Last season about this time, in response to "out of nowhere" Cy Young award-winners like Zack Greinke and Cliff Lee, I offered a method for identifying the next set of pitchers who could climb suddenly to the elite Ace status. You can read the original for more on my rationale, but the basic premise is to identify pitchers who haven't garnered Cy Young attention in previous seasons, but are in their mid-twenties, have at one time or another been considered blue-chip prospects, and are coming off respectable, but not dominant, seasons. This was the 2010 class:
Chad Billingsley - Los Angeles Dodgers (25-years-old in '10, 1st-Rnd. Pick in '03)
12-11, 3.57 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 171 K, 192 IP, 4.6 WAR (+1.4), '10 All-Star
John Danks - Chicago White Sox (25, 1st-Rnd. '03)
15-11, 3.72 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 162 K, 213 IP, 4.3 WAR (+1.4)
Yovani Gallardo - Milwaukee Brewers (24, Baseball America #16 Prospect in '07)
14-7, 3.84 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 200 K, 185 IP, 4.6 WAR (+1.9)
Edwin Jackson - Chicago White Sox (26, BA #4 '04)
10-12, 4.47 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 181 K, 209 IP, 3.8 WAR (+0.3), No-Hitter
Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies (25, Entered League at 22)
19-8, 2.88 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 214 K, 222 IP, 6.3 WAR (+0.6), '10 All-Star Starter, #3 NL Cy Young Voting, #23 NL MVP Voting, No-Hitter
John Lannan, Washington Nationals (25, Entered League at 22)
8-8, 4.65 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 71 K, 143 IP, 1.2 WAR (-0.3)
Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins (27, Entered League at 23)
14-9, 4.51 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 147 K, 158 IP, 2.5 WAR (-1.8)
Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels (27, 1st-Rnd. '04)
13-12, 3.01 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 233 K, 224 IP, 5.9 WAR (+2.0)
As you can see, although none won the Cy Young award (both leagues chose a player who was a perennial favorite), two pitchers, Jimenez and Weaver, were legitimate contenders, six of our eight pitchers improved upon their '09 campaigns (according to WAR), and five of the eight set career highs in WAR. In total, the "21st Century Cy" class of 2010 combined for a 5.5 win improvement. The only two backtrackers, Lannan and Nolasco, were derailed mainly by early season slumps. After a month-long demotion, Lannan actually bounced back to go 6-3 with a 3.42 ERA in the second half. Nolasco had his season ended early, but not before he put together a solid sixteen start stretch in which he went 10-5 with a 4.05 ERA and 9.7 K/9.
I used the "21st Century Cy" designation as part of my BLOGZKRIEG! draft stategy, landing Jimenez, Weaver, Gallardo, Danks, Jackson, and Lannan, and they were a big part of my eventual championship. Was this merely good fortune? Well, there's only one way to find out. Using the same formula as last season, I've identified a new class of "21st Century Cys." It's signficantly larger than the 2010 class, indicating the dearth of good young pitching in the major leagues right now. Three players from last season's class - Billingsley, Danks, and Gallardo - still qualify based upon all my criteria, but I won't bother profiling them again. Here are the other candidates:
Dallas Braden - Oakland Atletics - 27
Braden is the John Lannan of this year's class. He was a low-round draft pick. His "stuff" is underwhelming (5.3 K/9). But the fact is, the A's saw fit to promote him to the majors when he was just 23. He's a tenacious workhorse. And his numbers have steadily improved every year to the point that, in 2010, he posted a solid 3.50 ERA, pitched 193 innings, and had an extremely impressive 1.16 WHIP, as well as a 2.63 K/BB rate. His exceptional control makes up somewhat for his low strikeout rate. The cynical will point to his low BABIP in 2010 (.270) and I admit that's cause for concern, but I think Braden is a rare breed, perhaps never capable of Cy Young level dominance, but destined to be, much like Mark Buehrle or Bronson Arroyo, a consistent and valuable innings-eating anchor on any staff.
Johnny Cueto - Cincinnati Reds - 25
Cueto is entering the extremely dangerous "post-hype" period of his young career. When the Reds brought him north (amidst much ado) at the beginning of 2008, he had just turned 22 and had made only 14 starts above A-ball. Somewhat predictably, he struggled during his first two seasons, especially with flights of wildness and a propensity for giving up gopher-balls. Some continue to question his "make-up." However, last season Cueto's "upside" started translating into wins for the Reds. During a particularly dominant 18-start stretch in the middle of the season, Cueto went 11-1 with a 2.76 ERA. He finished the year at a respectable 12-7 with a 3.64 ERA, so you can see that his 2010 performance was uneven. Overall, however, he posted career bests in wins, ERA, innings, WHIP, HR/9, BB/9, and K/BB. Perhaps most importantly, he seemed calmer on the mound, less concerned with overpowering hitters, and more willing to rely upon the nasty movement of his off-speed pitches. If he can maintain that attitude and build up his endurance, he could be the best pitcher on the Reds, even though he will enter the season overshadowed by more popular sleepers like Edinson Volquez, Travis Wood, and Aroldis Chapman.
Matt Garza - Chicago Cubs - 27
I'm already on the record doubting Garza's ability to mature beyond what he is currently, a reliable innings-eating middle-of-the-rotation starter. And, there's certainly nothing wrong with that. But, my metric suggests that, if there is a year in which Garza will prove that he's the kind of superlative talent who justifies Minnesota's first-round pick in 2005 as well as his inclusion as the lynchpin in two blockbuster trades, this is probably it. If that happens, as a Cubs fan, obviously, I'll be thrilled. Sadly, however, as a Cubs fan in the waning years of the Jim Hendry era, I'm having a hard time believing. Setting aside record, here are some key stats from Garza's last two seasons:
'09: 3.95 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 1.1 HR/9, 2.39 K/BB, 203 IP
'10: 3.91 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 1.2 HR/9, 2.38 K/BB, 205 IP
You've got to marvel at his consistency. Certainly, a move to the NL should help him improve in several of those categories, but I'm tempted to say that this is the pitcher he is, which is far from elite.
Gio Gonzalez - Oakland Athletics - 25
On a staff filled with impressive talents, Gonzalez may end up being the most dominant of all. His second half was pretty phenomenal. From June 21st on he went 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA. He ended up leading his team in innings and strikeouts. The major knock against him is that, even though he's brought it down significantly from his first two years, his walk rate is still among the highest in baseball. That's the same thing we were saying about Ubaldo Jimenez a couple years back and if Gonzalez can make the same sort of strides (he's already begun to show signs of improvement), he's could potentially be starting an All-Star game sometime in the near future.
(ASIDE: One of the impediments to the Cy Young for Gonzalez is the fact that his rotation is replete with potential candidates. Braden is on this list. But Trevor Cahill isn't, because he's already shown his legitimacy by getting a number of votes following his breakout 2010. And Brett Anderson isn't because his season was shortened by injury in '10 and he's actually still too young to fit my stated criteria. But that doesn't mean I don't believe he's capable. In fact, if I was handicapping the Cy Young potential of Oakland's starters, it's probably go like this: 1.) Anderson, 2.) Gonzalez, 3.) Cahill, 4.) Harden, 5.) Braden.)
Tommy Hanson - Atlanta Braves - 24
Well duh, right? Unlike many of the players on this list, Hanson isn't really flying under anybody's radar. He arrived in the majors with considerable hoopla in 2009 and basically justified all of it by going 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts. He had a somewhat predictable sophomore slump at the outset of 2010, but responded with a ridiculous second half (2.40 ERA) that helped carry the Braves into the postseason. So, by calling Hanson a potential Cy Young contender, I don't think anybody would say I'm going out on a limb. Still, he fits the criteria.
Ian Kennedy - Arizona D-Backs - 26
Some of you may be sick of me touting Ian Kennedy in these pages, but if you took my fantasy advice last season you ended up with an excellent contributor in innings (194), WHIP (1.20), and strikeouts (168), who didn't hurt your ERA (3.80), threw in a handful of wins (9), and cost you next to nothing. He won't fly as far under the radar in 2011, but he'll still be fairly cheap and many will be scared off by his home ballpark, which drove up his home-run rate, and his extremely low BABIP (.256). I don't deny the relevancy of such numbers, but what I see is that his pre-injury track record suggests he's got room for improvement in terms of strikeout rate, walk rate, and groundball rate. And, as many pitchers have shown us, the second full season removed from surgery is usually when you see the most drastic rebound.
Francisco Liriano - Minnesota Twins - 27
As with Tommy Hanson, maybe he shouldn't count. In fact, based on my own criteria, Liriano's one lonely Cy Young vote from 2010 should probably disqualify him. But, Liriano is my preseason prediction for AL Cy Young in 2011. Not Felix Hernandez. Not skinny C. C. Not David Price or Brett Anderson. I think this is the year we get a glimpse of the pre-Tommy John pitcher who went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 144 K in 121 innings, at the age of 22, way back in 2006. I don't know why this is what I believe, it just is (well, there is also the fact that his 2010 numbers were inflated by an unusually high BABIP and a late season slump when the Twins weren't really playing for anything). Sometimes you just have a feeling.
Mike Pelfrey - New York Mets - 27
I actually didn't believe it when this name popped up. Somehow, the impressiveness of Pelfrey's 2010 season had more or less eluded me. But as I delved deeper I had a kind of hard time poking holes in his case. There's no evidence that Pelfrey was particularly lucky in 2010. Rather, in almost every way, his 2010 numbers look the same as those he posted in 2008, before he went in the tank in 2009 and many of his supporters abandoned him. I've never been a Pelfrey fan. His strikeout rate and K/BB ratio are abysmal, always have been and probably always will be. His ballpark probably unfairly suppresses his home-run rate. But he does eat up innings and he's probably still young enough to make another step forward. I, personally, just wouldn't bet on it.
Ricky Romero - Toronto Blue Jays - 26
Many people, including myself, though Romero's rookie season (2009) was a little flukish. He just hadn't been very good as a minor-leaguer, and he wasn't young enough to justify expectations of rapid improvement at the major leagues. After his 2010 season, however, I'm changing my tune. Not only did Romero evade the sophomore slump many were expecting, but he made significant improvements in ERA (from 4.30 to 3.73), innings (from 178 to 210), WHIP (from 1.52 to 1.29), HR/9 (from 0.9 to 0.6), BB/9 (from 4.0 to 3.5), and K/BB (from 1.78 to 2.12). That kind of across-the-board growth is hard to argue against.
Anibal Sanchez - Florida Marlins - 27
In his rookie year, he threw a no-hitter, but that was quit a long time ago (2006). In the three years which followed, Sanchez managed just an 8-14 record and a 4.56 ERA at the major-league level. He struggled with injuries and with wildness, and spend a significant amount of time rehabbing in the minors. Last year, he managed to get his career back on track, making as many starts in one season as he had in the previous three. He also set career highs in wins HR/9 (0.5), BB/9 (3.2), and K/BB (2.24), all indications that some of his previous problems have been solved. Sanchez has the luxury of playing in a pitchers park, is supported by a decent lineup (though a suspect defense), and will probably line up behind Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Javier Vazquez. It could be a good recipe for a breakout season at that magical age of 27.
Max Scherzer - Detroit Tigers - 26
Scherzer is very much made in the Cliff Lee/Zack Greinke mold. He arrived at a young age amongst considerable acclaim, but questions quickly mounted about his "make-up" and his durability. After some moderate early success, things got so bad early in last season that he had to be briefly shipped back to the minors, just as Lee was in 2007 and Greinke in 2006. When he came back, he looked like a different pitcher, and in his remaining 23 starts went 11-7 with a 2.46 ERA and 158 K in 154 innings. If he can duplicate such sucess over an entire season, he would obviously be a frontrunner for the Cy Young. But that is, of course, a pretty big "if."
Jason Vargas - Seattle Mariners - 28
This is probably the most surprising name on the list and, to be honest, I had to fudge a little bit to get him on here. Usually I limit it to pitchers who are 27 or younger for at least some part of the upcoming season. Vargas just recently turned 28. But I wanted to draw some attention to his 2010 campaign. He was pitching in a friendly ballpark, undoubtedly, with an excellent defense behind him. Nevertheless, his success (3.78 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 193 IP) kind of came out of nowhere, as he had been more or less a fringe major leaguer for most of the previous five seasons. He wore down over the course of the season, which is perhaps to be expected from a pitcher throwing 50+ more innings than he had in any other year of his professional career. Maybe that means he'll be better prepared for the workload in 2011, maybe it means he'll suffer from dead arm. Only time will tell. But one thing's for certain, he's flying well under the radar.
And, finally, a few guys that, for one reason or another, just missed my list, but are nonetheless worth paying attention to in the coming year:
Brett Anderson - Oakland Athletics - 23
Homer Bailey - Cincinnati Reds - 25
Brett Cecil - Toronto Blue Jays - 24
Phil Hughes - New York Yankees - 25
Clayton Kershaw - Los Angeles Dodgers - 23
Ricky Nolasco - Florida Marlins - 28
Edwin Jackson - Chicago White Sox - 28
Shaun Marcum - Milwaukee Brewers - 29
Brandon Morrow - Toronto Blue Jays - 26
Clayton Richard - San Diego Padres - 27
Kevin Slowey - Minnesota Twins - 27