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Who are the next great pitchers?
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Martinez has skipped a start to try to avoid landing on the disabled list for the third straight year. Clemens will win 300 games, despite two shoulder operations and five stints on the DL. Schilling would probably be as good a choice as Martinez to pitch a seventh game of the World Series, but he's been through injuries and operations.
It's this difficult: Martinez is compared to Sandy Koufax, but still has fewer career wins than Kevin Appier. Schilling is a generational great, yet has fewer career wins than John Denny.
"There are so many things that can happen to a pitcher believed to be destined for greatness," says one executive. "Injuries, obviously. Makeup and drive. All those great elite pitchers -- and I put Hampton into that group -- have all the intangibles as well as the stuff. But when you try to look into the future and predict who will be the next generation, it's very foggy."
For instance, one executive says, "Two years ago, I thought Bartolo Colon was headed for that class. Don't get me wrong, Colon is a very good pitcher, but one wonders if he has the drive to have the consistency to be on that level. He's young enough (26) and has enough wins (56) to be on his way, but between his weight and his inconsistent performances, one wonders." It's especially frustrating when this past week he threw 10 pitches at 98 mph or higher, including consecutive pitches at 98, 100 and 101. Oh, yes. He does have a 5-6 record this season.
In Oakland, the A's believe Tim Hudson will be considered on that level 10 years from now. In less than two seasons, he's won 38 games and he's just 25 years old. He is a great, Hampton/Brown-type athlete. He has their fire. But, asks another pitcher, "Can he hold up physically? He's not a big-framed guy. He doesn't have that one dominating pitch. I look at Kerry Wood and I see that guy. Matt Morris, as well. But I wonder on Hudson."
Asking around, three names were most prevalently mentioned as pitchers who could become elite-level guys: Wood, Josh Beckett and Morris. How early are they in their careers? Wood, 24, has 27 wins; Beckett, 20, made his first Double-A start on Saturday; and Morris, 26, has 30 career victories. Wood and Morris have had Tommy John surgery, while Beckett was limited to 59 1/3 innings last season.
"Wood puts such a strain on his elbow throwing that breaking ball that one has to be concerned about his long-term durability," says a scout. "But he is fierce and fearless, and his stuff lights up the park. If anyone could, it's him." One of those elite veterans says Wood will, if healthy, make it big.
"If he goes from (throwing) 50-60 percent fastballs to 70-80 percent he'll dominate even more than he does now. He needs to understand how lethal his fastball really is, and use it to get ahead instead of throwing a breaking ball, going 1-0, then throwing a fastball."
Beckett's 1.23 ERA in 62 2/3 innings in the Carolina League, with 32 hits allowed and a 15/101 BB/K ratio are obscene numbers.
"He's a young Doc Gooden," says one GM. "His stuff is so good it's silly, and he's got a presence and an arrogance that makes it clear he is great. He is the best prospect in baseball, and only injury can keep him from greatness."
Morris, meanwhile, is really coming into his own this year.
"He's got the arsenal -- including attitude -- to win and win a lot," says one of the veteran elite. "But he has to stay healthy." Attitude? Because he is quiet, a little flaky and genuinely nice, some don't realize his makeup. But run the tape back to a playoff game in The Cape League one summer, and there he gave up two scratch hits to lead off an inning. Next up was an opposing hitter he disliked. "I'm drilling him," Morris told his Hyannis catcher, Jason Varitek, whose protest went in vain. Morris drilled his nemesis to load the bases with none out, then struck out the side on nine pitches.
"He is stubborn, and he is mean," says one scout. "Geoff Jenkins took a big swing against him earlier this year and Matt buried the next 94 mile an hour fastball right in his back." That mean thing is not to be underestimated; think of all the elite pitchers mentioned, and understand why Hampton never could fathom Mike Piazza going to the mound and kicking Roger Clemens' behind in the World Series.
Some of the other responses from our unscientific poll may or may not surprise you:
He's had a couple of injuries, but the reason Burnett doesn't get as much support in this poll is that he is considered a flake because of his nipple rings and tattoos. Come on. If Burnett lived in Boston, where there are 300,000 college students, the nipple rings and tattoos would be considered normal -- and this guy has a joy and love of the game that's unusual.
Others with some mention were Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Jeff Weaver ("on the brink of being an All-Star, but his delivery is scary"), Dempster, Ben Sheets and Eric Milton. Scott Schoeneweis might have been, but he's already 27. Dodgers GM Dave Wallace believes Luke Prokopec is close to this class because of his toughness and athleticism. Adam Eaton, meanwhile, got a mention as well.
This topic led to another.
Since, other than Seattle, there are no dominant teams this season, which teams could win the World Series if they got into the playoffs?
"I think it comes down to who has the one great pitcher, the bullpen, the defense that's so important in the postseason and experience," says one veteran GM. "Seattle has it all, especially with Carlos Guillen playing as well as he's playing. Garcia's a No. 1 starter. Cleveland would be next, because they've got Colon, their bullpen is second to Seattle's and they've got that great veteran lineup that will play the postseason a lot differently than they play in June." That's especially the case with so many of the Indians' players contracts up at the end of the year.
How about the Yankees? Yes, but they are more vulnerable and in need of a middle reliever and another bat. The Red Sox? If Nomar Garciaparra comes back -- and he is so uncertain about his return that he canceled a photo shoot with Baseball Weekly for its second half preview issue that airs after the All-Star Game -- they should have the offense. They have Pedro, David Cone, Hideo Nomo and a good bullpen, but the defense still has to prove that it won't spring leaks, a la '99.
And Minnesota? Well, they are probably too young. "If Oakland ever came back and made it," says an AL GM, "I'd be afraid of them because of Hudson, Mulder and Zito."
The Braves will depend on the health of their pitching, which right now isn't close to their historical level. The D-Backs have Schilling and Johnson, but they have a lot of inexperience in their bullpen. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have injury concerns.
"If the Cardinals make it, they will be very tough, and if Houston gets a veteran starter to go with Miller and Oswalt and Billy Wagner is OK, they will be, too -- if they make it," says a GM. "But if something were to happen, three teams that could be very dangerous are the Cubs, Rockies and Marlins. The Cubs have Wood, Jon Lieber, Kevin Tapani and a great bullpen. The Rockies have Hampton and a team that could win every home game they play. And Florida? Don't laugh. They need a veteran everyday player and a veteran starter, but if the Phillies go into a freefall and the Braves and Mets struggle all season, if the Marlins ever snuck in and went out there with nothing to lose and Burnett, Dempster and Brad Penny to gain, they could scare the heck out of anyone."
In other words, this appears to be as wide open a season as any in memory. We need that this year.Around the majors
"That's an interesting question," said White Sox GM Ken Williams on Friday. "We'll have to see how we play up to the All-Star break." After the series in St. Louis, the Sox play three with the Royals, seven each with the Twins and Orioles and three with the Pirates. "Two weeks ago, when things didn't look this way, I had three plans, now I have three more," says Williams. However, he staunchly dismisses reports that he offered David Wells to the Yankees for Alex Graman, Brett Jodie and D'Angelo Jimenez. "No offer was made," he says. "The results that we're getting from our young pitchers have been impacted by Wells in terms of their aggressiveness, their preparation, their pace."
"We have pretty good pitching depth in the minors, especially left-handed (Joey Nation, Will Ohman, Phil Norton)," says MacPhail. Everyone realizes that one huge key is a big second half from Todd Hundley, who thus far hasn't gotten untracked.
The Phillies are not likely to keep Rolen after 2002 anyway, and this set off some alarms that perhaps were unwarranted. Yes, Rolen hit .352 from May 4 to June 4. And while he was pounded with fastballs in Boston, Rolen insisted that's what happens when he locks his front foot, cannot open up and generate a weightshift. That's precisely what the Red Sox saw on video. "He was locked up, and we were going to pound him with fastballs until he came out of it," says one Red Sox coach. "But it looks like one of those things that happens when you're in a funk."
This and that
Alderson hopes eventually that umpires can focus on the bottom part of the strike zone and call pitches as they cross the plate, not where they are caught -- which would further help curveball pitchers. Beginning this week, the Commissioner's Office is going to try to speed up the time between innings and when relievers are brought in. "The time between innings for local telecasts is 2:05, for national games 2:25, but we're adding an additional 30 or 40 seconds right now," says Alderson, who will limit pitchers to one warmup after the 1:45 mark. Times of games have actually increased slightly -- 2:54 to 2:55 -- in the last month. One suggestion was to adopt international rules, which limits each team to one trip to the mound per inning.
Dan Duquette had to settle for a two-year extension that can be bought out by a new owner, although at least one group will retain Duquette.
"Dan had a three-year deal with Harrington back in the spring that was killed by the owners," says a frend of the Boston GM. "John was fair with him, and this deal isn't fair. It's John who believes that the media should and will only know something when he's ready to have them know, and Dan's done his work because John is his boss. But Dan's taken a lot of bullets for the boss."
Different groups have different theories on what to do about a ballpark, although Mayor Tom Menino seems to be intrigued with the plan presented to him by former Padred owner Tom Werner -- who as a Harvard undegraduate did a documentary on Fenway -- and ski magnate Les Otten to rebuild Fenway Park.
The Paul Shuey injury, meanwhile, was a big loss, not only because the Cleveland pen was going well, but because in the minors Danys Baez has a cyst in the back of his shoulder and Roy Smith was sidelined with back problems.
"This is the first time in a long time that I've had a breaking ball I can throw in the strike zone," says Cone, who has effectively gone to a slurve. "What Joe Kerrigan got me to do is not step back so far at the beginning of my delivery. That shortened the delivery. What was happening was that I couldn't control the swing of my left leg, and it ended up pointing me to the first-base side. Now my stride is right and the curveball with the down plane is back."
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