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Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Young Cy threats

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

At several points in baseball history, the improvement in pitching in the major leagues has been tied directly to the emergence of young pitching. The upgrade in pitching these days has been slow and slight, but leading the way for several years has been the young pitching.

We are looking for future Cy Young winners, and we're limiting the search only to those pitchers who will be younger than 25 for the entire 2006 season. We are not suggesting that all of these guys will be in the running for the Cy in 2006, but all of them will be part of a young pitching class that will continue the comeback of major-league pitching.

Dontrelle Willis

Age: 24 | Throws: Left
2005: Won 11 games at home, 11 on the road

Dontrelle Willis
Willis
He nearly won the Cy Young last year, losing to the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter. We forget, with as successful as Willis has been, that he celebrated his 24th birthday in January. He has 46 career victories: Among active pitchers, only Greg Maddux (46) and C.C. Sabathia (49) had as many wins as Willis before their 24th birthday.

Willis' 2005 season was significant for a number of reasons, largely because he had a good second half, unlike previous years. That was partly attributable to his new philosophy, developed last spring: He didn't need to exert maximum effort on every pitch, learning that he could get people out occasionally throwing 91 mph instead of 95. Consequently his walk rate went down again last year -- down to 2.09 walks per nine innings.

Rich Harden

Age: 24 | Throws: Right
2005: Held opponents to .201 BA

He is 26-16 lifetime. In 392 1/3 innings, he has allowed only 336 hits. "He might be the best pitcher in our league," Rangers manager Buck Showalter said last summer. "He throws so hard [high 90s], and he'll throw that changeup when he gets bored."

In his three major-league seasons, Harden's walks per nine innings and hits per nine innings have decreased each year; he allowed only 6.54 hits per nine in 2005. A's general manager Billy Beane said, "At times, he's as good as anyone in our league. And he's still so young [24]. His athleticism sets him apart. Not many pitchers are built like him."

Zach Duke

Age: 22 | Throws: Left
2005: Won his first six major-league decisions

Zach Duke
Duke
Last year, as a 22-year-old, he went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA in 14 starts. He became the first rookie pitcher since Cal Eldred in 1992 to post an ERA that low in at least 10 starts and 75 innings. Everyone who has seen him raves about his poise and his ability to throw strikes, but at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, he's not a soft-throwing finesse pitcher.

"He has exceptional stuff," said Brian Graham, the Pirates' director of player development. "And he knows how to use it."

Scott Kazmir

Age: 22 | Throws: Left
2005: Finished 4th in AL in strikeouts (174)

Future Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar wasn't easily impressed by pitchers, especially young ones, but the first time he faced Kazmir in batting practice in spring training, he said, "I've never seen a young left-hander who throws that hard, and his ball moves that much."

Kazmir is 12-12 with a 4.06 ERA lifetime, but his more important numbers are 215 strikeouts in 219 1/3 innings, and his age: 22.

"We didn't see him last year," new Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon, who was a coach with the Angels, said at the winter meetings. "I can't wait to see him. Everything I hear is good."

Felix Hernandez

Age: 19 | Throws: Right
2005: Held LHB to .182 BA

Felix Hernandez
Hernandez
"Have you seen him?" a scout raved late in the season. "I've seen him twice. I can't remember seeing a kid this young who throws this hard with such control."

Last year, Hernandez, then 19, became the first teenager since Dwight Gooden in 1984 to strike out 10 in a game. When Hernandez threw eight shutout innings in a game near the end of the season, he became the first teenager since Gooden to deny a run in a start. The last pitcher as young as Hernandez to pitch in a regular rotation was Britt Burns in 1978.

"I've never seen a young kid with the potential that this kid has," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said. "If he stays healthy and keeps his head on straight, he has a chance to be as good as we've ever seen."

Hernandez's head is on straight. He's smart, he's personable and he knows where he is. In spring training last year, he got hammered in a start against the Brewers and tried to pitch out of it by throwing harder.

When he got to the big leagues, he was hit hard in an early start. "And then you could see him pull back, take a little more time on the mound and find a way to get the hitter out instead of just throwing harder," Hargrove said. "He learned from that experience There are 25-, 30-year-old pitchers who don't learn like that. The whole baseball world is in front of him if he wants it."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.