Child’s Play

Jon Paul Morosi –

I have my doubts about Generation Y. Maybe that’s because I’m part of it.

We spend too much time on Facebook. We are easily distracted by YouTube. We waste money on expensive coffee. We aren’t terribly motivated. We will think about changing our ways … tomorrow.

Yet, as lazy as we’re perceived to be, our age group has produced a collection of arms for the ages.

The last generation had Roger Clemens. He was last seen defending his legacy against steroid allegations. So, yeah, we’re pretty happy with
Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander.

If you’re a baseball fan between the ages of 20 and 30, chances are very good that a stud pitcher born within a few months of you will be carving up major-league hitters each night this summer. This is historic stuff. And despite our tweet-length attention spans, I think we’re smart enough to recognize good fortune when it comes our way.

“I can’t recall this impressive of a young group in a long time,” one veteran scout told me this week. And for the record, this scout is older than Felix.

So, with our (better-paid) brethren set to report for work next week, here’s my ranking of the best pitchers who will be 25 or younger on Opening Day. (Greinke and Verlander are too old for this list. Hey, had to draw the line somewhere.) The pitchers’ impact in the majors — this year — is the determining factor.

I had just one additional rule: The pitchers must have already made their big-league debuts. Sorry, Stephen Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman and Yu Darvish.

1. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants

The case for Lincecum in this spot is probably similar to the more important one being prepared by his agents: Quite simply, the guy won the last two National League Cy Young awards. Win, lose or settle in salary arbitration, he will set the new record for a first-time eligible starting pitcher. That’s what happens when you go 33-12 with a 2.55 ERA over two seasons.

2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners

Trading for Cliff Lee was nice, but signing Hernandez was crucial to the Mariners’ long-term viability as an American League West contender. Hernandez won’t turn 24 until shortly after Opening Day, and he’s only getting better. He had better overall numbers during his first four full seasons than CC Sabathia, the recent standard to which young starters are measured.

3. Matt Cain, RHP, Giants

Ignore the 44-51 career record. You can blame the anemic San Francisco offense for that. The mere fact that Cain has been involved in that many decisions by age 25 tells you something. He has surpassed 200 innings in each of the past three years, and last season was his best yet. He isn’t the best-known pitcher on his own staff, but he’s awfully good.

4. Rick Porcello, RHP, Tigers

At 20 last year, he was the youngest player in the American League. He showed his mettle by allowing only one earned run in the season’s 163rd game, against the Twins at a raucous Metrodome. Over his final eight starts, his ERA was 2.83. You get the idea: He became a top performer when the Tigers needed him most — a truly remarkable trait when considering he couldn’t take a legal drink until after Christmas.

5. Brett Anderson, LHP, A’s

If you’re in bed each night by 10 p.m. Eastern, you probably don’t know much about Anderson. Well, you will. One scout made the following statement about the deal that sent him from Arizona to Oakland: “When history is written, Brett Anderson for Dan Haren, straight-up, would have been fair.” Translation: Anderson is as valuable as the guy who started the 2007 All-Star Game. As a 21-year-old rookie last year, the lefty was better in the second half than the first.

6. Tommy Hanson, RHP, Braves

The Braves took a PR hit last June when they released future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine and inserted Hanson into an open rotation spot. But Hanson, now 23, helped the team save face, to say the very least. He earned 11 wins in only 21 starts, with a sparkling 2.89 ERA. Had he been in the majors for the entire season, he likely would have been the National League Rookie of the Year.

7. Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Braves

Let’s allow Tigers fans a moment to reflect on what a Verlander-Jurrjens-Porcello rotation would have looked like. Finished yet? No? I’m sorry. Yes, Edgar Renteria has joined A.J. Pierzynski among the accomplished players who know what it’s like to be the Bad Guy in a lopsided trade. Jurrjens, 24, has logged more than 400 innings (with a 3.10 ERA) over the past two years.

8. John Danks, LHP, White Sox

I don’t get it. Danks is a former first-round pick. He was a highly touted prospect in Texas before being traded to Chicago. He plays in a major media market. Yet, he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. While working in one of baseball’s foremost hitter-friendly parks, he had terrific numbers over the past two seasons (25-20, 3.55 ERA, 395 1/3 innings). He turns 25 shortly after Opening Day.

9. Yovani Gallardo, RHP, Brewers

After separate knee injuries limited him to only four starts during the 2008 regular season, Gallardo returned authoritatively last year. He’s not a household name from coast to coast — fact: he plays for the Brewers — but that should change soon. He ranked second to Lincecum in strikeouts per nine innings (9.889) among NL pitchers last year.

10. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers

Feliz, 21, has the stuff to be a dominant reliever in the big leagues. We know that because he fanned better than one hitter per inning during last year’s powerful bullpen call-up. But it’s just as likely that he will develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter. And while I’ll admit my bias toward pitchers who have already proven that they can start in the majors, Feliz’s explosive fastball earns a spot.

The Next Ten

Joakim Soria, RHP, Royals: If I made this list according to achievements, Soria would have been in the top five. He has 89 saves over the past three years.

Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers: He had a lousy series against the
Phillies, I know. But don’t forget what he did during the regular season.

Andrew Bailey, RHP, A’s: From an unknown to AL Rookie of the Year. I didn’t vote for him, but he deserved the award: 68 appearances, many of them great.

Daniel Bard, RHP, Red Sox: He stepped into the Boston pressure cooker and handled himself well. It helps when you strike out 11.5 batters per nine innings.

David Price, LHP, Rays: He didn’t have a great 2009, and he must improve his command. Still, he has the chance to be a star.

Brian Matusz, LHP, Orioles: A cerebral starter who could become an ace, he made quick work of the minor leagues. He has good stuff and an idea of how to manage games — “a good combo,” one scout said.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants: He made an impressive cameo at 19 last year. He could be a big part of the San Francisco rotation in ’10.

Jonathan Broxton, RHP, Dodgers: He’s been an outstanding closer. How will he bounce back from the NLCS disappointment?

Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox: He threw the no-hitter in 2007 but has yet to reach 200 innings — for his big league career.

Joba Chamberlain, RHP, Yankees: I’m still not sure if he’s a starter or reliever. Is anyone?

Honorable Mention: Chad Billingsley, RHP, Dodgers; Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers; Trevor Cahill, RHP, A’s; Wade Davis, RHP, Rays; Ricky Romero, LHP, Jays;
Phil Hughes, RHP, Yankees; Tommy Hunter, RHP, Rangers; Derek Holland, LHP, Rangers; Brad Bergesen, RHP, Orioles; Mat Latos, RHP, Padres.