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Young aces taking center stage early in the season

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Tony Cingrani was spectacular in his MLB debut, striking out eight Marlins in five innings.

Matt Harvey. Alex Cobb. Shelby Miller. Hyun-jin Ryu. Jose Fernandez. They just keep coming, don't they?

Every day now there seems to be a new revelation, a new pitching phenom unveiled, and on Thursday night, the stage belonged to Tony Cingrani, the Reds' 23-year-old pitching prospect who in his major league debut struck out eight and allowed one run over five innings against the Marlins. Yes, Tony Soprano could retire the bottom half of the Marlins order -- but Cingrani, just two years out of Rice, with his fastball-heavy arsenal (84 of his 102 pitches against Florida were fastballs), looks like the real deal after his filleting of the Fish and his dazzling start at Triple-A Louisville (over three scoreless starts he struck out 26 hitters and allowed just three hits in 14 1/3 innings). Is Cingrani available in your fantasy league? Invest.

Friday brought a head-to-head showdown between two of the game's best and most intriguing twentysomething aces, when the 24-year-old Harvey of the Mets faced fellow 24-year-old Stephen Strasburg of the Nationas. It's just another sign that the abundance of excellent young starting pitching is one of the big early storylines of the season.

"People are talking about all the strikeouts around the league -- I think I have a theory: the pitching's pretty darn good," an AL executive said this week. "This wave of young pitchers is tremendous."

Here's the thing: There's a lot more on the way. Coming soon from the minors are Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh), Tyler Skaggs (Arizona), Kyle Gibson (Minnesota), Trevor Bauer (Cleveland), Danny Hultzen (Seattle) and Dan Straily (Oakland) -- all are close and ready to make an impact.

Take Chris Archer and what he could mean for the struggling Rays. Scouts say Archer (codename: Duchess?) has one of the nastiest sliders in the game, and with The Artist Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona, Robert Hernandez, struggling (5.79 ERA in three starts), there might be an opening soon for the 24-year-old. After a solid spring in Florida, last year's International League strikeout leader (139 Ks) has been good so far in Durham as he continues to rack up the Ks (18 in 15 innings).

"Slider is still nasty," reports a scout. "The command is better. Needs to develop a real changeup to be a quality starter, but it's getting there. Wouldn't be shocked if he's a difference-maker for Tampa."

Indeed, a division like the wide-open AL East could come down to which teams handle their call-ups the best, and we're not just talking about the Rays with outfielder Wil Myers. On Thursday afternoon at Camden Yards, Baltimore GM Dan Duquette was sitting in the dugout talking about his team's two big X-factors down at Double-A Bowie: pitchers Dylan Bundy, 20, and Dan Gausman, 22. We learned a year ago that Duquette and the Orioles won't hesitate to bring up a stud prospect if they think they're ready: 20-year-old Manny Machado, after all, had played just two games at third base before the O's called on him last August to replace Wilson Betemit at the hot corner. Baltimore's aggressiveness paid off: A-Rod 2.0 helped the Orioles go 33-18 after his arrival, securing the franchise's first postseason berth since 1997.

This year, the O's on paper have good starting pitching depth, but their situation could change in a hurry -- Chris Tillman is struggling already (7.07 ERA over three starts). Gausman (excellent in Bowie's home opener last week) and Bundy won't be called up to the Show before the start of summer, especially now, with Bundy still out with forearm and right elbow tightness, but by September these two could be the best pitchers in the Baltimore rotation and leading the Orioles on another magical run.

Duquette knows this, and it's part of the reason why he didn't pull the trigger on signing Kyle Lohse or making a trade for Rick Porcello in the offseason. Bundy is the more heralded prospect -- a phenom with a fascinating regimen I wrote about a year ago -- and appeared in two games for the Orioles late last year, but it's Gausman, just one year out of LSU, who will probably make the earlier impact.

"He was the top college pitcher in the country last year, at LSU, where the environment is that he's pitching in front of packed stadiums at night. Nothing fazes him," says Duquette. "He has the stuff to be an impact guy, and he does the little things, too: he controls the running game. He's a good fielder."

In 2009, Machado was a baby-faced 17-year-old shortstop from Brito High in Miami and Gausman was 18, a pitcher from Grandview High in Centennial, Colo. They were teammates on a ridiculously stacked Team USA 18-U that included the players that would go 1-2-3 in the 2010 draft: Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon and Machado.

"That team, we were like brothers," says Machado, who became friends with Gausman during the Pan Am Junior Championships. Machado's one word scouting report on the then-teenage Gausman, who recorded the final out in the gold medal game against Cuba: "Filthy," says Machado. "That's all. Filthy."

Three years later, the Orioles took Gausman out of LSU with the fourth pick in the 2012 draft, two years after taking Machado third in the 2010 draft. Says Machado, "Back when we were [on Team USA] he was actually throwing a little harder then, but he's a smarter pitcher now, with a lot better pitch control. And still filthy. He's going to be awesome for us, whenever he gets up here. I can't wait."

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