MLB 2012 Predictions: National League Cy Young Award

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterMarch 28, 2012

MLB 2012 Predictions: National League Cy Young Award

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    Filling out a list of five National League Cy Young Award candidates shouldn't be too hard, right?

    Just take three pitchers from the Philadelphia Phillies, mix in two more from the San Francisco Giants, and you've got five guys that stand a pretty good chance of winning and making you look like a savvy prognosticator.

    While I considered taking that approach, such a list wouldn't include last year's NL Cy Young winner, Clayton Kershaw. That doesn't seem right.

    Expecting a repeat Triple Crown performance (wins, ERA and strikeouts) from Kershaw is probably a bit much, but—spoiler alert—he's on the list.

    Before giving anything else away, let's proceed with the five players who have that Cy Young look to them going into the season.

5. Josh Johnson, Miami Marlins

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    Josh Johnson's 2011 season ended in mid-May after making just nine starts. But oh, was he good in those nine games.

    He finished with a 3-1 record, a 1.64 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 60.3 innings.

    In three of his first five appearances, Johnson took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. In four of his first six starts, he allowed three hits or fewer.

    Even when he started to get hit around as his shoulder began to develop inflammation, Johnson hardly allowed any runs. He didn't allow more than one earned run in six of nine starts.

    If Justin Verlander is a threat to throw a no-hitter every time he takes the mound, Johnson has to be considered the next most likely to put a string of zeroes on the board.

4. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Our returning NL Cy Young Award winner is a strong candidate to repeat his 2011 success. At the age of 24, it's not unreasonable to think that Clayton Kershaw will win such honors again in his career.

    But can he be expected to put together a Triple Crown (wins, ERA, and strikeouts) performance—which surely gave him the edge over Roy Halladay in the final voting—for the second consecutive season?

    Failing to do so doesn't mean he won't be in the running again, of course.

    However, one number from Kershaw's dominant 2011 season that might be cause for concern is the number of innings he threw. Kershaw pitched 233.33 innings, easily the highest total of his young career, surpassing the previous season's total by almost 30.

    Maybe Kershaw is one of the big boys who's good for 230-plus innings every year now. If so, the Dodgers will be grateful. And he'll certainly warrant serious award consideration again.

3. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

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    I realize the "contract year" thing is kind of a myth. The idea that a player will be motivated to put up the best numbers of a career in hopes of attracting a huge free-agent payday is infused with cynicism.

    Yet, I'm going to buy into it this time.

    Matt Cain is a free agent after this season and has given the Giants until Opening Day to negotiate a new contract before cutting off talks.

    If he doesn't get the package he's looking for, Cain will try the open market, and it's obviously in his best interests to show he's worth a $100 million contract. (Though, as Wendy Thurm points out at Fangraphs, there might not be many teams who can afford such a deal.)

    Though last season's 12-11 record wasn't impressive (due to the Giants' inability to score runs), Cain had an outstanding season.

    He compiled a 2.88 ERA, his lowest total since becoming a full-time major leaguer. His 177 hits were the third-fewest he's allowed over a season. And his 179 strikeouts were the second-most he's accumulated.

    Is he capable of more, with a new contract at stake?

2. Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Zack was back in 2011.

    Former AL Cy Young Award winner (2009) Zack Greinke rebounded after a rough 2010 season to justify the four-player package that the Brewers gave up to trade for him.

    Greinke went 16-6 with a 3.83 ERA, striking out 201 batters in 171.6 innings. His average of 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings was almost a full point higher than any other starting pitcher in baseball last season, other than the Toronto Blue Jays' Brandon Morrow.

    A rib injury suffered playing basketball restricted Greinke to fewer than 200 innings for the first time in four years. But he's coming into this season fully healthy and has pitched well this spring, with 20 strikeouts, one walk and two runs allowed in 12.3 innings.

    How much better could Greinke pitch, now that he has a year of familiarity with National League hitters to work from?

    Oh, and by the way, he's pitching for a new contract too.

1. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies

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    If not for Clayton Kershaw and teammate Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee would've had the best season by a pitcher in the National League last season.

    His 2.40 ERA was the third-lowest among MLB starters. He led the majors with six shutouts. He threw 233.6 innings, the most in his 10 big league seasons and just one fewer than workhorse Halladay.

    But the number that truly stands out is Lee's 238 strikeouts, the third-highest total in baseball. And this is from a guy who hasn't been a strikeout pitcher throughout his career.

    Lee might have to take the ace role in the Phillies starting rotation this year, as Halladay has raised some eyebrows this spring with his performance.

    Halladay has struck out 24 batters (with just three walks) in 20 innings, but he's also allowed 23 hits. That, along with a reported dip in velocity and lack of movement on his sinker, has drawn some concern.

    However, Halladay insists he's healthy and denounces speculation to the contrary as "poor reporting."

    The Phillies are going to have difficulties scoring runs this season, with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard out of the lineup indefinitely. So the pressure will be on the pitching staff to keep the opposition's run total down.

    Lee has shown he can answer such a challenge before and will measure up to the task yet again.

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