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Who are the next great pitchers?

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They are the elite: Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens, and even Tom Glavine. Mike Hampton is now entering the building.

Matt Morris
Cardinals starter Matt Morris has come into his own this season, and has the potential to be one of the best in the business in the years to come.
But when one starts talking about the next generation of elite, Hall-of-Fame-contention pitchers, this season should reiterate just how difficult it is to get to that level. Clemens, Maddux and Glavine are the only active pitchers to have 200 wins, and Glavine's shoulder is keeping him from his consistent norm. Brown is disabled, and at 36 there are peers who wonder if age has caught up to the torque he generates as he turns and twists in his delivery. Johnson is forever fighting through pain.

Martinez has skipped a start to try to avoid landing on the disabled list for the third straight year. Clemens will win 300 games, despite two shoulder operations and five stints on the DL. Schilling would probably be as good a choice as Martinez to pitch a seventh game of the World Series, but he's been through injuries and operations.

It's this difficult: Martinez is compared to Sandy Koufax, but still has fewer career wins than Kevin Appier. Schilling is a generational great, yet has fewer career wins than John Denny.

"There are so many things that can happen to a pitcher believed to be destined for greatness," says one executive. "Injuries, obviously. Makeup and drive. All those great elite pitchers -- and I put Hampton into that group -- have all the intangibles as well as the stuff. But when you try to look into the future and predict who will be the next generation, it's very foggy."

For instance, one executive says, "Two years ago, I thought Bartolo Colon was headed for that class. Don't get me wrong, Colon is a very good pitcher, but one wonders if he has the drive to have the consistency to be on that level. He's young enough (26) and has enough wins (56) to be on his way, but between his weight and his inconsistent performances, one wonders." It's especially frustrating when this past week he threw 10 pitches at 98 mph or higher, including consecutive pitches at 98, 100 and 101. Oh, yes. He does have a 5-6 record this season.

In Oakland, the A's believe Tim Hudson will be considered on that level 10 years from now. In less than two seasons, he's won 38 games and he's just 25 years old. He is a great, Hampton/Brown-type athlete. He has their fire. But, asks another pitcher, "Can he hold up physically? He's not a big-framed guy. He doesn't have that one dominating pitch. I look at Kerry Wood and I see that guy. Matt Morris, as well. But I wonder on Hudson."

Asking around, three names were most prevalently mentioned as pitchers who could become elite-level guys: Wood, Josh Beckett and Morris. How early are they in their careers? Wood, 24, has 27 wins; Beckett, 20, made his first Double-A start on Saturday; and Morris, 26, has 30 career victories. Wood and Morris have had Tommy John surgery, while Beckett was limited to 59 1/3 innings last season.

"Wood puts such a strain on his elbow throwing that breaking ball that one has to be concerned about his long-term durability," says a scout. "But he is fierce and fearless, and his stuff lights up the park. If anyone could, it's him." One of those elite veterans says Wood will, if healthy, make it big.

"If he goes from (throwing) 50-60 percent fastballs to 70-80 percent he'll dominate even more than he does now. He needs to understand how lethal his fastball really is, and use it to get ahead instead of throwing a breaking ball, going 1-0, then throwing a fastball."

Beckett's 1.23 ERA in 62 2/3 innings in the Carolina League, with 32 hits allowed and a 15/101 BB/K ratio are obscene numbers.

"He's a young Doc Gooden," says one GM. "His stuff is so good it's silly, and he's got a presence and an arrogance that makes it clear he is great. He is the best prospect in baseball, and only injury can keep him from greatness."

Morris, meanwhile, is really coming into his own this year.

"He's got the arsenal -- including attitude -- to win and win a lot," says one of the veteran elite. "But he has to stay healthy." Attitude? Because he is quiet, a little flaky and genuinely nice, some don't realize his makeup. But run the tape back to a playoff game in The Cape League one summer, and there he gave up two scratch hits to lead off an inning. Next up was an opposing hitter he disliked. "I'm drilling him," Morris told his Hyannis catcher, Jason Varitek, whose protest went in vain. Morris drilled his nemesis to load the bases with none out, then struck out the side on nine pitches.

"He is stubborn, and he is mean," says one scout. "Geoff Jenkins took a big swing against him earlier this year and Matt buried the next 94 mile an hour fastball right in his back." That mean thing is not to be underestimated; think of all the elite pitchers mentioned, and understand why Hampton never could fathom Mike Piazza going to the mound and kicking Roger Clemens' behind in the World Series.

Some of the other responses from our unscientific poll may or may not surprise you:

  • Freddy Garcia has 33 wins at the age of 24 and has an outstanding October resume. "My concern with him, like Colon, is how badly he wants to be that great. He definitely has a chance. I still marvel at Seattle being able to get someone like him in the (Randy) Johnson deal."

  • Wade Miller, 24. "He has two pure strikeout pitches," says one of his elite peers. "But he needs to be taught by someone who knows the art of pitching." Astros teammate Roy Oswalt got a mention, as well, but the question, like Hudson, was raised about his size.

  • A.J. Burnett, 24. "His stuff is incredible, and it comes out of his hand so easily it's scary," says Ryan Dempster, Burnett's teammate with the Marlins. "When he gets a little better breaking ball, he can be in that special class," says Marlins pitching coach Rich Dubee.

    He's had a couple of injuries, but the reason Burnett doesn't get as much support in this poll is that he is considered a flake because of his nipple rings and tattoos. Come on. If Burnett lived in Boston, where there are 300,000 college students, the nipple rings and tattoos would be considered normal -- and this guy has a joy and love of the game that's unusual.

  • Mark Buehrle. One of the best left-handed hitters in the game this week said Buehrle is the best lefty pitcher he's faced. He has great instincts and never traps himself with patterns. He also has unbelievable nerve and last season pitched in the Prospects Game at the All-Star Game.

  • Javier Vazquez, 24. "He may not have the raw fastball, but he can be a Maddux/Mussina type pitcher who wins for years," says an executive. "His stuff is very good, he is a great athlete and has a feel. There are a lot of teams who'd love to have Vazquez or Tony Armas, because either one could develop into the special class in the right situations. Vazquez has the athleticism and the pitcher's body that should insure a long career."

  • C.C. Sabathia. "If you look at his presence, size and three pitches and realize he's winning in the majors at 20, you have to consider him," says a GM. "I think he's going to be an All-Star a few times in his career, and at worst, should be a second starter." The physical history of pitchers who make it so young is not behind him. Rick Ankiel would have been on this list last September. But Sabathia has rare stuff and makeup.

    Others with some mention were Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Jeff Weaver ("on the brink of being an All-Star, but his delivery is scary"), Dempster, Ben Sheets and Eric Milton. Scott Schoeneweis might have been, but he's already 27. Dodgers GM Dave Wallace believes Luke Prokopec is close to this class because of his toughness and athleticism. Adam Eaton, meanwhile, got a mention as well.

    "Everytime I work on this list," says one GM, "I think of John Smoltz and Kris Benson. Smoltz is as good as anyone, Benson would be right there with Morris and Wood, and they're both hurt."

    Are there any dominant teams?
    This topic led to another.

    Since, other than Seattle, there are no dominant teams this season, which teams could win the World Series if they got into the playoffs?

    "I think it comes down to who has the one great pitcher, the bullpen, the defense that's so important in the postseason and experience," says one veteran GM. "Seattle has it all, especially with Carlos Guillen playing as well as he's playing. Garcia's a No. 1 starter. Cleveland would be next, because they've got Colon, their bullpen is second to Seattle's and they've got that great veteran lineup that will play the postseason a lot differently than they play in June." That's especially the case with so many of the Indians' players contracts up at the end of the year.

    How about the Yankees? Yes, but they are more vulnerable and in need of a middle reliever and another bat. The Red Sox? If Nomar Garciaparra comes back -- and he is so uncertain about his return that he canceled a photo shoot with Baseball Weekly for its second half preview issue that airs after the All-Star Game -- they should have the offense. They have Pedro, David Cone, Hideo Nomo and a good bullpen, but the defense still has to prove that it won't spring leaks, a la '99.

    And Minnesota? Well, they are probably too young. "If Oakland ever came back and made it," says an AL GM, "I'd be afraid of them because of Hudson, Mulder and Zito."

    The Braves will depend on the health of their pitching, which right now isn't close to their historical level. The D-Backs have Schilling and Johnson, but they have a lot of inexperience in their bullpen. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have injury concerns.

    "If the Cardinals make it, they will be very tough, and if Houston gets a veteran starter to go with Miller and Oswalt and Billy Wagner is OK, they will be, too -- if they make it," says a GM. "But if something were to happen, three teams that could be very dangerous are the Cubs, Rockies and Marlins. The Cubs have Wood, Jon Lieber, Kevin Tapani and a great bullpen. The Rockies have Hampton and a team that could win every home game they play. And Florida? Don't laugh. They need a veteran everyday player and a veteran starter, but if the Phillies go into a freefall and the Braves and Mets struggle all season, if the Marlins ever snuck in and went out there with nothing to lose and Burnett, Dempster and Brad Penny to gain, they could scare the heck out of anyone."

    In other words, this appears to be as wide open a season as any in memory. We need that this year.

    Around the majors
  • Until they ran into Mark McGwire on Friday night, the White Sox had won 17 of 20 and were within view of the wild card. Considering how sensitive their fans are to the memory of the 1997 White Flag Trade (that looks so good today), could the ChiSox become buyers, rather than sellers?

    "That's an interesting question," said White Sox GM Ken Williams on Friday. "We'll have to see how we play up to the All-Star break." After the series in St. Louis, the Sox play three with the Royals, seven each with the Twins and Orioles and three with the Pirates. "Two weeks ago, when things didn't look this way, I had three plans, now I have three more," says Williams. However, he staunchly dismisses reports that he offered David Wells to the Yankees for Alex Graman, Brett Jodie and D'Angelo Jimenez. "No offer was made," he says. "The results that we're getting from our young pitchers have been impacted by Wells in terms of their aggressiveness, their preparation, their pace."

    It is increasingly clear that even if the White Sox fall, the cost of signing Keith Foulke or Magglio Ordonez will be prohibitive.

  • Cubs GM Andy MacPhail is actively trying to get a center fielder for his club. With the offseason signings of Jason Bere and Julian Tavarez, MacPhail provided starting pitching depth.

    "We have pretty good pitching depth in the minors, especially left-handed (Joey Nation, Will Ohman, Phil Norton)," says MacPhail. Everyone realizes that one huge key is a big second half from Todd Hundley, who thus far hasn't gotten untracked.

  • The Cardinals feel that their slide could be traced to their erratic offense and the need to get Jim Edmonds (from May 13, when he was hitting .380, until June 15, he was 12-for-81), Ray Lankford and McGwire back healthy. Expect GM Walt Jocketty to make at least one pitching deal before the deadline, but Jocketty insists the price for Wells -- especially his contract and buyout -- is too expensive. Woody Williams seems to be a more likely alternative.

  • The Padres may make Williams and Phil Nevin available if and when they're out of it, especially since their system is loaded with third basemen like Sean Burroughs and Xavier Nady, who is currently playing second base in the minors, and Tulane third baseman Jake Gautreau, who was their top draft pick.

  • Seattle hasn't talked to the Padres about Nevin recently, but the possibility exists that the Mariners could at some point acquire him.

  • Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker is trying to find a veteran starter to take the pressure off Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt, but other than Pedro Astacio, Hunsicker hasn't found much out there.

  • Former Pirates GM Cam Bonifay told friends a month before his firing that he knew he was gone. Owner Kevin McClatchy is going out this week to conduct interviews and reportedly would like someone in place by the All-Star break. Interim GM Roy Smith has a shot at getting the job on a full-time basis, although McClatchy seems to be looking outside the organization, with Giants assistant GM Ned Colletti, Astros assistant GM Tim Purpura, former Phillies GM Lee Thomas, Philly scouting director Mike Arbuckle and A's assistant GM Paul DePodesta among those being mentioned as Bonifay's successor.

    Smith would like to make a couple of deals to shake things up and was discussing a number of deals over the weekend, with John Vander Wal, Jason Schmidt and relievers available.

  • Derek Bell has asked Pirates fans for another chance. That's only fair. He isn't this bad. But McClatchy isn't happy that when it comes to prospects, Chad Hermansen has one homer in Triple-A, J.J. Davis says he wants to stop hitting and become a pitcher, catcher J.R. House may jump to play quarterback in Rich Rodriguez's wide open offense at West Virginia and RHP Bobby Bradley is on the DL with a tender elbow. Virtually nothing has gone right for the Bucs, from top to bottom -- and that's with one of the game's most respected scouting directors in Mickey White in charge.

  • Now that Bonifay is gone, Tigers general manager Randy Smith is worried he could be the next GM to go.

  • There were a number of eyebrows raised at Texas only getting Rob Bell for Ruben Mateo (and a top prospect in 3B Edwin Encarnacion). Mateo was a stumbling block in the Roger Clemens deal two years ago, and his attitude had fallen him from favor. Cincinnati now has stockpiled all sorts of outfield talent for their move into their new park, including Adam Dunn (now up to 24 homers playing in Double-A and Triple-A), Wily Mo Pena, Austin Kearns and Mateo. The Reds have made 56 roster moves this season, 11 on Friday.

  • If the Reds will back off Luke Prokopec and take Eric Gagne, they can move Pokey Reese to the Dodgers. There's been talk in New York of a Gagne-Glendon Rusch deal. But the Dodgers will not move Prokopec, not with Chan Ho Park a free agent, Brown hurt and Darren Dreifort, who has a lifetime 43-50 record. Other than Gagne, the only arm in the Dodger system that could possibly help this year is reliever Kris Foster, who throws 98 mph but has a long medical history.

  • Cubs hitting coach Jeff Pentland finally called Boston's Rick Down for advice on trying to get Hundley out of his funk.

  • One of the Yankees problems in trading for a starting pitcher is that Orlando Hernandez isn't du back until after the July 31 deadline.

  • Next to his teaching and evaluation skills, the best part of what Larry Bowa brings to his managerial job is his intensity, but that two-bags-of-sunflower seeds, dugout pacing has its jeapordy. He had conflicts with Mike Lieberthal and Randy Wolf, and although Bowa adamantly maintains that he was misquoted as saying "Scott Rolen is killing us," the Rolen flareup was not what that team needed in the middle of a slide.

    The Phillies are not likely to keep Rolen after 2002 anyway, and this set off some alarms that perhaps were unwarranted. Yes, Rolen hit .352 from May 4 to June 4. And while he was pounded with fastballs in Boston, Rolen insisted that's what happens when he locks his front foot, cannot open up and generate a weightshift. That's precisely what the Red Sox saw on video. "He was locked up, and we were going to pound him with fastballs until he came out of it," says one Red Sox coach. "But it looks like one of those things that happens when you're in a funk."

  • The D-Backs have their financial problems, so it doesn't help to have $13M on the DL in Todd Stottlemyre and Matt Mantei.

  • You can be certain the Rangers will release Ken Caminiti by August 15. If they don't, they're in for more than $4.5M over the next two years in contract and buyouts. Not that Caminiti doesn't look in the mirror and realize it.

  • If the Rangers think Mark Teixeira is going to be a quick sign, think again. Scott Boras believes the parameters to be close to $14M, and John Boggs probably can't get Mark Prior signed until Teixeira is signed. If you happen to see Team USA, Rutgers' Bob Brownlie is next year's Prior.

    This and that

  • Sandy Alderson says "we expected inconsistencies in the strike zone the first couple of months, considering we have 68 full-time and 15 more part-time umpires. It's an ongoing process."

    Alderson hopes eventually that umpires can focus on the bottom part of the strike zone and call pitches as they cross the plate, not where they are caught -- which would further help curveball pitchers. Beginning this week, the Commissioner's Office is going to try to speed up the time between innings and when relievers are brought in. "The time between innings for local telecasts is 2:05, for national games 2:25, but we're adding an additional 30 or 40 seconds right now," says Alderson, who will limit pitchers to one warmup after the 1:45 mark. Times of games have actually increased slightly -- 2:54 to 2:55 -- in the last month. One suggestion was to adopt international rules, which limits each team to one trip to the mound per inning.

  • The sale of the Red Sox could be completed near the end of the season, although two of the bidders doubt John Harrington's lawyers at Bingham, Dana and Gould would complete the transaction until after a labor agreement is reached. The eight bidders are now in a critical period; they have received the club's financial records, and they have been told that if they have any contact with any other bidder or with any Red Sox official they will be disqualified.

    Dan Duquette had to settle for a two-year extension that can be bought out by a new owner, although at least one group will retain Duquette.

    "Dan had a three-year deal with Harrington back in the spring that was killed by the owners," says a frend of the Boston GM. "John was fair with him, and this deal isn't fair. It's John who believes that the media should and will only know something when he's ready to have them know, and Dan's done his work because John is his boss. But Dan's taken a lot of bullets for the boss."

    Different groups have different theories on what to do about a ballpark, although Mayor Tom Menino seems to be intrigued with the plan presented to him by former Padred owner Tom Werner -- who as a Harvard undegraduate did a documentary on Fenway -- and ski magnate Les Otten to rebuild Fenway Park.

  • The owners meetings in Pittsburgh produced little news, although there were continued private discussions about contraction.

  • Essentially, the Giants released Russ Davis to make sure Ramon Martinez and Pedro Feliz get playing time at third.

  • Tampa Bay has benched Gerald Williams for Jason Tyner now that The Iceman is 62 plate appearances from the vesting option that would guarantee his 2002 contract for $4 million. There's been talk that Williams, who was the club MVP last season, could be released, which might put a nasty grievance into motion. If Williams were released, teams like the Giants would go after him, but will not right now with a $4 million price tag for next season.

  • The Expos have had two months of Fernando Tatis and are worried about his desire, just as the Cardinals were. With talk of financial problems and checks being delayed in Montreal, several GMs have tried to swoop in, but GM Jim Beattie will not even discuss Javier Vazquez, Tony Armas, Vladimir Guerrero or Jose Vidro. But Ugueth Urbina could go soon, with the Yankees and Rockies among the interested teams.

  • The Marlins are still trying to move Dan Miceli, who still hasn't gotten over the John Boles controversy. "I know I spoke out of frustration, and spoke for some other players," says Miceli, "and I still feel terrible that it happened. But I didn't get Bolesy fired. They didn't do what they did because of me." Indeed, it had been a move considered for a long time prior.

  • The Indians' dreadful inconsistencies are so bad that Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Robby Alomar combined have fewer stolen bases than Chuck Knoblauch. The only team with fewer steals than the Indians is the Red Sox, and no AL team since the '68 Tigers have finished in the bottom three in steals and won the World Series.

    The Paul Shuey injury, meanwhile, was a big loss, not only because the Cleveland pen was going well, but because in the minors Danys Baez has a cyst in the back of his shoulder and Roy Smith was sidelined with back problems.

  • It was a year ago in May that Rafael Palmeiro convinced Rangers GM Doug Melvin to sign Ruben Sierra from the Cancun Lobstermen. Now, Sierra is the DH against right-handed pitchers, replacing Andres Galarraga. Going into the weekend, Sierra was hitting .367 since his April callup, has renewed enthusiasm and is moving better than he did six years ago, when his bulk virtually ended his career.

  • Then there's the David Cone comeback, with two outstanding starts featuring a curveball he hadn't thrown in years.

    "This is the first time in a long time that I've had a breaking ball I can throw in the strike zone," says Cone, who has effectively gone to a slurve. "What Joe Kerrigan got me to do is not step back so far at the beginning of my delivery. That shortened the delivery. What was happening was that I couldn't control the swing of my left leg, and it ended up pointing me to the first-base side. Now my stride is right and the curveball with the down plane is back."

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