Where's the next Verlander?
The search is on for this year's Justin Verlander, but good luck trying to find him.
Verlander made an enormous impact last season, earning 17 wins, helping the Tigers to the World Series and winning American League Rookie of the Year.
It's unrealistic to place similar expectations on two of the game's top pitching prospects, Yankees right-hander Philip Hughes and Reds righty Homer Bailey — even though, like Verlander, they were first-round picks in 2004.
Verlander, drafted out of college, was 23 at the start of last season. Hughes and Bailey, drafted out of high school, are not yet 21.
Both are likely to create buzz in spring training.
Both need to start the season at Class AAA.
Some young pitchers come quickly; Dwight Gooden arrived at 19, Bret Saberhagen 20. Tigers righty Jeremy Bonderman, entering his fifth major-league season, is only four months older than Verlander. Mariners righty Felix Hernandez, entering his third season, is only a few months older than Hughes and Bailey.
Such cases, however, are rare.
A better comparison to Verlander — at least in terms of experience — is Mets right-hander Mike Pelfrey, a collegian who was the ninth pick of the '05 draft. Pelfrey, 23, is entering his second pro season, just as Verlander was a year ago. But while Pelfrey is a top prospect, he isn't as highly regarded as Hughes and Bailey.
Still, the last thing the Yankees and Reds want to do is accelerate their respective phenoms at the risk of damaging their careers.
"We've got a pitching plan for each (prospect) based on where they are in their development," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says.
The plan for Hughes?
Cashman won't say, other than to promise, "We will execute it."
"I view all of these individuals, if they've got talent, as long-term assets," Cashman says. "You've got to treat them as such, make sure you're careful. You try not to have anything come at the expense of the long-term asset for short-term gains."
That's something new for the Yankees, who routinely took a win-now approach before Cashman assumed greater control in the 2005-06 off-season.
At one time, the Yankees did not hesitate to trade prospects of Hughes' caliber. Now they've seemingly assembled enough pitching depth to allow Hughes to develop at his own pace.
The Reds, likewise, are trying to protect Bailey. Their recent trade for right-hander Kirk Saarloos was motivated, in part, by the team's desire to give him more minor-league preparation.
Pitchers drafted out of high school need time — time to build endurance, time to refine their secondary pitches, time to master their craft.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who spent more than a decade working in the pitching-rich Braves' organization, prefers most pitchers to work 400 to 500 innings before reaching the majors. Brewers G.M. Doug Melvin sets the number at 600.
Those are not rigid standards; certain youngsters are capable of making more rapid ascents. Hughes and Bailey might be in that class — particularly Hughes, who, according to scouts, shows an advanced feel for pitching. But Hughes has thrown 237 innings as a professional, Bailey 255. Neither has exceeded 146 innings in a season nor risen above Class AA.
Last season, the Red Sox kept left-hander Jon Lester on strict pitch counts at Class AAA in April and May, trying to ensure that he would stay strong enough to help the major-league team through September. At the time, Lester was in his fifth pro season, two years ahead of where Hughes and Bailey are now.
Once promoted to the majors, pitchers face deeper lineups and more selective hitters, leading to higher pitch counts and greater strain.
The experience, frankly, can be overwhelming.
"You have to be careful about rushing players to the big leagues, bringing 'em up too early, having their first failure occur at the major-league level as opposed to somewhere in the minor leagues," Reds G.M. Wayne Krivsky says, speaking generally, not specifically about Bailey.
"You run the risk of setting a player back. When you bring 'em up, you want to have good feeling that they're here to stay and not on a yo-yo back and forth to Class AAA. The temptation isn't that great for me. I like to use the expression, 'The player will tell you when he's ready."'
The decision, though, is not always that simple.
Hughes, the Yankees' most ballyhooed pitching prospect since Andy Pettitte, will face unique fan and media scrutiny in New York, especially if he is thrust into the role of savior.
Bailey, the shining light of a Reds' farm system that often has failed to keep young pitchers healthy, must learn to pitch at hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.
Even well-intentioned general managers occasionally rush players due to the respective needs of their clubs.
Bonderman was 6-19 at age 20 for a team that lost 119 games; the Tigers are fortunate that he grew from the experience when he could have crumbled.
The Twins, a team that generally is conservative with young talent, promoted right-hander Matt Garza last August just over a year after drafting him in the first round; Garza, a college pick, rose even faster than Verlander.
The consensus on Hughes and Bailey among baseball people is that each could reach the majors by the second half of the season -- and, in a perfect world, prove as valuable as veteran trade acquisitions.
Just don't expect either to be this year's Verlander.
That would be asking too much, too soon.
To understand the difficulty of projecting young pitchers, consider the group chosen in the first round of the 2004 amateur draft.
Three of the top four and four of the top eight have undergone surgery.
The pitchers are listed by their draft positions. Their projections indicate where they are expected to open the '07 season.
Pitchers drafted in 2004 first round
No. Team Player Pos. School 2007 Proj.
2 Tigers Justin Verlander RHP Old Dominion Majors
3 Mets Phillip Humber RHP Rice Class AAA
4 Devil Rays Jeff Niemann RHP Rice Class AAA
5 Brewers Mark Rogers RHP Mount Ararat (Me.) H.S. Class A
6 Indians Jeremy Sowers LHP Vanderbilt Majors
7 Reds Homer Bailey RHP La Grange (Tx.) H.S. Class AAA
8 Orioles Wade Townsend RHP Rice Class A
10 Rangers Thomas Diamond RHP New Orleans Class AAA
12 Angels Jered Weaver RHP Long Beach State Majors
13 Expos Bill Bray LHP William & Mary Majors (with Reds)
16 Blue Jays David Purcey LHP Oklahoma Class AA
17 Dodgers Scott Elbert LHP Seneca (Mo.) H.S. Class AA
19 Cardinals Chris Lambert RHP Boston College Class AA
22 Twins Glen Perkins LHP Minnesota Class AAA/Majors
23 Yankees Philip Hughes RHP Foothill (Ca.) H.S. Class AAA
25 Twins Kyle Waldrop RHP Farragut (Tn.) H.S. Class AA
27 Marlins Taylor Tankersley LHP Alabama Class AAA/Majors
29 Royals Matt Campbell LHP South Carolina Class A
30 Rangers Eric Hurley RHP Wolfson (Fl.) H.S. Class AA