Every major league club searches for top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers because that's how teams win pennants. Look at the six division leaders. In the National League, the Phillies have Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels; the Brewers have Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum; the Giants have Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. In the American League, the Yankees have CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon; the Tigers have Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer; and the Rangers have Alexi Ogando and C.J. Wilson. Every club is trying to find the next pitcher who can develop into the type of impact starter that puts it into a pennant race.
Besides the draft, international signings, free agency and trades, there are really only three other places you can find top-of-the-rotation starters:
1. The back end of your present rotation
2. Moving a pitcher from the bullpen to the rotation
3. Minor leagues
This piece will examine starting pitchers in the first category.
In recent years, we have seen several pitchers develop from the back to the front of their clubs' rotations, including Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tommy Hanson of the Atlanta Braves, Johnny Cueto of the Cincinnati Reds and Jaime Garcia of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Here is a quick look at a few young pitchers in the process of working their way to the top of their club's rotations:
1. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP, Washington
Zimmermann, 25, has a great makeup and a smooth, clean, deceptive delivery. His fastball is 92-96 mph to go with two above-average secondary pitches. His ability to command and control the zone is special. With three above-average pitches and all the intangibles, he should be the Nats' No. 2 starter for years to come behind Stephen Strasburg.
De La Rosa
2. Rubby De La Rosa, LHP, L.A. Dodgers
De La Rosa, 22, throws 92-100 mph with a comfort zone of 96-98 mph with four-seam life. He has loose, quick arm action and a simple delivery. His frame is similar to Cueto's. However, he needs to work on his conditioning, which can affect his late-inning stamina. His sound mechanics allow him to repeat his delivery, and he throws at a three-quarter angle, giving him nice downhill tilt. His best secondary pitch is his changeup, which reacts like a split and will dive down and away to right-handed hitters, but he can also run it the other way. His slurve-type slider needs work but should get better with innings. He's an intelligent kid with savvy and needs to the pound the zone and give hitters less credit. He'll end up in the second spot in the rotation behind Kershaw someday soon.
3. Jhoulys Chacin, RHP, Colorado
Chacin, 23, is quickly moving himself from the back to the middle to the top of the Rockies' rotation. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder has improved his WHIP from 1.55 in 2009 to 1.27 in 2010 to 1.15 in 2011, a clear sign that command, control and confidence are important factors in the quick rise. Chacin has a hard sinker and keeps the ball down in the zone with great life. He has an above-average slider and a plus changeup. His delivery has been much more consistent this year, and he's starting to come into his own.
4. Homer Bailey, RHP, Cincinnati
If Bailey, 25, can stay healthy, he should become a 15-18 game winner. He's had to overcome injuries, including shoulder problems this year. When healthy, his fastball is 90-96 mph with hard, arm-side sink. The pitch is so overpowering that at times he can throw it down the middle of the plate, tell the hitters it's coming and they still can't catch up. When he was drafted, he had a big curveball that was his primary breaking pitch, but now his tight slider or cutter is his most effective breaking ball. All his pitches move, and he's a fierce competitor who is really finding himself. His stubbornness is leaving, and his stuff is dynamic. If he keeps the shoulder healthy, he could develop like Cueto and end up at the top of the Reds' rotation. Maturity can get him there in a hurry.
5. Carlos Carrasco, RHP, Cleveland Indians
Carrasco, 24, was one of the key players acquired in the Cliff Lee trade of July 29, 2009. His fastball is in the 92-95 mph range with an improving curveball and a changeup that fades and sinks and can be really difficult on left-handed hitters. His fastball command is progressing, and he has the poise and composure to lead the Indians' staff. He has quickly gone past both Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson to become the Indians' best top-of-the-rotation starter in terms of stuff and potential.
6. Andrew Cashner, RHP, Chicago Cubs
Cashner, 24, is on the the 60-day disabled list with a strained right rotator cuff and could be out at least another month. However, if he can get healthy and get his career back on track, he could develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter for the Cubs. Cashner was a college closer who has a 93-98 mph fastball when healthy with a hard wipeout slider with good tilt. He has an improving changeup that he throws against left-handed hitters. This past spring training it looked like his raw stuff was starting to catch up and result in quality production. Now the Cubs just have to hope his shoulder gets healthy and he picks up where he left off in March, when it appeared he would not only make the rotation but start the climb to the top of it.
Former MLB general manager Jim Bowden is an analyst for ESPN.com. He writes The GM's Office blog.
Follow Bowden on Twitter: @JimBowdenESPNxm