The Best Young Right-handed Pitchers of 2007

This week, I will finish my position-by-position review of the game’s best players by examining young right-handed pitchers. The following list differs from traditional prospect lists in two ways. First, anyone under 25 as of right now is eligible. Second, I won’t give the false impression of precision by ranking players. Instead, I’ll group players according to their upside and closeness to fulfilling their potential and order them alphabetically.

When I describe “excellent” potential, I simply mean that the pitchers has a non-trivial chance of being among the 10% of major league pitchers during multiple seasons. In other words, these are guys who could be perennial All-Stars.

When I describe “good” potential, I usually am describing a player who has the skills to become a consistently above-average starter at the position. Often, these players will have at least one major limitation that probably will prevent them from becoming top-tier players. When I describe “average” upside, I usually am describing a player with more than one major concern or limitation that suggests he probably will become an average player relative to other starters at his position during majority of their career.

Players who are “close to their prime” usually are within a year of reaching a level of performance that will be among the five best seasons of their career.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I rely heavily on quantitative analysis of hitting and fielding performance to group players. These are simply estimates—any one of these players could be out of baseball at age 26 and any one could become a star. Mostly, I hope this list can help you identify exciting young players who are worth watching in the near future.

Excellent Upside, Close to Prime

Felix Hernandez
21 years old | Seattle Mariners
One of baseball’s most valuable players, the 21-year-old Hernandez is already an above-average major league pitcher.
His modest 12-14 record and 4.52 ERA during the 2006 season was mostly due to some early-season home run troubles, but that problem was self-correcting given his groundball tendencies. Meanwhile, Hernandez continued to strike out three times as many batters as he walked throughout the 2006 season. There really isn’t any major league pitcher who has maintained those kinds of rates at that age in recent history; Mark Prior is the closest but he was more than year older than Hernandez was when he made his major league debut. The peripheral statistics suggest Hernandez is in for a very productive 2007 season, and he showed up looking better than ever this spring. The Seattle Mariners could be a surprise contender for the postseason if Hernandez fulfills his potential this year.

[Editor’s note: This column was submitted before Felix’s last start, which he left with an apparent elbow injury.]

Excellent Upside, At least two years from Prime

Homer Bailey
20 years old | Cincinnati Reds
In 2006, Bailey improved his mediocre control while maintaining his ability to make batters swing and miss at exceptional rates. He seemed to get better against tougher competition, and Bailey’s lively and high-velocity fastball lead some to think he has the highest ceiling of any minor league pitcher right now. To reach his ceiling, however, Bailey will need to improve his consistency. His control faltered late in the season, and he walked three or more batters in five of his last six starts of the 2006 season.

Phil Hughes
20 years old | New York Yankees
For those of you who have not been paying attention, Hughes is not just another over-hyped Yankees prospect. I’m not so sure he’s really the game’s best pitching prospect right now, but he’s a legitimate candidate for that title. He complements a mid-90s four-seam fastball with an above-average curveball and sinking fastball that generates plenty of ground balls. His stuff was good enough to strike out at least one batter per inning in the minor leagues, but his outstanding control really set him apart from other young pitchers with a comparable repertoire.

Hughes has only walked 54 batters during in 232 innings pitched over the past two years. The only concern I have related to Hughes’ performance relates to the Yankees’ coddling of Hughes with pitch counts and inning limits for much of last season. I think it helped him stay healthy, which is more important than anything. It probably also inflated his numbers, however. His strikeout rate really took off during the second half of the season, when he didn’t need to pace himself for starts longer than five innings in length.

Good Upside, Close to Prime

Jeremy Bonderman
24 years old | Detroit Tigers
Yes, this major league veteran is only 24 years old. He earned his GED so he could enter the draft a year early and was selected early as part of an Oakland draft class that Michael Lewis later termed an “expensive disaster” in Moneyball. A year after joining the Athletics organization, the Tigers acquired Bonderman in a lopsided three-way deal that sent Jeff Weaver to the Yankees and Ted Lilly to the Athletics.

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski claimed he was a “a big advocate of Double-A” upon acquiring Bonderman, but he proceeded to insert him into the major league rotation where he nearly lost 20 games during his rookie season. Many people have been expecting a breakout season from Bonderman since then, but instead he has demonstrated steady improvement over the first five years of his professional career. His ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio have incrementally improved every season since his rookie campaign, and he seems well-positioned to be a consistently above-average starting pitcher during the next stage of his career.

Matt Garza
23 years old | Minnesota Twins
Matt Garza’s 2006 season began in the Florida State League and ended in a major league pennant race. Garza handled nearly every promotion with ease, as he continued to strike out over one quarter of opposing batters while walking very few at every level of the minor league. He did struggle with Minnesota, but I suspect that has at lot to do with his enormous workload increase in comparison to the previous season. Garza’s fastball is clearly his best pitch, but he effectively utilizes three other pitches and should be a good major league pitcher for years to come.

Yovani Gallardo
21 years old | Milwaukee Brewers
Gallardo seems like an afterthought following Hughes, Bailey, and Tim Lincecum in many discussions of the games best young pitchers these days. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him out-pitch all of those pitchers this year, however. He doesn’t have the same kind of velocity as some of the best pitching prospects in this list, but it’s not far behind and he has great command of three quality pitches. Gallardo’s durability and mature approach to pitching are also working in his favor; I expect a smooth transition to the National League when the Brewers reward him with a promotion him later this year.

Luke Hochevar
23 years old | Kansas City Royals
The Royals’ best pitching prospect hasn’t pitched at a high level of competition during the past year and a half, so it is difficult to assess him from a performance perspective. A holdout from the 2005 draft, Hochevar signed on with the Royals as the top overall pick during the less talent-laden 2006 draft. Hochevar’s first real test will occur in the Double-A Texas League this season. He was unlucky enough to struggle with control while facing Troy Patton in each of his first two starts of the 2007 season. Nevertheless, Hochevar is likely to improve and work his way into the Royals rotation before next season.

Josh Johnson
23 years old | Florida Marlins
Johnson, a projectable fourth-round pick out of high school in 2002, has developed exactly as any team hopes their young teenager pitchers will develop. The Marlins steadily increased his workload and Johnson progressed without any major setbacks as experience, growth and some tweaks to his mechanics have led to increased velocity on his fastball and improved command and control.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

Here is a breakdown of his progress in those areas. The scouting data comes from the archives of Tulsa World, The (Raleigh) News & Observer, Greensboro News & Record, and The Sporting News.

Year Age Level  WT   MPH  K/BB
2002  18    A- 215 88-92    
2003  19    A             2.03
2004  20    A+ 220 90-94  2.19
2005  21   AA      91-96  2.26
2006  22  MLB  240 92-96  1.95

That’s the good news. The bad news is that he is unlikely to repeat the kind of success he experienced in 2006. Last year’s xFIP-ERA, which predicts ERA based on fielding-independent measures such as strikeouts and walks along with an expected home runs allowed component, suggests his peripheral statistics were not nearly as impressive as his 12-7 record and 3.10 ERA suggest. As a minor-leaguer, Johnson was projected to be a solid mid-rotation starter and I think that’s still an accurate expectation going forward. The second complication has to do with Johnson’s arm troubles. He experienced shoulder soreness a few times during his minor league career, suffered from forearm stiffness last September, and has been sidelined by an irritated ulnar nerve this Spring. His most recent problem might be cured with a few months of rest and rehabilitation, but it continues a worrisome pattern.

Tim Lincecum
22 years old | San Francisco Giants
Lincecum, a small-framed right-handed pitcher with memorable pitching mechanics, dominated California League hitters shortly after being drafted by the Giants last year. There’s a lot to like about Lincecum, but his control might be the difference between becoming a good versus a great pitcher in his prime. He struggled with inconsistent control earlier in his college career and has surrendered a fair number of walks during his otherwise dazzling career as a professional. There is also some concern that hitters might be more comfortable with Lincecum’s unusual delivery during his second and third time through a league, but I think those kinds of concerns are often overstated. Lincecum will almost undoubtedly join the Giants pitching staff at some point this season, and he could emerge as that team’s most effective pitcher in the very near future.

Adam Miller
22 years old | Cleveland Indians
A serious elbow strain in 2005 may have been the best thing to happen to Miller’s career. The young pitcher used to get by on a high-90s fastball, but after returning from time off due to the sore elbow, Miller was forced to develop his secondary pitches to compensate for losing some velocity on the fastball. He can still light up the radar guns when he needs to, but Miller can also command his slider and changeup well. He has always demonstrated above-average command and is in the “close to prime” category because he has already stretched his arm out with a 150-plus inning season.

Huston Street
23 years old | Oakland Athletics
The University of Texas alum has made a smooth transition to the major leagues. Street only walked 13 batters last season and at 23 years of age is already one of baseball’s most dependable closers.

Justin Verlander
24 years old | Detroit Tigers
What I like most about Verlander is his ability to adapt. Shortly after signing on with the Tigers, coaches pointed out a flaw that was affecting his command and Verlander adapted to a new delivery with stunning success. More recently, Verlander struggled when he abandoned a knuckle-curve that was causing blisters, so just added a more traditional curveball to his repertoire. The reigning American League Rookie of the Year should bounce back from his late-season struggles and emerge as a consistently above-average pitcher from here on out.

Good Upside, At least two years from Prime

Nick Adenhart
20 years old | Los Angeles Angels
Adenhart made a full recovery from Tommy John surgery last year and made the Angels look like geniuses for investing a 14th-round pick in an injured arm. The teenager complemented a healthy strikeout rate with excellent control in his first season back from surgery, and he enjoyed success against older competition in a hitter-friendly league during the second half of 2006. Adenhart threw a lot last year, and he could move to the Angels rotation as soon as next year if he can continue to succeed at Double-A Arkansas this season.

Chad Billingsley
22 years old | Los Angeles Dodgers
His nice-looking 3.80 ERA during the 2006 season obscures some pretty serious control issues last year. Billingsley is likely to improve in that respect this year, but he has struggled with control earlier in his career so this is a problem worth watching. The Dodgers’ top young pitcher did improve as the 2006 season progressed; his control and strikeout rates were at their best during the final two months of the season.

Average Upside, Close to Prime

Matt Cain
22 years old | San Francisco Giants
Carlos Gomez recently analyzed Cain’s pitching mechanics. While I agree that Cain is a great candidate as a sleeper to break out soon, I doubt it will happen. Cain has demonstrated mediocre control since leaving Single-A ball in 2004, and that leads to occasional outings like last week’s 1-0 loss to San Diego, where he was lucky to only surrender one run after allowing six baserunners to reach first base without actually hitting the ball. He clearly has the stuff to make major league hitters swing and miss, but his inconsistent control will limit his effectiveness.

Anibal Sanchez
23 years old | Florida Marlins
Although Anibal allowed fewer runs in the National league than the Double-A Southern League, his peripheral statistics took significant slides. Anibal, the winner of a no-hitter, was about as lucky as any pitcher in 2006. He benefited from a favorable .243 batting average of balls in play last year, and he is unlikely to enjoy that kind of success again. Still, his minor league track record and rookie campaign suggest he has the makings of an above-average major league pitcher in his prime.

Jered Weaver
24 years old | Los Angeles Angeles
Weaver posted an 11-2 record and 2.56 ERA with the Angels. I think he’s a good pitcher, but he’s not that good. An extreme flyball pitcher, Weaver will surrender more home runs more often than he did during the 2006 season. He also won’t continue to strand over 85% of baserunners as he did last year.

Joel Zumaya
22 years old | Detroit Tigers
Zumaya can make radar guns spit out numbers they have never produced before, and he was a critical component of the Tigers’ surprising run to the playoffs in 2006. Zumaya isn’t particularly good at throwing strikes and a Mark Wohlers-like early career is a possibility. He can throw more than a fastball, however, and the Tigers have not ruled out a move to the rotation in the future.

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