04/01/2004 11:00 AM ET
Young hurlers to make their pitches
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
|Brett Myers was 14-9 with a 4.43 ERA in 2003, his first full Major League season. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
In just under a thousand combined innings last year, they had a combined record of 63-43. They struck out 777 batters and only walked 365. They dared hitters to take them deep, and they dared fans around Major League Baseball not to watch.
Two of them will pitch in new home parks, two of them will try to pitch their teams back into the postseason, and one hopes to become his franchise's first 20-game winner in 30 years.
They are back as cornerstones of their respective starting rotations, given lofty expectations for everyone seeking the next big thing: Brett Myers of Philadelphia, Jake Peavy of San Diego, C.C. Sabathia of Cleveland, Johan Santana of Minnesota and Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs. For those seeking superstars in the wings among Major League pitchers, here are five certainly worth watching:
Brett Myers, Phillies right-hander
Philadelphia is a fighter's town. Gene Tunney shocked Jack Dempsey there in 1926. Joe Frazier started smokin' there in the '60s. Rocky Balboa even ran the city's steps there in 1976 and outlasted Apollo Creed.
Yo, Adrian, here comes Brett Myers.
He grew up the son of a professional fight trainer who worked with Larry Holmes, the heavyweight champ from nearby Easton. Young Brett was 12-0 as an amateur boxer, and although he turned from pugilism to pitching at age 13, he never really gave up his fighter side. Now his jabs come at 95 mph, punching out batters instead of boxers. Myers was raised in Florida, but now he is a big part of Philadelphia, a cog in a strong Phillies rotation, coming off a 14-win season and scheduled to make his 2004 debut in the second game of the season against Florida.
What was Myers' ring style?
"Knock 'em out as fast as I can so I didn't have to worry about getting hit," he said. "If we keep talking about boxing, everybody in the league will want to fight me!
"There are some guys who don't like to be pushed, guys who want to be in their own little world. Me? I don't care. If you want to get in my face, that's how I was brought up. That's the way I get it done. I'm going to just get mad at you to show you that this is the way it's going to get done."
Phillies manager Larry Bowa said Myers is "his own worst critic," and those around the 6-foot-4 right-hander see it. This kid is like Rocky pounding away at the slabs of meat, refusing to back down or be happy on an undercard.
"I think it's called necessary arrogance," Myers said of his approach. "You've got to have that swagger when you go out there. You can't just sit back for someone to beat you or be surprised if you get someone out. If you get beat, he's the better man that day. If I'm intimidated, I'm beat. As long as I have a strategy, I think I can get anybody out."
Jake Peavy, Padres right-hander
Like Myers, Peavy should help establish the personality of a brand-new ballpark. Peavy was one of the bright spots in San Diego last season, going 12-11 in his first full season, racking up 194 2/3 innings and posting an impressive 156-82 strikeout-walk ratio. With a whip-like motion and 96-mph fastball to go along with an evolving changeup, he can make Petco his park in 2004.
"We think a lot of this kid," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said of the 21-year-old. "He's one of our frontline starters and will be a frontline starter in the Major Leagues. He's a young kid who has made tremendous progress in the last couple of years. It's neat to see his maturity as a pitcher. He's a little bigger [this year], which is natural for a kid his age. He has the same stuff and looks good."
Peavy reported to camp packing about 10 additonal pounds. At 190, that's about 18 more than when he first joined The Show in mid-2002. Hobbled at the start of Spring Training by an oblique strain, Peavy allowed just four earned runs, while striking out 15 and walking five, in his 14 2/3 spring innings. But all that mattered to him was perfecting his mechanics.
"I'm excited -- I feel like last year was a big year for me as far as learning what it takes to get all the way through from this time and pitch all the way through September," Peavy said. "I've learned what I need to do on each individual day to succeed that day. Earlier in my career, coming up through the minor leagues, it was hit and miss. I either had good stuff or I didn't have good stuff. I would win or lose based on the quality of stuff I had.
"The best pitchers go out there on the days they don't have their best stuff and find a way to win and that's something I've worked on when I'm in the bullpen -- to get a good feel for what I have and go out there and take a game plan, not stick with a hard-headed game plan. I've learned how to set up hitters. I may face the LA Dodgers four times in a season and by the fifth time I know how to go out and go about a game plan."
C.C. Sabathia, Indians left-hander
Gaylord Perry went 21-13 in 1974 for the Cleveland Indians. That is how far back you have to go to find the Cleveland Indians' last 20-game winner.
So this season marks a 30th anniversary of sorts by Lake Erie, and Carsten Charles Sabathia Jr. is the hope for the forlorn. These kinds of things were expected in the days of Feller and Lemon. Today a 20-win season is the golden ring, not unlike the first world championship since 1948 itself.
"Twenty games would be nice to win, but I'm not going into the season saying, 'You know, my goal is to win 20 games,'" Sabathia said. "It would definitely be nice to do it. But I don't like to set goals for myself. What if I went 19-1?"
Indians fans would settle for that. A club that fell fast from the elite is building its way back, and the 6-foot-7, 290-pound former tight end from Vallejo, Calif., carries a large portion of the expectation. He has led the club in wins each of his first three Major League seasons, winning 13 each of the past two years and 17 as a rookie in 2001.
"He's the real deal," Anaheim's Darin Erstad said. "He's going to be one of the best in the game."
He already is, coming off an All-Star appearance in 2003. Only 23, superstardom could be in the very near future. And perhaps that elusive 20-win season.
"I think if I keep doing what I'm doing, I can be one of those guys like Pedro, The Rocket (Roger Clemens), Randy Johnson," Sabathia said. "Right now, I'm just going out there and having fun. I just want to have the respect in this clubhouse that every time I go out there, we have a real good shot to win."
Johan Santana, Twins left-hander
Flash back to last Sept. 30, Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium. Fourth inning. Johan Santana struck out Jason Giambi on three pitches. Although Santana then had to leave that game because of a cramp in his right hamstring, the Twins went on to record their only victory of the series.
It was a glimpse into the future of superstardom for a pitcher who has, by all accounts, found his place in the game. It is not as a long reliever, but as a starter -- a move that the Twins made in the middle of last season, and a key reason why they turned on the afterburners and won a consecutive AL Central title. Santana, 5-0 with a 1.07 ERA in August, held batters to a .191 average and registered an outstanding 169-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His .800 winning percentage (12-3) set a club record, topping Frank Viola's .774 mark (24-7) in 1988.
"I feel more comfortable because I know what my role will be and when I'll pitch," Santana said. "It just gets you more and more comfortable. I know there will be more responsibility but that's what I want."
Santana was struggling most of this spring with his mechanics and especially his normally sharp changeup, but in his fifth Grapefruit League start he threw five scoreless innings. So it looks like the train is rolling again.
"Just having a healthy Santana helps our rotation," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "When he's healthy, he's as good as there is in the league."
Carlos Zambrano, Cubs right-hander
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had this to say about the Cubs' vaunted starting rotation: "That Chicago owns the Majors' best rotation is hardly debatable, but other smaller debates are springing up as the group matures. Some observers believe No. 4 starter Zambrano may actually have the best repertoire on the staff and lacks only Wood's mound presence before stepping ahead of the rest."
It is a stretch at this point to say that Zambrano is overlooked on the Cubs' rotation. He was 7-3 with a 2.51 ERA in the second half last season, finishing 13-11, and was a big reason the Cubs won their first NL Central title. Plenty of attention was upon him last October, with many articles written both on his ability and his singular emotions on the mound.
Another career leap could happen quickly.
"This year I feel more comfortable; this year I feel I have a job to do," Zambrano said. "Two years ago, I didn't feel I had the job done and now I have a little bit more experience and know the game and I know what to do in some situations."
Zambrano likely will be the fifth man in the rotation, but that is a formality.
"I told somebody that's the sleeper guy right there," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "This guy, the upside is huge. Everybody talks about Mark [Prior] and Kerry, but I don't see how they can leave this guy out."
Zambrano is only 22. Greg Maddux will turn 38 on April 14. Baker said he expects Zambrano to benefit from Maddux's wisdom, and consistency is the most important thing the Cubs hope he learns. Take away five starts in which he was hit hard and Zambrano's ERA was 2.19 over 27 starts.
Since 1950, the only Cubs starter to work more than 200 innings and allow fewer than 10 homers was Maddux in 1992 (seven homers in 268 innings). This could be a natural relationship, pulling a superstar out of the wings.
"Every time he will be on the mound I will be watching him and trying to learn from him," Zambrano said of Maddux. "When I don't know something I will talk to him and ask him something."
Mark Newman is a writer for MLB.com. Reporters Justice Hill, Ken Mandel, Carrie Muskat, Mike Scarr and Mark Sheldon contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.