Felix Hernandez will make two more big-league starts for the Seattle Mariners before turning 25 years old on April 8. For a guy who still has not reached that age, Hernandez has posted phenomenal numbers already in his career. He won his first American League Cy Young Award in 2010, hurling 249.2 innings and posting a stellar 2.27 ERA.
Seattle should handle Hernandez with care, since he faced over 1,000 batters last season and may be an injury risk due to the resulting strain on his arm. He will finally be (in physiological terms) fully mature in 2011, though, so now might be the time to ride him back toward contention. More Cy Young honors might well be in his future.
He is not alone, of course. The big leagues are replete with promising young pitchers, many of whom will be 25 years old or younger in 2011. Having a stockpile of young hurlers is a key ingredient to success for any franchise, so this is a crucial question: Who are the best young arms in the league?
In the following slides, you will find a power ranking of baseball's 25 best young pitchers who will be 25 or younger in baseball age in 2011. To qualify for the list, a pitcher needed to have pitched in the majors already. Where does your favorite team's ace fall? How many youngsters make the list for your side? The answers may help inform the future prognosis of your franchise. Read on.
Throw out the numbers on Mejia, whose track record even in the minors is limited and who will not turn 22 until after the Mets pack it up for the winter in 2011. He struggled in his first taste of the big leagues, but he was miscast for a while as a reliever.
He does have the heat to come out of the bullpen and try to blow it by batters, but his fastball is better when he backs off a bit and throws it with movement. He also commands a curve and a change, which makes him a starting pitcher or nothing at all. The Mets are excited about Mejia, and with good reason.
Gonzalez made every forward step you look for from a young hurler after a setback season. In 2009, he struggled to an atrocious 5.75 ERA in a shade under 100 big-league innings, surrendering too many homers and walking far too many batters.
Control is as much God-given talent as learned skill, but Gonzalez made a concerted effort in 2010 to keep the ball down and over the plate. The results were what they usually are if a pitcher is well-coached, has a good attitude and happens to be very gifted: He threw over 200 innings, won 15 games, walked a full batter per nine innings fewer and halved his home-run rate. His ERA was 3.23.
In just his third big-league start, Wood nearly tossed a perfect game against the Phillies: Only a startling lack of run support and a Carlos Ruiz double held him back. Overall, Wood posted a 3.51 ERA and 3.31 strikeouts-per-walk in 102.1 frames with the parent club. In total, he threw over 200 innings in 2010 and he looks like a front-line starter for the Reds for the next few years. The only unnerving thing is his reliance upon fly balls: He absolutely favors them and Great American Ballpark is no place to play with fire that way.
Drabek's three appearances with Toronto bore mixed results, but his work in the minor leagues (162 innings, 2.94 ERA, 14 wins) was thoroughly impressive and reflects Drabek's status as a true blue-chip prospect. Among pitchers who can fairly be labeled as pure prospects on this list, Drabek finds a place among the top 10 and perhaps the top five. The promise of a full season from him in 2011 made Shaun Marcum expendable for Toronto.
Is he partially a product of the Dave Duncan School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Absolutely. With the possible exception of Adam Wainwright, no Cardinals pitcher would be the same without Duncan's voodoo. Still, Garcia's stellar rookie season, just a year removed from a devastating injury, has to be thoroughly impressive.
Garcia throws either his great-moving fastball or his far-better cutter about 75 percent of the time and may not yet have the full feel for his breaking stuff, helping to explain slightly higher walk totals than Duncan would prefer. As long as he keeps inducing preposterous ratios of grounders rather than fly balls, though, Garcia's mentor will stay happy and Garcia will stay effective.
If you thought Garcia's breakout season was smoke and mirrors, take a look at Cahill: Batters got hits less than 24 percent of the time when they hit the ball into the field of play, which allowed Cahill to run up a 2.97 ERA in 196.2 innings, despite having a fielder-independent ERA of 4.19.
Still, Cahill is a talented young pitcher and not all of his success at preventing hits on balls in play ought to be attributed to luck: He has a good defense that is not going anywhere behind him. His sinker just vexes hitters, who cannot lay off but only beat the thing into the ground.
He may not have been the biggest pitching story on his own team in 2010, but Storen set himself up as the almost immovable closer for 2011 and beyond with a strong rookie campaign. He throws really hard and has the classic power slider to complement that pitch. His make-or-break pitch is the changeup he uses to keep opposite-handed batters off his heat: If he corrals it well, he will be dominant at the back end of the Nats bullpen.
Jurrjens' ERA leaped from 2.60 in 2009 to 4.64 in 2010, a product of many factors: Some balls hit in the field of play fell in for hits, some of the balls hit up in the air left the field of play for home runs and Jurrjens was held to 116.1 limited-effectiveness innings by injury this season. The good news is that his strikeout and walk rates held constant, so the skills have not eroded: Jurrjens can get back to his usual brilliance in 2011 with just a bit better luck.
The White Sox had Hudson stashed away at Triple-A until they traded him in the Edwin Jackson deal in July, opening the door for Hudson's big-league debut with the rebuilding Snakes. In 14 starts, Hudson posted a 2.45 ERA, struck out 84 in 95.1 innings and went 8-2. This kid has a world of upside.
Is he likely to be as good as he looked down the stretch over a full season? Not remotely. Still, Hudson is a strong second pitcher on any team and the sure ace of this rather thin Arizona rotation.
Sale only has 33.2 total innings of professional work under his belt, but he already looks like a safe bet to be a long-term fixture of the White Sox pitching staff. He struck out 32 batters in 23.1 innings for Chicago, after being selected in the first round of the Draft in June. He allowed only 25 baserunners during that span.
Sale may eventually move into the rotation, but he and Matt Thornton currently comprise perhaps the best pair of left-handed relievers on any team in baseball right now, so the Sox will be in no hurry to make that change.
After showing really strong strikeout skills in the minors, Davis whiffed only 113 batters in 168 innings as a rookie in 2010. That sounds a few alarms, but all in all, Davis still had a good rookie season: He won 12 games and posted a 4.07 ERA. He has plenty of time to learn to miss bats more effectively and the proclivity he showed for that skill in the past should minimize any concerns over his low rate in 2010.
One of the hardest-throwing young relief pitchers in the game, Venters logged 93 strikeouts with his blazing fastball in 83 innings out of the bullpen. With Billy Wagner retiring, Venters projects as the Braves’ closer for 2011 and should thrive in the role. His extreme ground-ball tendencies help his case in that regard, such that if he can find a way to improve his command even slightly, he should dominate for years to come.
Anderson was so good in the minors in 2008 that the Athletics may have allowed his development to accelerate a bit too much and too fast. He pitched 105 innings that year, at age 20, but leaped to 175.1 innings (all with Oakland) at 21 in 2009.
Whether for that or some other inherent reason of fragility, Anderson missed modest time in 2009 and much more in 2010 with accumulating injuries. He will only be 23 this season, still with every opportunity to become a true ace for the A’s. But he must be handled carefully now so as to avoid the pitfalls of overuse that so often swallow up the careers of young hurlers.
The first full season in San Diego for Latos was spectacular: He allowed 150 hits and struck out 189 in 184.1 innings, and his final WHIP was 1.09. Without Latos, 23, the Padres would not have come even close to the playoffs: He won 14 games and posted a 2.92 ERA. He favors fly balls and gives up too many home runs, but those are minor weaknesses given his well-rounded skill set in all other facets of pitching.
Tampa insisted upon keeping Hellickson out of the mix for 2010, giving him only the spot starts and relief appearances for which they could find no other alternative. That was probably a clever move, as it minimized his service time and helped him ease his way into full-time usage. With Matt Garza now gone to Chicago via trade, though, Hellickson is certainly in line to join the Rays’ rotation from Day 1 in 2011. The Rays will still have one of the best and deepest young rotations in MLB as long as Hellickson, Davis and David Price can stay healthy.
The Yankees may have shifted Hughes to the bullpen for 2009 purely as a means of tinkering with their struggling young prospect, but it has done even more good than that: Hughes is now a starter again and his 2010 season illustrates his potential value. At 25, he has survived the maturation of the key physiological components of pitching without getting hurt, even with a relatively light workload throughout, largely because of his stint as a reliever.
Few people in sports are as prodigious in one particular skill as Chapman: Not only is he the hardest-throwing young pitcher in the league, but he is the hardest thrower in the majors. He is the hardest thrower ever. The man is a menace on the mound.
Unless he can corral that great stuff and consistently throw strikes, he may never be efficient enough to pitch in the starting rotation. He has plenty of time to makes those improvements, though, and in the meantime, he may be the scariest set-up man in baseball.
He will turn 23 just three weeks before Opening Day and Kershaw already has 497 strikeouts in 483 career innings. He may be somewhat in danger of overuse after hurling 204.1 innings in 2010, but assuming Kershaw can withstand a heavy workload without succumbing to injury, he looks like a true ace.
He must improve his control in order to make that workload more tenable, as he walks and strikes out a ton of batters and, therefore, uses too many pitches to get through long outings. He threw 110 or more pitches in half of his 32 starts in 2010.
He will not turn 22 until August, but Bumgarner already has a reputation as a strong left-handed cog in the Giants pitching machine and a dominant playoff pitcher in the making. He totaled 214.1 innings in 2010, though that includes 20.2 frames in the postseason and 82.2 at Triple-A. If Bumgarner can avoid injury, he will be a co-ace to Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain for San Francisco. The team should take caution with him, though, in light of his 2010 workload spike.
Gallardo’s primary developmental obstacles prior to 2010 had been a certain wildness (94 walks in 2009) and a vulnerability to the home run. He addressed both problems last season, walking 19 fewer batters in the same number of innings and allowing nine fewer home runs. His ERA actually rose to 3.84, but a large factor in that setback was bad batted-ball luck. The Brewers’ miserable defense will do him no favors, but Gallardo is an ace-caliber pitcher whether the numbers reflect it or not.
The Braves are teeming with young arms and Hanson is the best of the bunch. He throws hard, but he is not essentially a strikeout pitcher: Rather, he thrives on his skills of great command, the ability to keep the ball down and a solid mix of pitches. He pitches like a veteran already at 24. In two big-league seasons, he has 21 wins and a 3.16 ERA.
Nineteen wins and a 2.72 ERA were not enough to earn Price the Cy Young Award in 2010, but he might well win one or more before it’s over. He can hit 99 miles per hour on the radar gun and has a devastating curve, and if he can find a way to improve his command a bit, he might win that first Cy Young sooner rather than later.
He will not even pitch in 2011, but unless and until he announces he will not try to return to the big leagues, Strasburg has a higher ceiling than anyone else in baseball. Every pitch in his arsenal would be among the best in another pitcher’s arsenal. He has command, throws 102 miles per hour and struck out 14 in his big-league debut. Even after Tommy John surgery, that is hard to top.
Feliz’s fastball-slider combo is vicious and while he may never have the third pitch he would need to thrive as a starting pitcher, he can continue to dominate as one of the American League’s three best closers ad infinitum, at least for as long as his high-90s velocity remains with him. He walked only 18 opposing hitters while fanning 71 in 69.1 innings, numbers that put him in league with Joakim Soria and Mariano Rivera.
Five-and-a-half full seasons into his big-league career, Hernandez looks like a future Hall of Fame inductee. He has a long way to go, to be sure, but he is already well on his way. He won a Cy Young Award in 2010, walking 70 batters against 232 strikeouts in 249.2 innings.
The only mitigation of advisable exultation of Hernandez is that the Mariners are absolutely, and rather unequivocally, abusing him. Hernandez is not yet 25, meaning that his shoulder is just now fully mature and ready for a heavy workload. Yet the Mariners have allowed him to face an average of 945 batters over each of the past three seasons and he faced 1,001 batters in 2010. It may well be that Hernandez can shoulder that burden, especially now that he will turn 25 in April. Still, that is an awful lot to put on such a young pitcher in this day and age.