innings of work (7.4) of his career.

    This spring with the Toronto Blue Jays, Johnson has looked every bit like the pitcher who dominated the National League only a few years ago. If he's back at the top of his game, Johnson has the ability to be as good as any starting pitcher in baseball—and that makes him a legitimate contender for the Cy Young Award.

AL No. 7: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Sixth (2012)

    Despite having not started a game since 2009 when he was still attending Florida Gulf Coast University, Chris Sale stepped into the rotation for the Chicago White Sox and proved that he belonged.

    Picking up 17 wins and a 3.05 ERA, and establishing himself as the ace of the the staff and one of the best pitchers in the game has a way of doing that.

    Only 24 and with a full season of starting in the big leagues under his belt, there's no telling just how good Sale can be in 2013. A 20-win season with more than 200 innings pitched is certainly within his grasp.


AL No. 6: CC Sabathia, NY Yankees

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    Career Cy Young Awards: One (2006, Cleveland)

    For all of the issues surrounding the New York Yankees heading into the season, one thing that's been overlooked is that the team's starting rotation is led by CC Sabathia.

    The larger-than-life ace failed to receive a single vote for the Cy Young Award last season, the first time that's happened since he donned a Yankees cap prior to the 2009 season.

    Dr. James Andrews cleaned up Sabathia's left elbow this past October, and there's always some concern about Sabathia breaking down due to his massive frame. Yet he's managed six consecutive 200-inning seasons, averaging 33 starts and four complete games a year.

    As long as his body holds up, Sabathia is always a threat in the Cy Young race.

AL No. 5: Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Ninth (2012)

    Yu Darvish made his presence known in his rookie campaign for the Texas Rangers, going 16-9 with 221 strikeouts in 191.1 innings pitched, finishing the season with a slightly higher-than-expected 3.90 ERA.

    But it's how Darvish finished that is most impressive.

    In his final eight starts, Darvish had a 2.35 ERA and 0.88 WHIP, striking out 67 batters over 57 innings and allowing only 35 hits.

    With a full year to acclimate himself to a new country, new teammates and a new language, there's little chance that the 26-year-old right-hander won't take the next step in his development in 2013, a step that could include the American League Cy Young Award.

AL No. 4: Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Second (2011)

    Yes, it's true, Jered Weaver's fastball velocity has dropped in each of the past two years: from 90.1 mph in 2010 to 89.2 in 2011 and a career-low 88 in 2012, according to FanGraphs. Along with reduced velocity came a reduction in his strikeout rate, with his 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings being the second-lowest of his career and worst since 2007.

    While those aren't encouraging signs, it certainly didn't make him any less successful of a pitcher, winning 20 games for the first time in his career and finishing third in the voting for the AL Cy Young Award.

    With one of baseball's most potent lineups supporting him and a solid defense behind him, betting against Weaver to be one of the game's best starting pitchers in 2013 would be a losing proposition.

AL No. 3: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

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    Career Cy Young Awards: One (2010)

    Felix Hernandez might be entering his ninth season in the major leagues, yet he's just about to celebrate his 27th birthday, meaning we have plenty of time to enjoy the "King" (move over LeBron) in the prime of his career.

    Few pitchers in baseball have the intimidation factor that Hernandez brings to the mound, with the opposition resigned to the fact that hits will be few and far between before the game even gets underway.

    In more than 35 percent of his career starts, Hernandez has received two or fewer runs of support from Seattle's anemic lineup. With the addition of players like Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse this past winter, Hernandez should see an increase over his career average of 12 wins a season, improving his chances at laying claim to the second Cy Young Award of his career.

AL No. 2: David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Career Cy Young Awards: One (2012)

    That the reigning 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner isn't the favorite to repeat in 2013 has little to do with David Price's ability to perform on the mound. By my count, there are only two pitchers that I'd prefer to have on the mound over Price: Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander.

    It's Tampa Bay's questionable offense, one that is sure to get a bump when top prospect Wil Myers finally makes his major league debut, that keeps me from putting Price, 27,  in the top spot heading into the 2013 season.

    Winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards is incredibly difficult, but Price certainly has the natural ability and shut-down pedigree to pull it off.

AL No. 1: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

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    Career Cy Young Awards: One (2011)

    For the second consecutive season, Detroit's Justin Verlander is the favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award. He nearly won his second straight award in 2012, losing to David Price by four points in one of the closest votes in history.

    With what is arguably baseball's most dangerous lineup supporting him and an improved defense behind him with the addition of right fielder Torii Hunter, coupled with Verlander's knack for going deep into games and growing stronger with each passing frame, another big season awaits the 30-year-old ace.

    One of the few pitchers in baseball who has an advantage over the opposition before he even steps onto the mound because of his reputation and track record, there's no question that Verlander will be a finalist for the award once again in 2013.

NL Long Shot: Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Seventh (2011)

    Much like his team, the Milwaukee Brewers, Yovani Gallardo is often overlooked on the national stage. It tends to happen when you pitch in a smaller market.

    It's time to take notice of the ace of the Brewers' pitching staff.

    He's averaged 15 wins, 196 innings pitched and 204 strikeouts a season since becoming a full-time member of the rotation in 2009. Sure, his 3.68 ERA and 1.30 WHIP over that time is a bit on the high side for a Cy Young contender, but Gallardo is capable of bigger and better things.

    Only 26, Gallardo heads into the prime of his career with a strong defense and lineup supporting him. It would take at least 20 wins and an ERA below 3.00 for Gallardo to truly enter the Cy Young discussion, but he has the natural ability to take that next step in his development.

NL Long Shot: Jonathon Niese, New York Mets

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Never received a vote

    Jon Niese had his breakout season for the New York Mets in 2012, going 13-9 with a 3.40 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 190.1 innings of work.

    He's capable of more.

    Just entering his prime, the 26-year-old southpaw has lowered his walk rate in each of the past three years, while keeping the ball on the ground and still having the stuff to make batters swing and miss.

    With Johan Santana likely out for the season, the time for Niese to become the ace and leader of the rotation is now. Don't be surprised if you find his name among the ERA leaders in the National League this season.

NL No. 10: Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Career Cy Young Awards: One (2009, Kansas City)

    Something would have to go horribly wrong with Clayton Kershaw for Zack Greinke to have a shot at garnering enough support for his second Cy Young Award.

    Amazingly enough, 2009 was the only season in which Greinke, 29, has ever received a vote in the race for the award.

    Yet Greinke remains one of the 10 best pitchers in the National League, a strikeout artist capable of shutting down the opposition on any given day. That said, his teammate Kershaw is one of the two best pitchers on the planet and simply too formidable a talent for Greinke to get past.

NL No. 9: Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: 11th (2011)

    Four big league seasons, two World Series rings.

    Not a bad way to start your career.

    That's exactly how things have played out for Madison Bumgarner, 23, who has established himself as one of baseball's best up-and-coming players, regardless of position. 

    A strikeout artist with impeccable command and control of his stuff, Bumgarner pairs with Matt Cain to give San Francisco as formidable a one-two combination atop its rotation as you'll find in baseball.

    It's Cain, ultimately, who keeps Bumgarner from having a better chance at garnering Cy Young support, as the two will likely split votes—something that works against Cain as well.

    But make no mistake about it—sooner rather than later, Bumgarner will surpass Cain as the ace of the staff, perhaps as early as the 2013 season.

NL No. 8: Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Fourth (2012)

    It took a few years, but we finally saw what a healthy Johnny Cueto is capable of in 2012.

    Cueto was able to stay healthy, going 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 217 innings, the first time in his career that he eclipsed the 200-inning mark.

    In the prime of his career at 27, Cueto will be pushing 20 wins yet again in 2013, thanks to a potent Cincinnati offense and a supremely talented bullpen, one that has the electric Aroldis Chapman waiting to lock things down in the ninth inning.

    A 20-win season with another sub-3.00 ERA is likely if Cueto can stay healthy, numbers that will put him in the thick of the Cy Young race yet again.

NL No. 7: Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Sixth (2012)

    After going 16-5 with a 2.79 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 2012, Matt Cain finally emerged from the shadow cast by teammate and two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum.

    We shouldn't really be surprised to see Cain putting up such fantastic numbers, as he's finished the year with a sub-3.00 ERA and sub-1.10 WHIP in three of the past four years. Over that time, an average season for Cain has been 14-9 with a 2.93 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, numbers certainly worthy of support in the Cy Young race.

    Cain, 28, will need to be at the top of his game to keep his hold on the title of "ace" in San Francisco, as hard-charging youngster Madison Bumgarner is gunning for that No. 1 spot.

    Given his track record of success, there's no reason to expect Cain to falter in the face of stiff competition.

NL No. 6: Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Career Cy Young Awards: One (2008, Cleveland)

    While it's true that the twilight of Cliff Lee's career is drawing near, talk of his demise in 2012 was just silly. Finishing the season with a 6-9 record was more the result of Philadelphia's offensive ineptitude than a decline in Lee's ability to keep the opposition at bay.

    Most pitchers would be thrilled with a season that saw them throw 211 innings of quality baseball, finishing the year with a 3.16 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 207 strikeouts to only 28 walks.

    Think about that last number for a second. Only 28 walks in more than 200 innings of work. That averages out to 1.2 walks per nine innings, the lowest in baseball last season and the third time in his career that Lee has led the league in that statistic.

    Certainly not the kind of command and control you'd find from someone on the decline.

    With Philadelphia having added some pieces this winter but, most importantly, having a healthy Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, Lee's win total will increase, putting him back in the running for his second Cy Young Award.

NL No. 5: Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Second (2010)

    In retrospect, Adam Wainwright probably came back too early from Tommy John surgery that cost him the entire 2011 season.

    His overall numbers last year reflect that, with a career-worst 3.94 ERA since becoming a full-time starter for the St. Louis Cardinals. Yet as the season wore on, Wainwright got stronger, and it's reflected in the numbers.

    Over his last 16 starts, Wainwright pitched to a 3.16 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, much closer to the 2.94 ERA and 1.21 WHIP he posted for his career prior to surgery.

    Now nearly two years removed from the procedure, Wainwright is poised to reclaim his spot among the elite starters in baseball.

NL No. 4: Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Third (2012)

    Washington had to give up four quality prospects to land Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland A's prior to the 2012 season, but it's a deal that the Nationals would make again and again after Gonzalez' inaugural season in our nation's capital.

    The 27-year-old southpaw led baseball with 21 wins, finishing in the Top 10 for both ERA (2.89) and strikeouts (207). Gonzalez posted the highest strikeout rate per nine innings (9.3) of any starter in baseball.

    With a potent lineup and improved defense supporting him, another 20-win season with numbers landing among the league leaders in multiple pitching categories is nearly a foregone conclusion.

NL No. 3: Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Fifth (2011)

    Overshadowed by teammates Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in past years, 29-year-old Cole Hamels emerged as the unquestioned ace in Philadelphia last season.

    With a 17-6 record, a 3.05 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP over 215.1 innings of work, the third consecutive season in which he's eclipsed the 200-inning mark, Hamels firmly established himself as one of the elite starters in the game—not just an elite left-handed one.

    Like teammate Cliff Lee, Hamels will benefit from an improved defense and the return to health of Philadelphia's big bats. Seeing his numbers improve in 2013 would be anything but a surprise.


NL No. 2: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    Highest Finish in Cy Young Voting: Never received a vote

    Finally, baseball fans around the world will get to see what phenom Stephen Strasburg can do over a full season with no restrictions attached to his lethal right arm.

    What we saw in 2012 was very impressive, as Strasburg went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 197 strikeouts over 159.1 innings pitched.

    Like Gio Gonzalez, Strasburg will only benefit from Washington's potent offense and improved defense, but his upside is considerably higher than that of his talented teammate. Nobody knows just how good Strasburg can be.

    Only 24, we sit on the precipice of starting to get the answer to that question.

NL No. 1: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Career Cy Young Awards: One (2011)

    If I was building a team and had my pick of any pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw would be my pick each and every time.

    The best pitcher in the game as far as I'm concerned, the 25-year-old lefty doesn't pitch—he dominates when he steps onto the mound.

    Kershaw, who has won the ERA title in each of the past two seasons, has gone 56-32 with a 2.60 ERA and 1.09 WHIP since 2009, averaging 209 innings and 218 strikeouts per year.

    No pitcher in baseball has been as unhittable as Kershaw, who has led baseball in fewest hits allowed per nine innings three times and in WHIP twice over that stretch.

    It really doesn't matter whether the collection of All-Stars that Los Angeles has assembled hits or not, Kershaw will dominate the opposition regardless of the run support he receives.

    Of course, a lack of run support will negatively impact his win totals, which ultimately could cost him votes and the second Cy Young Award of his career.

    But there's no denying that Kershaw is as talented a pitcher as you'll find.


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