Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Arms Race: Rookies dominating on the hill

by Jeremy Bird

Matt Cain, the 21-year old Giants rookie, was four outs from a no-hitter last night. He struck out 10, winning his fifth straight game.

Cain’s unbelievable game fits well into a narrative going on in baseball this year: rookie pitchers are making a huge impact in both leagues. Cain's performance has me considering who has been and will be the impact rookie pitcher of 2006. Here are my choices:

1. Jonathan Papelbon. Red Sox.
Papelbon is simply amazing. The guy came into the season as a reliever for the Sox, found himself as the closer and has been unstoppable for a first-place team.

Papelbon’s ERA is 0.25. Nothing more to say really. 0.25. He has 23 saves in 24 opportunities. He has struck out 35 batters in 35 innings pitched.

After two months, Papelbon was perfect with 20 consecutive saves, setting an MLB record for save conversions to start a season.

The fourth-round, 114th selection of the 2003 draft has been the best closer in the game when the The Red Sox desperately needed one. Papelbon is one of the key reason the Sox are first in the East. Look for Papelbon to continue his Rookie of the Year season, even if his 0.25 rises and he blows a few down the stretch.

2. Francisco Liriano. Twins.
Liriano has been compared to Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. In fact, some people think he will be better. If his first few months in the majors are any indication, Liriano will be at least as good as Santana.

The 22-year-old lefty is 6-1 with a 2.16 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .150 against him. He has 67 strikeouts in just 58 innings.

Though he started in the bullpen, Liriano has moved into a starting role, where he has been dominating. He struck out 11 in one game recently. He has the talent to win 15 games this year, and the Twins will need every single one of them.

3. Justin Verlander. Tigers.
The 23-year-old right-hander is 8-4 with a 3.21 ERA for the Tigers in his debut season. Verlander is, undoubtedly, one of the key reasons the Tigers are off to such a hot start.

Verlander’s fastball is dominating, topping 100 mph. Last year, he was called up to make two starts for the Tigers and lost both. Fortunately for Detroit fans, the Tigers liked Verlander’s promise.

The Tigers haven't had a winning season since 1993. They have not been to the playoffs since the 80's. Verlander might be one of the key reasons that all changes in 2006.

4. Matt Cain. Giants.
Cain might have the best raw talent of the rookie pitching core. Last night’s 8-inning one-hitter was not even his best game of the season. In May, he threw a one-hit complete game against the A's.

He is 6-5 on the season with a 4.79 ERA. He has struck out 62 in 77 innings. While his numbers are not as impressive as Papelbon, Liriano or Verlander, his ability to completely dominate a team shows how good he can be when he learns how to pitch. I look for him to have the best second half of the bunch.

5. Chad Billingsley. Dodgers.
Billingsley started his first major league game June 15. He went a solid 5 1/3, allowing six hits and two runs in a no-decision.

This pick is simply based on what the experts say. In the Baseball America preseason top 100 prospects, Billingsley was ranked 7th overall, above all four I listed above.

The 21-year-old was throwing 96-mile-per-hour fastballs in his first start. The experts say he also has a great curveball. The guy also hit a two-run single in his first career at-bat.

With the Dodgers in the race to win the West and make a strong playoff run, the rookie Billingsley could be a huge impact player in 2006.

So, who did I miss?

Jeremy's column, "Bird's Eye View", appears alternate Tuesdays


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Sunday, July 23, 2006  

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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
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