In every fullseason since 1983 at least one pitcher has become a 20-game winner for thefirst time, including Roy Oswalt, class of '04. Oswalt was 26 at the start ofthat season, which put him smack in the middle of the sweet spot for thisgroup: Of the 62 pitchers to win 20 for the first time over this span of 21full seasons (excluding strike-shortened 1994 and '95), 33 of them, or 53%,were between the ages of 23 and 29. With that in mind, here are the five acesmost likely to join the 20-Win Club in 2006, in order of their potential (with2005 record).
RICH HARDEN, 24,Athletics (10-5) The righthander missed 14 starts last year (muscle strains inhis torso) and had off-season surgery on his left shoulder, but his throwingarm is fine. Harden was the AL's toughest pitcher to hit (.201 average) amongthose who threw 100 innings in 2005. He's 22-0 when he gets four runs,foreshadowing a breakout year with an improved offense behind him.
JAKE PEAVY, 24,Padres (13-7) He already has won National League ERA and strikeout titles andhad two seasons with an ERA below 3.00. Though only 6 feet and 180 pounds, therighthander has excellent movement on his fastball and a killer changeup. Lastseason he averaged 4.32 strikeouts for every walk, the best such rate in the NLaside from Pedro Martinez's 4.43.
MARK BUEHRLE, 26,White Sox (16-8) With a career .616 winning percentage (85-53) and four seasonswith between 16 and 19 wins, Buehrle has succeeded Mike Mussina of the Yankeesas the best active pitcher never to have won 20. Scheduled to make his fifthOpening Day start, Buehrle has been remarkably durable: five straight seasonswith at least 32 starts and 221 innings.
February 27, 2006
MARK PRIOR, 25,Cubs (11-7) In 2003, the one season the righthander stayed healthy, he won 18games. Despite starting last year with an inflamed right elbow and then gettinghit there by a line drive, Prior led the majors with 10.15 strikeouts per nineinnings. A prototypical ace because of his size (6'5", 230) and powerstuff, Prior has a career winning percentage of .641 (41-23).
JOSH BECKETT, 25,Red Sox (15-8) This righty is Prior's doppelg√§nger, similar in size (6'5",220), age (four months older), career record (41-34 with 4 1/3 fewer innings),draft position (both were No. 2 picks) and frailty. Beckett won a career-high15 games last year with the Marlins despite a left oblique strain, recurringblisters and late-season shoulder stiffness.