Emerging pitchers to watch this season

Holland, Bumgarner, Pineda among those who could rise quickly

By Anthony Castrovince | MLB.com Columnist | Archive 02/22/12 10:00 AM EST

When we discussed some potential breakout superstars for 2012 last week, we limited the conversation to position players. They are, after all, the most likely to vie for the MVP Award (Justin Verlander is one of the few who have served as an exception to the rule, in that regard) and, frankly, are easier subjects of performance prediction.

That said, we entertain examination of both sides of the ball in these parts, and so we turn our attention today to some pitchers ready for prominence.
To be clear, we're searching here for arms potentially poised to make the jump into the "elite" category -- up there with the likes of Verlander, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver, etc. We're looking for guys seemingly ready for Cy Young Award-worthy status.

And because only nine relievers have come out on top in the long history of the Cy, we're sticking to starters. Capish?
Last year, Clayton Kershaw made the leap, claiming the National League pitching Triple Crown, drastically improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio and beating Halladay in the battle for the NL Cy Young Award. The D-backs' Ian Kennedy (21 wins) and the Rays' James Shields (11 complete games) made similar ascents into the thick of the Cy Young Award conversation in their respective leagues. Shields finished third and Kennedy fourth in the AL and NL voting, respectively.
There are no hard and fast rules on when a pitcher will make the climb into Cy consciousness. While position-player peaks generally tend to follow a bell curve, pitchers walk a notoriously unpredictable path. On that note, who's to say Matt Moore, given what we witnessed in that impressive postseason start against the Rangers last October and the fact that he enters the season without an innings limit, doesn't prove immediately capable in his rookie year? We shall see.
For the purposes of this discussion, though, we're looking at starters who have established their big league footing and might break out in a big way.
One name that springs to mind is that of Derek Holland, the Rangers lefty whose masterful performance in Game 4 of last year's World Series would have gone down as the stuff of October legend if not for the inconvenient truth that Texas didn't seal the deal and win. Holland is already something of a household name as a result of that outing (not to mention his silly 'stache), which was part of a strong first full season as a starter. Holland tied Shields for the league lead with four shutouts, and he tied C.J. Wilson for the team lead with 16 wins.
Because of Holland's superior stuff and ongoing maturation, 2011 might have just been the beginning. And while all eyes will be on Japanese import Yu Darvish, the Rangers have ace potential in the 25-year-old Holland, too. This could be the year he thrusts himself into that role.
"You can't draft what he has, and you can't trade for it," manager Ron Washington said last year. "He's too talented."
Speaking of young stars from recent World Series, it's not at all unreasonable to suggest that the Giants' best starter this season might not be Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain.
It might be Madison Bumgarner.
According to Fangraphs.com, the 22-year-old left-hander had the fourth-best Fielding Independent Pitching mark (2.67) in all of baseball last year, trailing only Halladay, Kershaw and Lee. He also had the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.15) on the starting staff. So while Bumgarner's season got off to a brutal start -- he went 0-6 in his first eight starts -- and that caused his final record to be a pedestrian 13-13, he evolved considerably in the second half.
"He's got presence out there," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's got poise. He keeps coming at you."
When it comes to presence, height helps. One of the things that makes Weaver so effective is his lengthy 6-foot-7 frame allows him to attack hitters at arm angles they are unaccustomed to. One player told me that with Weaver, it's almost as if the ball is shooting out of the third-base dugout.
That's an advantage the Yankees' new acquisition, 6-foot-7 Michael Pineda, and the Indians' 6-foot-6 Justin Masterson also possess. Pineda is an imposing figure who struck out 9.1 batters per nine innings in his rookie year with the Mariners. His ability to handle a prominent role on the game's most prominent team will largely be tied to the development of his changeup. If he masters that pitch to pair with his overpowering fastball and wipeout slider, he could find himself alongside Sabathia in the Cy conversation.
"Obviously," manager Joe Girardi said, "he's got a very good arm."
Masterson is a different animal, in that he doesn't rack up that level of Ks, but he did rank seventh among all Major League starters with a 55.1-percent ground-ball percentage. He went 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA to become the ace of the Indians' young staff, and it was the first indication that the 26-year-old Masterson can thrive in a starting role the way he once did in the Boston bullpen.
The ground balls that fuel Masterson's success also helped the A's Brandon McCarthy put together the best season of his career in 2011. His 46.7 ground-ball percentage was by far the best of his career, and the guy once touted as a top pitching prospect finally began to make good on that acclaim after injuries cost him parts of four previous seasons.
McCarthy is 28, so we might have a late bloomer on our hands. He had the best FIP (2.86) of any AL starter last season, slightly edging Sabathia (2.88). And with Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill now working elsewhere, the lead role in the A's rotation is his for the taking.
Speaking of Cahill (who finished ninth in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 2010) and Gonzalez, their transition to the NL could help them shave their ERAs considerably. Gonzalez is a particularly intriguing case, as he's coming off a 16-12 record and 3.12 ERA, but he won't be considered an elite pitcher until he drastically cuts down his walks. He led the AL with a 10.5 walk percentage last season.
Gonzalez has joined a Nationals staff that might have a Cy-worthy arm in its midst, now that Tommy John surgery has healed that arm. Yes, Jordan Zimmermann has a bright future.
What, you thought I was talking about Stephen Strasburg?
Strasburg, of course, has the raw stuff to become a big league legend, but his innings limit will likely prevent him from having a true breakout campaign. He'll instead be looking to follow the timetable Zimmermann adhered to in 2011, when Zimmermann went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA in 161 1/3 innings.
Now that he's coming up on three years removed from Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann should be at full strength. Give him 200 innings and he might become an elite starter by virtue of his impressive control. His 4.7 walk percentage ranked third in the NL, trailing only Halladay and Lee, last season.
Two other guys whose control could take them to new heights are the Tigers' Doug Fister and the D-backs' Daniel Hudson. Both guys occupied the No. 2 role behind ace starters Verlander and Kennedy on playoff clubs last season, but both could have the poise to become aces in their own right. If Fister comes even remotely close to extrapolating his post-Trade Deadline WHIP of 0.839, strikeout-to-walk ratio of 11.40 and ERA of 1.79 over the course of a full season, he'll be considered an elite arm, indeed. And if Hudson continues to improve his secondary pitches and strikeout rate, he, too, will have the look of a legit ace-type pitcher.
Another improving pitcher who has company on his own staff for the ace label is Yovani Gallardo. Yes, he's been around since 2007, but he'll turn just 26 next week and still has upside. Last season, Gallardo cracked 200 innings for the first time, and he improved his control for the third straight season, dropping his walk rate to a career-low 2.6 per nine while striking out nine per nine. It's possible that, 115 starts into his Major League career, we know exactly what Gallardo will give the Brewers. But the innings increase and the dip in walks could be a sign that Gallardo is ready to make the leap from very good to truly great.
The Blue Jays' Ricky Romero could be in a similar situation. His ERA has improved dramatically in each of the past two seasons, and that's no doubt related to his lowering his WHIP each year. Fangraphs gave him an adjusted ERA 29 points higher than the league average last year, ranking sixth among AL starters.
Or maybe another Jays starter, Brandon Morrow, makes the rise. After all, he won't have an innings limit as he enters his third full season as a starter, and he's struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings in each of the past two seasons, all while lowering his walk rate. His ERA was an unimpressive 4.72 last year, but perhaps this is the year when the results match the stuff.
No doubt, the above discussion is not all-inclusive, for one can never be certain when a starter will put it all together to become top flight. But these are undoubtedly some names to watch as 2012 develops.
That is, when you're not already watching the Verlanders and Halladays and Sabathias of the world.