Red Sox have a dazzler in Zink

I have seen the future of the knuckleball, and his name is Zink. Charlie Zink.

This weekend, I was in Phoenix for Ron Shandler's First Pitch Arizona, a symposium for serious fantasy baseball owners. I enjoy the symposium, but the real draw is the baseball, as the Arizona Fall League is in full swing. And Saturday afternoon in Mesa, I was treated to a dream pitching matchup: the Mesa Desert Dogs' Charlie Zink vs. the Mesa Solar Sox's Dewon Brazelton.

Most prospect hounds would be excited about Brazelton, and he was impressive, showing off a solid fastball, a good slider, and a killer changeup while striking out nine Dogs in five innings. But it was Charlie Zink I wanted to see, because Zink, a Red Sox farmhand, is easily the best young knuckleball pitcher in the world. He didn't disappoint, either, allowing just one hit and one walk in five innings.

Zink hadn't fared well in the AFL before Saturday, in part (I suspect) because the knuckleball doesn't dance its normal dance at the Valley's somewhat lofty altitude. But I don't think the Red Sox will hold it against him. 2003 was just Zink's second minor-league season, and here's how he's done so far:

22 A 57 44 1 19 59 1.42
23 A/AA/AFL 201 170 16 91 128 3.94

Now, let's look at Tim Wakefield's first three seasons as a knuckleballer:

22 A- 40 30 1 21 42 3.40
23 A 190 187 24 85 127 4.73
24 AA 183 155 13 51 120 2.90

Wakefield and Zink were both born in August, which makes comparing them particularly appropriate. And Zink is clearly ahead of Wakefield at the same age. Zink was better at 22, he was better at 23, and at both ages he was pitching against tougher competition. Does this mean that Zink's going to follow Wakefield's career path? Of course not. Wakefield broke through at 24, in Double-A, and there's no guarantee that Zink will.

But Zink will open next season in Double-A, and he'll be 24. As near as I can tell, here's a list of the last three pitchers who had good knuckleballs when they were 24 years old, along with how many games they won in the major leagues:

Wakefield, 116 (so far)
Charlie Hough, 216
Phil Niekro, 318

(Actually, when Niekro was 24 he was in U.S. Army. But he was a pretty good minor-league knuckleballer at 23 and 25.)

The point here is that not many pitchers can throw a knuckleball for strikes while in their early 20s, and the ones who can generally enjoy long major-league careers.

But nobody seems to realize how good Charlie Zink might be. Scouts and writers see Charlie Zink and they think, "Oh, isn't that cute. He throws a knuckleball. If everything works out for him, he's got a chance to be a decent pitcher someday."

One writer, evaluating the Mesa Desert Dogs, listed Zink as a "Sleeper Pitcher" and concluded, "Future #5 Starter/Reliever."

Another writer admitted that "Zink is a very interesting pitcher," and recommended, "Keep an eye on him."

Wrong, guys. I'm going to keep both eyes on him, because he's going to be a good major-league pitcher, a better major-league pitcher than the great majority of the pitchers in the Arizona Fall League who are considered better prospects.

Among all the pitchers in the Arizona Fall League, Zink has the best chance, by far, of enjoying a healthy career, and (to a lesser extent) he also has the best chance of enjoying a long and productive career. Baseball today isn't particularly friendly to knuckleball pitchers -- it's too easy for a mistake to become a home run -- so I don't think it's all that likely that Zink will become a star. If you're looking for a star in the Arizona Fall League, your better bets are Dewon Brazelton, Neal Cotts, or Boof Bonser.

But those guys all have the talent to be No. 1 starters in the major leagues, and Charlie Zink is not that far behind them. I think Zink is likely to have a career something like Tim Wakefield's. And he might be Phil Niekro.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.