Even in the midst of the steroids era, the 1990s and early 2000s produced a pitching rotation of all-time aces: Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens (removing steroids allegations from the equation), Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. That’s four 300-game winners plus Martinez, whose .687 winning percentage (219-100) is second only to Whitey Ford’s .690 among all pitchers since 1900 with at least 200 decisions. Not to mention ranking No. 2 (Johnson), 3 (Clemens), 10 (Maddux) and 13 (Martinez) on the all-time strikeout list.
Now all are gone, more or less. Martinez pitched nine games last year for the Phillies, plus three in the postseason, and hasn’t officially retired. But he sat out this year, turns 39 later this month, and is probably finished. Johnson retired after the 2009 season, Maddux and Glavine after 2008, while Clemens last pitched in 2007.
In other words, the field is wide open for a new generation of Hall of Fame caliber pitchers. Time will tell, of course, but I think the leading candidates for the next Cooperstown starting five are becoming obvious. Four of them are on display right now in the postseason, the other conspicuous by his absence:
—Roy Halladay, age 33, 169-86. He already has one Cy Young Award, will almost certainly add a second this year, and now he’s stamped his name in the history books with the second no-hitter in postseason history (following a perfect game earlier this year). For all those who say there will never be another 300-game winner, consider that when Johnson was the same age, he had 124 victories. I see many fruitful years ahead for Halladay.
—Cliff Lee, age 31, 102-61. Lee’s career had some ups and downs early, but he’s reached a level of excellence that now seems sustainable. I see him as a Maddux-type pitcher who could be highly effective into his late 30s.
—CC Sabathia, age 30, 157-88. A dominating workhorse who I see as a strong candidate to challenge 300 victories, especially with the Yankees’ offense working on his behalf.
—Tim Lincecum, age 26, 56-27. It’s hard to argue with two Cy Young Awards in your first two full seasons, followed this year by a very solid 16-10 record and a third straight strikeout title. I’m still in awe of the 14-strikeout, 2-hit shutout he threw Thursday night in his playoff debut.
—Felix Hernandez, age 24, 71-53. Hernandez was Cy Young runnerup last year and should pick up his first trophy this year. Hernandez is reaching the peak of his game at such a young age that if he stays healthy, he could be one of the game’s pre-eminent ptichers for the next decade, or longer.
Some might argue that Johan Santana (age 31, 133-69, two Cy Youngs that should have been three) belongs on this list (and he probably does, upon further review; we’ll make him our No. 6 starter), or perhaps Chris Carpenter,. Stephen Strasburg, David Price,Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke , Josh Johnson, Matt Cain or others might eventually make their case. But right now, these are my choices for the top five/six of the new generation.