Predicting the Top 10 Starting Pitchers in MLB 5 Years from Now
Major League Baseball is fortunate to be loaded with young pitching talent—some of them are already excelling on the grand stage.
This season has already seen two outstanding performances from two top right-handed stars. Matt Harvey shut the Chicago White Sox down with a masterful one-hit masterpiece on Tuesday night. Just three nights later, St. Louis Cardinals starter Shelby Miller followed up with his own one-hit gem against the Colorado Rockies.
Miller and Harvey both figure to be outstanding pitchers for years to come, barring injury. But will they both be among the top 10 five years from now?
On Monday, the Washington Nationals travel to Los Angeles to take on the Dodgers. Both teams have pretty stellar young starters themselves in Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw.
Will either of them be top-10 pitchers five years from now? Can Miller or Harvey actually be better by then?
Let's take a look.
10. Zack Wheeler: New York Mets
When the San Francisco Giants looked to bolster their roster for a playoff push in 2011, they looked to the New York Mets, who were attempting to trade right fielder Carlos Beltran. Beltran was in the final year of his contract and was not part of the Mets' future.
However, for the Giants, the deal came at a costly price—the Mets insisted on right-handed pitching prospect Zack Wheeler.
Wheeler was the sixth overall pick of the 2009 MLB draft by the Giants and was starting to come into his own at Advanced Single-A San Jose. The Giants relented in the end, but they failed to make the playoffs, and Beltran ended up signing with the St. Louis Cardinals during the offseason.
Now, Wheeler is at Triple-A Las Vegas where he has strung together three excellent starts after a rough start and dealing with a blister issue. He gave up just two earned runs in 7.1 innings on Saturday against the Albuquerque Isotopes, striking out seven.
Wheeler could very well be with the Mets at some point this season, giving them a glimpse of what their future could look like five years from now along with fellow right-hander Matt Harvey.
9. Madison Bumgarner: San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants hit paydirt when they landed left-hander Madison Bumgarner with the 10th overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft.
It didn't take long for Bumgarner to climb the organizational ladder, making his debut for the Giants at the age of 20 in 2009.
He stepped into the rotation the following year and has since helped the Giants to achieve two World Series titles in three seasons.
And he's still only 23 years of age.
Bumgarner saves his best for the big stage, winning both of his World Series starts while not allowing a run in 15 innings.
Bumgarner will literally just be reaching his prime in five years. It's safe to say that given how good he's already become, he'll only continue to get even better with time and experience.
8. Felix Hernandez: Seattle Mariners
He's already been named a King, and he's only 27 years of age.
Felix Hernandez should be feeling like a king—he signed a seven-year, $175 million contract at the start of spring training and has already won a Cy Young Award.
The only reason I don't have him higher on this list is the simple fact that he's already totaled nearly 1,700 innings in parts of nine seasons. That's a lot of wear and tear already.
Still, Hernandez continues to keep dealing—he's leading the American League with a 1.53 ERA already in 2013.
7. Jose Fernandez: Miami Marlins
There shouldn't be any question that Jose Fernandez, at 20 years old, will be a force in the majors five years from now. The only question is whether that future will be with the Miami Marlins.
Fernandez has posted a 2-2 record with a 3.65 ERA, a 9.5 K/9 rate and 1.16 WHIP in seven outings. Those are impressive numbers for any pitcher, let alone one who had only 27 professional starts before making his debut this season.
Fernandez has already displayed a devastating overhand fastball that hits the mid-to-upper 90s with movement. His curveball has been outstanding as well, with tight spin and a sharp break that can be thrown up to 80 MPH.
Fernandez has shown early this season the ability to work out of tough situations and has seemed completely undaunted by anything thus far.
Just imagine what he'll look like five years from now.
6. Gerrit Cole: Pittsburgh Pirates
Taken with the top pick in the 2011 MLB draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, it's hard to say that right-hander Gerrit Cole hasn't lived up to that top billing already.
Cole advanced through two levels on his way to Triple-A last season, posting a 2.80 ERA and 9.3 K/9 rate in 26 starts.
He's already strutting his stuff at Triple-A Indianapolis this year as well with a 2-1 record and 2.23 ERA in seven starts. Cole is still developing plate command, however, with a not-so-stellar 4.7 BB/9 rate.
When current Pirates starter James McDonald hit the disabled list last week with soreness in his right shoulder, there was speculation that Cole could be called up to take McDonald's start on Sunday, May 12.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington ended that speculation emphatically:
#pirates Huntington: "Let me end the speculation. It's NOT going to be Gerrit Cole on Sunday."— Rob Biertempfel (@BiertempfelTrib) May 7, 2013
The Pirates will not rush Cole, but there's no question that they're champing at the bit to see what he can do at the major league level.
5. Danny Hultzen: Seattle Mariners
Taken directly behind Gerrit Cole in the 2011 MLB draft was University of Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen.
Hultzen has been nearly as impressive as Cole in his brief professional career as well, posting a 3.01 ERA in just 29 starts since the start of last season.
Hultzen could also be a late-season candidate for the majors, currently posting a 3-1 record and 2.78 ERA at Triple-A Tacoma with a 9.9 K/9 rate, 6.8 H/9 rate and 2.4 BB/9 rate.
Along with Felix Hernandez and other top prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, the Seattle Mariners will be well-stocked with quality starting pitching for years to come.
4. Stephen Strasburg: Washington Nationals
Washington Nationals fireballing right-hander Stephen Strasburg is leading the National League in losses.
No, that's not a misprint.
Strasburg is 1-5 with a 3.10 ERA. He's also received the second-least amount of run support per start (2.25) thus far.
He hasn't yet shown the dominance that has marked his career ever since he was selected by the Nationals with the first overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft. But luck also hasn't been on his side in the early going, either.
Strasburg is only 24 years of age and has a very bright future ahead of him. The Nationals struggled through much of the first six weeks of the season with Ryan Zimmerman missing time with injury and first baseman Adam LaRoche enduring a horrible slump.
Strasburg will endure as well, and there's absolutely no reason to think he can't be one of the dominant starters in the majors for the 2018 season.
3. Shelby Miller: St. Louis Cardinals
After his spectacular one-hit performance on Friday night in which he set down 27 straight Colorado Rockies hitters, St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller has firmly planted himself as a favorite for the Rookie of the Year Award in 2013.
Miller is now 5-2 with a 1.58 ERA, a 10.1 K/9 rate and relatively low 2.2 BB/9 rate. It's clear he has an idea of what he's doing already, and it's even more special considering the struggles he went through in Triple-A ball last year.
At one point in 2012, Miller was getting lit up to the tune of a 6.90 ERA. Miller's bullpen coach at Memphis, Blaise Ilsley, saw Miller get to the other side after being skipped a start.
“Not only a physical break, but a mental break,” Ilsley told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It gave him a chance to regroup a little.’’
After a couple of starts that showed some promise, Miller settled down and posted an outstanding second half before earning a September call-up.
“I’m seeing a different guy,” Ilsley said. “It’s great to see. Sometimes a true tell is how a guy deals with adversity. It’s easy when things are going well.”
That different guy certainly showed his face on Friday night against the Colorado Rockies. And it's a face that the baseball world will come to know more and more in the coming months and years.
2. Matt Harvey: New York Mets
New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey didn't have his best stuff on Sunday afternoon, yet he still managed to hold the Pittsburgh Pirates to two runs in seven innings.
Harvey's ERA went up to 1.44 after his outing, still good enough to lead the majors; his 0.73 WHIP leads the National League and his 9.9 K/9 rate is fourth in the NL.
And he's only 24 years of age.
Harvey is clearly here to stay, and the numbers suggest he's not just a flash in the pan. Harvey put together a 2.73 ERA in 10 starts in his first taste of major league action last year, so the progression is proof positive that Harvey is indeed the real deal.
1. Clayton Kerhsaw: Los Angeles Angels
Ever since Clayton Kershaw made his debut as a 20-year-old back in 2008, comparisons to the great Sandy Koufax have followed.
They continued this year on Opening Day. Koufax threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and the more-contemporary Kershaw soon followed with a masterful four-hit shutout.
It was a game that Koufax himself could certainly appreciate.
Kershaw already has one Cy Young Award to his credit and could have won another last year if not for a certain knuckleball pitcher.
Koufax won three Cy Young Awards in four years.
It's also important to note that Kershaw had already become one of the elite pitchers in baseball before reaching the age of 25.
He's continued pitching lights-out, posting a 1.62 ERA in his eight starts this year thus far.
Hopefully the comparisons between Kershaw and Koufax don't also mean that Kershaw needs to retire in five years because of arthritis.
As long as that doesn't happen, there's no reason to think his dominance can't continue.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.
Feel free to talk baseball with Doug anytime on Twitter.