With another banner crop of young pitchers on the rise, SI asked those in the know to name their dream rotation
ASKED TO ASSEMBLE a dream rotation from this season's newcomers and up-and-comers, several big league executives wrestled mightily with their selections. "Can I take eight pitchers?" asked one NL Central exec, exasperated that he was limited to five. "Who wouldn't want any of these guys?"
In a survey of 11 high-ranking major league talent evaluators, SI employed the following criteria: Each pitcher had to have one year or less of major league service time entering the 2007 season; prospects with no experience in the bigs were eligible too. That eliminated such prodigies as the Giants' Matt Cain, the Tigers' Justin Verlander and the Mariners' Felix Hernandez. Using a 5-4-3-2-1 scoring system in which the top pick received five points and the fifth selection one point, the group awarded votes to 14 pitchers. Suffering little for his recent struggles, 26-year-old Red Sox rookie righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka (far right) got eight first-place votes. "He's just going through a learning curve," says an AL West executive. "He's still got eight different pitches, intelligence and moxie."
Finishing close to Matsuzaka in the overall voting (box, right) was Cole Hamels, 23, who was the only other pitcher to receive more than one first-place vote (he got two) and was the runner-up on six ballots. The Phillies' lefthander drew consistent raves from the experts, several of whom said he already has the game's best changeup. Says one NL East exec, "He's not just some soft-tossing lefty. Guys have to honor his [low-90s] fastball."
Twenty-year-old Yankees righthander Phil Hughes, who came within eight outs of a no-hitter against the Rangers last week before pulling his left hamstring, was the clear-cut third choice, followed by Indians minor league righthander Adam Miller, 22. Rounding out the rotation was the Giants' Tim Lincecum, 22, who had an 0.29 ERA at Triple A Fresno before making his big league debut on Sunday night—against Hamels no less. Lincecum's line (4 1/3 innings, five earned runs, five strikeouts) was quite similar to that of Hughes in his debut 10 days earlier against the Blue Jays (4 1/3 innings, four earned runs, five strikeouts), though the Giants rookie struggled with his command (five walks) in an 8--5 loss.
Miller, in particular, intrigued several poll participants, one of whom, an AL West executive, described him as a "Kevin Brown clone" for his heavy ball (and not his personality). Voters were similarly curious about Lincecum, who was cited for his stuff (mid-90s fastball with an even better curve) and confidence, though one voter wondered whether his "violent arm action" could eventually derail the 6-foot, 175-pound righthander.
The rotation is so tough to crack, in fact, that the Reds' exquisitely named flamethrower Homer Bailey, 21, finished eighth in the voting and Brewers righthander Yovani Gallardo, 21 (42 strikeouts in 30 innings for Triple A Nashville), was shut out. "This is a really good class," says another AL Central executive, "a lot of guys to be excited about for many years to come."
That Other Rule 5 Steal
On Dec. 7 Joakim Soria awoke at 6 a.m. in a Culiacàn, Mexico, hotel room to the sound of his vibrating cellphone. Royals G.M. Dayton Moore was calling to tell the 22-year-old righthander that Kansas City had acquired him with the second pick of the Rule 5 draft, in which prospects not protected on other teams' 40-man rosters can be obtained for $50,000. (A player selected must spend the entire year in the majors; if he's sent down or cut, his former club can reclaim him for $25,000.) "The first thing I did was call my agent and ask, 'Who is this Dayton Moore?'" says Soria, who was pitching in the Mexican Winter League. "I lived in Mexico all my life, and I didn't know much about major league baseball—and I really didn't know much about the Kansas City Royals."
Of the record 13 Rule 5 players on this year's Opening Day rosters, outfielder Josh Hamilton, a recovering drug addict, has made the biggest splash: Picked third by the Cubs and then dealt to the Reds, he had eight home runs and a .671 slugging percentage through Sunday. But Soria, who was signed by the Dodgers in 2001 and had thrown a combined 16 2/3 innings in Class A and rookie-league ball before this season, has already emerged as a top reliever: At week's end he had five saves with a 3.07 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings. "We'd never heard of the guy," says Tigers centerfielder Curtis Granderson, "and he came out and shut us down two straight days. Guys walked back to the dugout saying, 'Where'd he come from?'"
The Royals became interested in Soria in November, when scout Louie Medina watched him baffle Mexican League hitters with two pitches—a 93-mph fastball with late movement and a fluttering change-up—that he spotted with a pointillist's precision. Medina raced back to his hotel room to get more info on Soria only to learn that he was the property of the Padres, who had bought his contract from the Mexico City Red Devils in 2005 and then lent him back to the team in '06.
But later that month San Diego left Soria off its 40-man roster. "We liked him a lot, but I thought we could sneak him through," says G.M. Kevin Towers. "[Padres director of international scouting] Randy Smith was begging me to keep him. I guess I should have listened to him."
Two days after K.C. drafted him, Soria tossed the third perfect game in Mexican Pacific League history, capping a season in which he went 9--1 with a 2.41 ERA and struck out 79 in 78 1/3 innings. He impressed in spring training, and when closer Octavio Dotel went down with a strained left oblique muscle in the first week, Soria took over the role. On April 10, in his first save opportunity, he retired Blue Jays sluggers Vernon Wells, Frank Thomas and Troy Glaus in order. After the game, Moore e-mailed Royals manager Buddy Bell, "We've found our Papelbon"—a reference to Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox' 26-year-old All-Star stopper.
A little over the top, perhaps, but like Papelbon, Soria is versatile: Since 2005 he has started, closed and pitched in long relief. The Royals, though, haven't decided how they'll use him when Dotel returns this month. "He's still a developing pitcher," says Moore. "We're not going to rush him into anything."
Soria is clear about his preference. "I want to be a starter," he says. That was his dream growing up in Monclova, a steel-mill town in northern Mexico where he lived next to a large field. "My parents wanted to make the field into something for the neighborhood, but they couldn't decide if for [soccer] or baseball," says Soria, whose father is a middle-school math teacher. "When I was six, they made it a baseball field, so I played baseball. Maybe it's destiny—just like the Rule 5."
For SI's dream-rotation survey, points were awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis. First-place votes are in parentheses. Stats are through Sunday.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox
Cole Hamels, Phillies
Phil Hughes, Yankees
Adam Miller, Indians*
Tim Lincecum, Giants*
Jered Weaver, Angels
Shawn Hill, Nationals
Homer Bailey, Reds*
Jason Hirsh, Rockies
Also receiving votes: Matt Garza, Twins (4); Rich Hill, Cubs (4); Mike Pelfrey, Mets (4); Tom Gorzelanny, Pirates (1); Jon Lester, Red Sox (1)
*Triple A stats
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MOTION PICTURE Lincecum's violent delivery is a concern; his 97-mph stuff, however, is not.
LARRY W. SMITH/EPA (MATSUZAKA)
SE√ëOR SMOKE Royals G.M. Moore called Soria (above) "our Papelbon."