The Best Young Left-handed Pitchers of 2007

This week, I continue my position-by-position review of the game’s best players by examining young left-handed pitchers. The following list differs from traditional prospect lists in two ways. First, only anyone under 25 right now is eligible. Second, I won’t give the false impression of precision by ranking players. Instead, I’ll group players according to their upside and closeness to fulfilling their potential and order them alphabetically.

When I describe “excellent” potential, I simply mean that the pitcher has a non-trivial chance of being among the top 10% of major league pitchers during multiple seasons.

When I describe “good” potential, I usually am describing a player who has the skills to become a consistently above-average pitcher. Often, these players will have at least one major limitation that probably will prevent them from becoming top-tier pitchers. When I describe “average” upside, I usually am describing a player with more than one major concern or limitation that suggests he probably will become an average player relative to other pitchers.

Players who are “close to their prime” usually are within a year of reaching a level of performance that will be among the five best seasons of their career.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I rely heavily on quantitative analysis to group players. These are simply estimates—any one of these players could be out of baseball at age 26 and any one could become a star. Mostly, I hope this list can help you identify exciting young pitchers who are worth watching in the near future.

Excellent upside, close to prime

Francisco Liriano
23 years old | Minnesota Twins
Over 121 innings pitched in 2006, Liriano dominated the American League with as 12-3 record and 2.16 ERA. By the midpoint of the season, his elbow was hurting and eventually required Tommy John surgery after the Twins tried the rest and rehabilitation route for a few months. Unfortunately, this setback was not totally unexpected and arm issues may play a persistent role in Liriano’s future. Serious mechanical issues or arm injuries have affected most of Liriano’s professional career to this point. When he’s healthy, however, the last two years have demonstrated that he is among the game’s best young pitchers.

Scott Kazmir
23 years old | Tampa Bay Devil Rays
In addition to bouncing back from an unusually high walk rate in 2005, Kazmir has demonstrated steady improvement in his strikeout rates over the past two years and was striking out nearly 30% of opposing batters during the second half of the 2006 season. He also spent time on the disabled list due to shoulder soreness, an unsurprising result after he bested his previous high innings pitched total by more than 50 innings in 2005. Kazmir appears healthy this spring, however, and the Devil Rays deserve credit for handling their young ace with caution last year.

Excellent upside, at least two years from prime

Clayton Kershaw
19 years old | Los Angeles Dodgers
He is only a teenager, but Kershaw was widely regarded as the best high school prospect of the 2006 draft and is a good candidate to emerge as baseball’s top pitching prospect a year from now. The 6-foot-4 southpaw has no trouble commanding two above-average pitches; he struck out 60 batters while walking only seven in his professional debut last year.

Andrew Miller
21 years old | Detroit Tigers
Miller led North Carolina to the College World Series championship series, was drafted sixth overall in the draft, and reached the major leagues over the course of three months last year. He wasn’t particularly effective during his major league appearances, but now that the contractually obligated stint is over, it’s going to be a lot of fun to see him pitch regularly in the minor leagues. The Tigers will promote him aggressively and Kenny Rogers‘ injury might weaken the starting rotation enough to warrant a promotion to the major leagues before June.

David Price
21 years old | Vanderbilt University
The 6-foot-5 southpaw features mid-90s velocity with exceptional polish; he has surrendered only 15 walks while striking out 89 batters in 59 innings pitched this year. The Tennessee native is an early favorite to be selected with the Rays’ No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, but there are concerns about his workload this year. Price has thrown at least 120 pitches in four of his last five starts with Vanderbilt.

Good upside, close to prime

Tom Gorzelanny
24 years old | Pittsburgh Pirates
Gorzelanny has received very little attention while emerging in the underrated Pirates starting rotation last year. The hard thrower combines good stuff with excellent control; he walked fewer than 9% of opposing batters at nearly every stop of his minor league career. His strikeout rate dipped after his big league promotion, but that can be attributed to a successful late-season stretch in which he stopped striking out many batters and instead induced a lot of groundballs.

I’m not sure Gorzelanny is going to stick with a pitch-to-contact strategy. He struggled in spring training but had his best start of the month last week when he struck out eight batters over six innings.

Jon Lester
23 years old | Boston Red Sox
Over the past year, Jon Lester has found himself promoted to the major leagues, diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and later pronounced cancer-free by doctors. His remarkable story of recovery should result in a return to Boston later this summer. Meanwhile, it’s possible some time at Triple-A Pawtucket would do some good regardless of the inevitable issues related to stamina.

Lester’s record in the upper minor leagues and major league suggests inconsistent control could lead to some troublesome big innings, and from a baseball perspective that is all that is standing in his way of becoming an above-average major league pitcher.

Cole Hamels
23 years old | Philadelphia Phillies
A series of back, arm, and hand injuries have slowed Hamels’ ascent to the big leagues, but he was healthy and outstanding in 2006. His season began with one of the more dominating stretches of pitching in the Florida State League since Josh Beckett‘s 2001 season, and it finished with a respectable 9-8, 4.08 ERA effort with the Phillies. Hamels’ underlying statistics include a strong 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and if he can keep the ball on the ground more often in Philadelphia he could emerge as one of the league’s top pitchers in the coming years.

Scott Olsen
23 years old | Florida Marlins
The former sixth round draft pick was a key component of Florida’s surprisingly effective pitching staff of the 2006 season, as he set a Marlins rookie record with 166 strikeouts. He also dominated left-handed batters, who only hit .182 when Olsen was on the mound. Olsen ended his 2005 season prematurely with elbow soreness, and I wonder how he will respond after throwing 180 innings in the following season.

Glen Perkins
24 years old | Minnesota Twins
Perkins struck out 131 batters over 177 innings for Double-A New Britain last year, and he quickly moved up the organizational ladder to join the Twins staff for the postseason. He is a flyball pitcher and could be prone to home run troubles in the major leagues, but his excellent command should take him far. Perkins will begin his 2007 season in Triple-A Rochester, but it won’t be long before he is promoted to aid the Minnesota pitching staff.

Good upside, at least two years from prime

John Danks
21 years old | Chicago White Sox
Danks earned a rotation spot and promptly walked six batters in fewer than five innings in his final spring training start. The Rangers promoted him aggressively throughout his minor league career and he typically struggled for a half-season before finding consistent success at each level. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Danks struggle with walks or home runs during the early part of the 2007 season, and he might even earn a demotion or two. He is only 21, however, and I think he will be a good mid-rotation starter in time.

Scott Elbert
21 years old | Los Angeles Dodgers
In some circles, Elbert is the top lefthanded pitching prospect in the game. At his best, he complements a low-90s fastball with two good secondary pitches, and his good stuff is reflected his ability to strike out at least one batter per inning at each of the three leagues he pitched in the past two years. He struggles with mechanics, however, and has demonstrated poor control at times.

Most people don’t see this as limiting his ceiling because you can teach a pitcher better mechanics while you cannot teach him the kind of stuff that Elbert has. I view this a bit differently, because realistically very few pitchers completely overcome mechanical/control issues they haven’t solved by their third year of professional baseball.

Here is a list of 20- to 21-year old southpaws who recently exhibited comparable strikeout rates and poor control during their stops at a Single-A Advanced or Double-A league:

2006 LAD Scott Elbert
2006 COL Franklin Morales
2006 PHI Gio Gonzalez
2005 BAL Adam Loewen
2004 CHC Andy Sisco
2002 PIT Oliver Perez
2001 HOU Carlos Hernandez

Most of the older pitchers had great fastballs and were considered top prospects despite their control problems in the mid-level minor leagues. Many have shown flashes of brilliance since then, but most have also struggled enough with inconsistent control to severely limit their value to a major league team.

Jaime Garcia
20 years old | St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals’ 22nd-round pick of the 2005 draft demonstrated outstanding control in his debut season; he walked only 34 batters in 154 innings pitched last year. Garcia’s breaking ball is probably his best pitch and his low-90s sinking fastball also could be critical to his success as an extreme groundball pitcher. His stuff was good enough to strike out at least one batter per inning at Single-A, but his strikeout rate dipped after a promotion to the Florida State League. More than 60% of Garcia’s batted balls allowed were hit on the ground, so he doesn’t need to strike out a lot of batters to continue to succeed in the upper minor leagues this year.

Chuck Lofgren
21 years old | Cleveland Indians
Lofgren preferred to hit and play the outfield in high school, but it looks like the Indians made the right decision by moving him to the mound fulltime. He commanded three pitches well in 2006 while adding a slider to his arsenal and leading the minor leagues in wins (17) over 139 innings pitched. He also has improved his walk rate every time he has advanced a level and has managed to maintain a healthy strikeout rate. Lofgren will join fellow Indians southpaw prospect Scott Lewis in the Double-A Akron rotation this year.

Jake McGee
20 years old | Tampa Bay Devil Rays
McGee emerged as the most promising player in a Single-A Southwest Michigan rotation that was crowded with good pitching prospects. He struck out more than 30% of opposing batters and finished the season with a 2.96 ERA. Increased velocity led to some inconsistent control in 2006, but a record of reasonably good control before 2006 and some late-season improvements last year suggest this might not be a major hurdle going forward.

Franklin Morales
21 years old | Colorado Rockies
See the above entry on Scott Elbert. The same warnings apply to Morales, another southpaw who does a better job of lighting up the radar gun than throwing strikes.

Troy Patton
21 years old | Houston Astros
The Astros lured Patton away from the University of Texas with a $900,000 bonus in 2004, and the investment has paid off. Patton has a solid three-pitch repertoire and commands the strike zone well; he struck out more than three times as many batters as he walked in 2006. Patton’s stuff is good enough to maintain success in the major leagues, but he has struggled with shoulder fatigue at times and his flyball tendencies could be a problem when he reaches Houston. Patton could appear in the Astros bullpen as soon as this summer.

Average upside, close to prime

Paul Maholm
24 years old | Pittsburgh Pirates
Maholm rocketed through the Pittsburgh farm system in 2004 and 2005, and he compiled a respectable 8-10 record during his rookie season with the Pirates last year. Maholm keeps the ball on the ground, but his stuff isn’t overwhelming and that limits his ceiling. He struggled versus right-handed hitters throughout his minor league career, and he allowed a batting average over .300 while facing right-handed batters last year.

Jeremy Sowers
23 years old | Cleveland Indians
Sowers’ 7-4, 3.57 ERA debut season was excellent, but he doesn’t miss bats often enough to maintain that level of performance. Sowers demonstrated exceptional control and groundball tendencies throughout his minor league career, and his rookie campaign suggests that will be enough to maintain his role as a solid back-of-rotation starter for the Indians.

Zach Duke
23 years old | Pittsburgh Pirates
Duke fell back to earth after an improbable 8-2, 1.81 ERA with Pittsburgh in 2005. As long as he maintains his excellent control, he should be about an average major league pitcher. His strikeout rate has declined over the past few years, however, and he cannot afford to allow any more batted balls than he did last year.

Many good young pitchers were excluded from this list, including Gio Gonzalez, Matt Harrison and Tyler Lumsden. Also, great young pitchers such as Jeff Francis and Dontrelle Willis missed the age threshold I set for this series of articles.

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