MLB's Young Aces: The 15 Best Starting Pitchers 25 and Under

James Stewart-MeudtCorrespondent IIApril 11, 2011

MLB's Young Aces: The 15 Best Starting Pitchers 25 and Under

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    There's nothing better than having a young starting pitcher that can consistently take the ball with success. In a sport where pitching wins championships, the younger and more talented, the better.

    And baseball is littered with young, talented pitchers.

    This list will examine the top-15 starting pitchers 25 years old and under.

    There are well-known and relative unknowns included, but all have big-time talent.

    If you don't know them now, you will by the end of the list and you'd better start paying attention because these guys are legit.

    A youthful starting rotation can take a team far. The San Diego Padres found that out last season, as did the San Francisco Giants. But there are great, young pitchers all over baseball.

    Let's take a look at the top 15. Now they are ranked, so if you disagree or feel I've left someone out, let me know.

Jon Niese- New York Mets

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    The Mets are a tough team to figure out. Seemingly inconsequential this season, they're 3-3 after two series against the Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies. After finishing last season 32-49 on the road, the Mets are off to a decent start considering they saw Josh Johnson, Cole Hamels and Roy Hallday already.

    With Johan Santana out until at least early July, the Mets starting rotation needs to step up if they're going to have any chance at contention. That all starts with Jon Niese.

    Despite Mike Pelfrey's role as the team's de facto ace, Niese has taken up the No.2 spot in rotation at just 24 years old.

    Niese spent three and a half years in the minor leagues before the Mets gave him cups of coffee in 2008 and 2009 before he got a full season in 2010.

    Niese went 9-10 with a 4.20 ERA in 30 starts. He led the team with 148 strikeouts and with Santana on the DL, he's the only real strikeout pitcher the Mets have.

    He faded in the second half of the season, posting a 4.82 ERA compared to 3.61 in the first half, but the Mets had increased his innings by 39.1 so perhaps the workload proved to be too much.

    This season, Niese has looked good at times. In his first start against the Marlins, Niese gave up two first inning runs but shut the Marlins down there. In his second start, against the Phillies, Niese was shelled, giving up six earned runs on eight hits in just four innings of work.

    He throws mainly fastballs, topping out at about 93 mph, but his curveball is his best weapon and he'll need it against the big left-handed bats of the NL East.

Jake Arrieta- Baltimore Orioles

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    A 6-3 start to the season has Orioles fans dreaming big. If they're going to have any success, it has to start with a solid starting rotation and so far, the Orioles have that.

    Just look at Jake Arrieta.

    He's not going to blow any teams away, but pitching in the AL East has a habit of shaping young prospects into battle-tested veterans. If the Orioles are going to be contenders, they'll need Arrieta for the long-term.

    He spent just two years in the minor leagues before making his major league debut in 2010. He went 6-6 that season with a 4.66 ERA in just 100.1 innings pitched.

    He can struggle with his control at times (4.31 BB/9), but he keeps the ball in the ball park (0.81 HR/9), important against the big sluggers like Alex Rodriguez and Adrian Gonzalez lurking around the division.

    I have serious questions about his longevity. He's never surpassed 113 innings at any time in his career, and he might top out at just 20 starts this season. He'll need to get stretched out before he can be counted on as a reliable starter.

    But he's got the stuff to leave his mark this season. In his first start, he dominated the Detroit Tigers over six innings, giving up just one earned run on six hits. But he hit a roadblock called the Texas Rangers on Saturday, giving up eight earned runs in just 3.1 innings.

     

Jordan Zimmerman- Wasington Nationals

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    A solid season out of Jordan Zimmerman should make it easier for Nats fans to deal with the loss of Stephen Strasberg. Okay, maybe not. But he's still a great young pitcher to watch. And why should Strasberg get all the attention anyway?

    Zimmerman's progress was slowed due to Tommy John surgery in 2009. Prior to the surgery, Zimmerman was 3-5 with a 4.63 ERA in 16 major league starts.

    He actually managed to recover quickly and was back in the Nationals' starting rotation barely a year later.

    He made just seven starts for the Nats last season, finishing 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA in seven starts, but most importantly, he was healthy.

    Now in 2011, the belief that pitchers are stronger in their second year after Tommy John surgery is looking pretty good. Zimmerman is 1-1 with a 3.18 ERA. He gave up three runs, two earned, over six innings to the Atlanta Braves in his season opener, and just two earned runs to the New York Mets over 5 1/3 innings on Saturday.

    When Strasberg comes back from his Tommy John, the two young pitchers will form a nice 1-2 punch at the front of that rotation. Throw in Bryce Harper's bat and Drew Storen in the bullpen (can the Nats just name him the closer already? Jeez), and there's a lot to look forward to in the DC area.

Travis Wood- Cincinnati Reds

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    Okay Reds fans, I'm taking Travis Wood over Mike Leake here for two reasons. Both are great young pitchers under 25, but I think Wood has the better major league stuff and has the better chance to stick around this season than Leake.

    The Reds have good depth in their starting rotation so either Wood or Leake could find themselves being sent down should either struggle. But for now, Wood is still an impressive pitcher. He flew under the radar last season.

    In 17 starts in 2010, Wood was 5-4 with a 3.51 ERA. His command was superb (3.31 K/BB ratio) and he finished the season with 98 strikeouts in 102.2 innings (7.54 K/9).

    The biggest problems with Wood are his fly ball rates (48.1 percent of his balls in play) and his lack of experience (career-high 119 innings in 2009). Again, a depth at starting rotation could mean a demotion late in the season like the Reds did with Leake last season, but if he can adapt to the increased workload, Wood will be an excellent pitcher for the Reds.

Jhoulys Chacin- Colorado Rockies

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    What does Chacin have besides a first name that's hard to spell? How about an electric arm that collects strikeouts like a kid collecting candy on Halloween.

    Chacin burst onto the scene last season as a 22-year-old. His 8.74 K/9 rate as a starting pitcher set a Rockies rookie record. If not for Ubaldo Jimenez's presence in the rotation, Chacin could be a No. 1 starter.

    He went 9-11 with a 3.28 ERA in 2010 and has already started to build on that success this year, throwing seven innings of shutout baseball against the Dodgers in his first start of the season on April 5. Despite giving up four earned runs over six innings to the Pittsburgh Pirates yesterday, Chacin still got the win.

    He's currently 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA.

Madison Bumgarner- San Francisco Giants

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    What can you say about a kid who helped his team to a World Series win at just 21 years old? The answer is not enough.

    Bumgarner pitched well after being called up by the Giants in late June last season, finishing the season 7-6 with a 3.00 ERA, but it was in the postseason that Bumgarner really made his mark. He won two games for the Giants, including an eight inning masterpiece against the Texas Rangers in Game 4 of the World Series that put the Giants up 3-1.

    The Giants continue to turn out promising young pitchers, but a huge increase to his innings last season is a concern for Bumgarner in 2011.

    In his first start this season, Bumgarner lasted just three innings, giving up three earned runs on five hits while walking three and striking out two.

    It will be interesting to see if the Giants put Bumgarner on any kind of innings limit, but for now, he remains a big piece of the starting rotation looking to repeat as world champs.

Michael Pineda- Seattle Mariners

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    At just 22 years old, Pineda is a name you'll want to familiarize yourself with this season.

    Last season, in Triple-A, Pineda was dominant, posting a rediculous 76-to-17 K/BB ratio in just 62.1 innings pitched. He did suffer elbow problems that limited his innings in 2009, but Pineda have a very live arm and seem poised to raise some eyebrows this season.

    He had the misfortune of making his major league debut against the Texas Rangers on April 5. Pineda went six innings, giving up thee earned runs on five hits. He walked one and struck out four, very respectable numbers considering the opposition, especially with what the Rangers did to the seemingly superior pitchers of the Boston Red Sox.

    Pineda throws a big fastball that can reach 97 mph, as well as a good slider and change up.

    The Mariners might want to keep an eye on Pineda's innings this season as he hasn't thrown more than 100 innings since 2008.

     

Kyle Drabek- Toronto Blue Jays

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    As if the Toronto Blue Jays didn't already have enough young, talented starting pitchers, Drabek found his way to Toronto in the trade that sent Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009.

    Prior to the trade, Drabek was the Phillies' top pitching prospect. His development through the minor leagues was impressive though he barely worked, topping out at just 96.1 innings in 2009 in Double-A.

    When the Blue Jays acquired him, Drabek started in Double-A again but this time is workload increased to 162 innings. He finished that season 14-9 with a 2.94 ERA. An increase in velocity earned him three starts in the majors at the end of the 2010 season.

    His fastball tops out in the mid-90s and his curveball can be devastating to opposing batters. He's made two starts this season for the Blue Jays and is 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA.

    In his first start of the season, Drabek allowed just one run over seven innings of work against the Minnesota Twins. He then took a no decision on April 8 against the Angels, giving up two runs, one earned, over six innings.

    The 23-year-old Drabeck is an excellent addition to the Jays staff. He'll have to continue to get groundballs (2.25 GB/FB rate this season) and keep the ball in the ball park (0.84 HR/9 in minors careers) if he's going to be spending time in the AL East.

     

Trevor Cahill- Oakland Athletics

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    I love the Oakland A's starting rotation and I don't care who knows it!

    It's hard not to love a rotation as talented as the A's have and Trevor Cahill just might be the best of the bunch.

    The kid is just 23 years old and won 18 games in just his second season in the majors. Couple that with a 2.97 ERA, fourth in the AL, and there's a lot to love about Cahill.

    He's a decent strikeout threat (5.40 K/9 in 2010) but he does his best work getting hitters to pound the ball into the dirt (2.71 GB/FB in 2010).

    He found his changeup last year which made him much more effective against left-handed batters (.237 BAA) and his sinker remains a valuable weapon

    A .236 BABIP for a groundball pitcher is impossible to maintain in 2011, but so far Cahill is 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA in two starts this season.

Tommy Hanson- Atlanta Braves

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    Hanson is a big part of why the Atlanta Braves believe they can compete with the Philadelphia Phillies this season. While everyone is talking about the "Phab Phour", Braves fans are saying "What about us!?"

    Well, Hanson is what it's about.

    After dominating in the minor leagues, Hanson brought his talents to the majors in 2009. He went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts.

    Hanson took a bit of a step back in his second full season in 2010, but much of that can be attributed to an increase of 75 innings in his workload. But any time you can give a 23-year-old pitcher 200 innings, it's a good thing. Hanson went 10-11 with a 3.33 ERA that season.

    Despite the increase in ERA, Hanson's BB/9 rate fell from 3.24 to 2.49 and his K/BB rate rose from 2.52 to 3.09 as he collected 173 strikeouts.

    Now 24, Hanson is a big part of the Braves rotation and another solid season should give them a great chance to give the Phillies a run for their money.

    So far this season, Hanson is 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA.

     

Brett Anderson- Oakland Athletics

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    I've got big concerns about this kid's health heading into this season. Last season, two separate elbow problems limited him to just 112.2 innings last season and the A's have asked him to focus on using his change up more than his slider to preserve his health.

    Last season, Anderson was 7-6 with a 2.80 ERA in just 19 starts. He pitches more to contact than trying to get a strikeout, and a solid defense behind him this season might help him keep that elbow in good health.

    If the A's can get 25 starts out of Anderson, it would be a big boost to their AL West chances.

    So far this season, Anderson is 0-1 in two starts with a 1.93 ERA.

Jeremy Hellickson- Tampa Bay Rays

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    Are we going to be calling this kid "Hellboy" this season? I think that's a pretty bad ass nickname, don't you?

    Hellickson was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball heading into this season, and rightfully so. The big righthander was impressive in all his minor league stops, posting K/9 rates above 9.41 every season but one (2007).

    He made four starts for the Rays in 2010, going 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA and 33 k's in 36.1 innings.

    In his first start this season, "Hellboy" gave up three earned runs over 5 2/3 innings against the LA Angles. He walked only two and struck out 10 but took the tough luck loss.

    With all of Tampa's offseason losses, it would be a shame for Hellickson to suffer for it. He's a big reason why the Rays were comfortable dealing Matt Garza.

    But at just 23 years old, the sky's the limit for Hellickson and he should give Rays fans something to cheer about this season.

Jaime Garcia- St. Louis Cardinals

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    The Cardinals would have loved to hammer out a deal with first baseman Albert Pujols this offseason, but they just couldn't get it done. Pujols came to spring training determined to make this year about what the team does on the field, not off it.

    Their season hit an early speed bump when starting pitcher Adam Wainwright went down for the season and a lot of people wondered if the Cardinals would look to deal another starter, Chris Carpenter. Well that talk can remain on the back burner for now because the Cardinals are not as short on starting pitching as some feared.

    For instance, they have Jaime Garcia.

    Garcia got his first full season with the Cardinals as a starting pitcher last season at just 23 years old. He won 13 games, posted a 2.70 ERA and increased his career high in innings by 60. With such an impressive debut performance, and a slightly below average .297 BABIP, a step back in 2011 isn't out of the question for Garcia.

    But so far, he's off to a great start.

    In his first start of the season, against the San Diego Padres, Garcia gave the Cardinals a complete game shut out, giving up just four hits while striking out nine. He was impressive again on Saturday against the San Francisco Giants, giving up just one earned run in six innings with nine strikeouts.

    Wainwright who?

    He struggled with his control a bit in 2010, posting a 3.53 BB/9 rate, but he's looked good in his two starts this season.

    If the Cardinals are going to be a contender this season, Garcia is going to give them another good season.

Clayton Kershaw- Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Kershaw is a trendy pick for this year's NL Cy Young award, and with good reason. Since making his pro debut in 2008, Kerhaw has established himself as one of the best young pitchers in baseball.

    He's been plauged by a lack of run support and numerous no decisions with the Dodgers. For a pitcher to make 83 starts between 2008 and 2010 and walk away with just 26 wins is rediculous.

    Kerhsaw pitched well last season, surpassing 200 innings for the first time in his career and finishing 13-10 with a 2.91 ERA. A .275 BABIP would suggest he'll take a step back this season, and Bill James of FanGraphs projects to finish 14-10 with a 3.13 ERA.

    But pitching in a park like Dodgers Stadium can be a huge benefit to a fly ball pitcher like Kerhsaw.

    He's still young and incredibly valuable to a Dodgers franchise with a lot of off-the-field question marks.

Felix Hernandez- Seattle Mariners

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    What can we say about King Felix? Is he the best pitcher in baseball? Most would give that label to the Phillies' Roy Halladay, but what would Felix do in the NL East? That's a scary thought.

    For now though, he'll have to be happy just dominating in the American League.

    Last season's Cy Young award winner has been such a good pitcher for the last five seasons, it's easy to forget he's only 25 years old.

    His Cy Young last season was a victory for stat geeks everywhere. They jumped for joy as Hernandez won the award with just 13 wins to his credit. But nevermind the win column, Hernandez was dominant in every other department.

    He led the league in innings pitched (249.2) and ERA (2.27), finished second in strikeouts (232) and WHIP (1.06), and was third in pitcher's WAR (6.2).

    Playing on an abysmal Seattle Mariners team isn't doing him any favors. Give him an offense that can actually score runs and he's a twenty-game winner easily. Last season, he had seven no decisions in which he gave up two earned runs or less. Give him just five of those games, and he would've won 18 games, so that should make it easier for the haters out there to understand what Hernandez was dealing with.

    Most baseball fans love to speculate about whether or not Seattle will shop their young ace this season. It's not hard to think of a team (or five) who could use Hernandez's services. But he's under a reasonable contract considering his talent, so there's no reason to dump him yet.