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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.
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.
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 . His athleticism sets him apart. Not many pitchers are built like him."
"He has exceptional stuff," said Brian Graham, the Pirates' director of player development. "And he knows how to use it."
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."
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.