The Washington Times - June 23, 2008, 11:21AM

By SEAN RAPOSA
June 24, 2008

First off, we need to get through the initial crushing blow today. Despite what I’ve implied with this week’s title, I won’t be serenading you with Bon Jovi lyrics or bringing in Emilio Estevez for a much-needed cameo. That would be awesome, I know - another time perhaps. I do, however, have a Richie Sambora wig on to spice up what is already a very exciting topic, as the challenging task of identifying MLB’s top young hurlers sits on my plate.

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In last week’s Table Setters piece I touched on the re-emergence of the five-tool stars as evidence that baseball is migrating back to its roots following the stain of the steroid era. No dynamic of the game’s current state rings truer to such a premise than the multitude of youthful pitchers laying down the law throughout the majors in ‘08. The time of the pitcher has returned, and these guys are the newest Jedis set to bring peace back to the baseball universe.

Trying to narrow down My Five favorites nearly sent me wandering Talladega in my boxers screaming, “Help me Tom Cruise!” To avoid such a travesty I set the maximum age at 24 years old, eliminating the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, the Angels’ Ervin Santana and the Rays’ James Shields, all of whom are 25. I will also be ignoring injured arms like Yovani Gallardo, Francisco Liriano and Fausto Carmona. Even with these aids to my quest, big names like Joba Chamberlain, Clay Buchholz, Chad Billingsley, Zack Grienke and personal favorite, Jon “The Miracle Man” Lester, were left out. As you can see, there are few teams today without a hope-inspiring young gun at their disposal.

Young pitchers are like Christmas presents: The build-up as you count down the days until their arrival, the hopes and dreams of what could be and the mystery are all similar. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you unveil them, but the anticipation alone keeps you up at night. Some presents come wrapped in a great big box only to disappoint (Homer Bailey - “D’oh!”) but every so often there’s a toy you get years of joy from, like these guys. Let’s unveil the winners:

No. 5:Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati Reds

Volquez is the electric-powered matchbox racetrack. It took some time to find a place for it and put all the pieces together, but when it was all done and you lined up the cars and pulled on that trigger, magic happened. Volquez’ much-hyped six-year assembly in the Texas Rangers‘ organization culminated with his winning the Nolan Ryan Award as the best Minor League Pitcher in their system in ‘07 and a September call-up. He had struggled in his first two big-leagues cups of coffee, but showed great promise last fall by going 2-1 in four starts with a 4.50 ERA. So what did they do in the offseason? Trade him, of course. The Volquez track took a long time to build and Rangers fans never even got to race it. 3 … 2 … 1 … Go! (Reds)

I could take this time to extol all of Volquez’ stomach-punch stats, like how he’s the major league leader in strikeouts (110), K’s per nine innings (10.4), ERA (1.71) and opponents’ batting average (.196) and currently sits at 10-2. Well, I guess I just did, but what I’d really like to do is nominate Rangers’ General Manager Jon Daniels to oversee my sometime-to-be-created All-Bonehead Team. I think he’s operating on Homer Simpson’s competence level and I suggest he start going by “Jack” so there’s an easy explanation. In addition to Volquez, Daniels also traded John Danks to the White Sox and designated Armando Galarraga, who’s now 7-2 with the Tigers. Can I get a raise over here? Wow.

No. 4:Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay Rays

Oh yup, you know what that name means, aye Steve Phillips? The former GM of the New York Mets made the atrocious deal for Victor Zambrano that placed Kazmir under many a Tampa Christmas Tree in 2004. Since then Kazmir has been responsible for as many fun-filled sunny summer afternoons as the Super Soaker water guns. At 24 years old, Kazmir has been a staple for the Rays’ rotation for three years now, winning 10-plus games and posting an ERA under 4.00 each season. He was an All-Star in ‘06 and if it wasn’t for Jake Peavy throwing in a one-game playoff with Colorado last season, Kazmir would’ve won the MLB strikeout title with 239.

The biggest problem for the little splendor has been his health. An increase of 60-plus innings in his workload from ‘06 to ‘07 may have been the culprit for the elbow trouble that got him off to a late start in ‘08, but man is he healthy now. If he qualified for such rankings he’d be second in the AL in ERA at 2.03, fourth in the majors among starters in WHIP (1.02) and first in opponents’ batting average against at .186. He’s thrown seven quality starts in only 10 appearances, and he’ll be the one leading the Rays should they ride their storied year all the way to the playoffs.

No. 3:Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

In my Young Guns toy box, Hernandez would be the remote-control car. Not any RC, but the rally car with the big fin on top that was incredibly fast, somewhat wild, could handle all terrains and would occasionally flip over and keep going. That pretty much sums up Hernandez’ career to date on the hill. Of the five starters I’m lauding praise on today, Hernandez is the closest thing to a prototypical ace. He’s a big (6’ 3”, 230 pounds) right-hander from Venezuela with Matrix-worthy stuff. So far in ‘08 his record is only 6-5, but he is on pace for career bests in ERA, WHIP, starts and innings pitched.

Like LeBron James, Felix was anointed with the title of “King” and thrust onto the big stage at the ripe old age of 19. Unfortunately for Hernandez, he also shares LeBron’s problem of an inferior supporting cast, which has somewhat limited his success and notoriety since his debut in ‘05. Once prophesized as the “next Doc Gooden,” let’s hope King Felix will emulate Gooden’s greatness throwing the pill and not swallowing it. The best part is, he’s still just 22 years old!

No. 2:Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

When the Phillies called up 22-year-old slinging southpaw Hamels in ‘06 it was like following those instructions Christmas morning that led you to the garage and your brand new bike. You had a new identity, and more importantly, you had new wheels to take places. Hamels seems destined to do just that in Philly. In his first full season, he went 15-5, made the All-Star team and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting in the N.L. He also showed some serious bulldog qualities, going seven-plus innings 16 times and eight-plus six times while also throwing a pair of complete games. As of yesterday morning, Hamels trailed only Roy Halladay with 113 innings pitched, and he’s already matched the two complete games from a year ago, both times nailing down the shutout.

More than anything, I’m enamored with Hamels’ unique blend of power, stuff and control at such a young age. He’s the only pitcher honored today with a strike-out-to-walk ratio that ranks in the top twenty (3.28 to 1), and he’s on pace for 200 Ks. Last year’s 1.124 WHIP was good enough for third in the N.L., and so far this year he’s been even stingier with his baserunners, leading the way at 1.03 and holding hitters to a .210 average. If you told me I could have one left-hander for next ten years, it’s Cole.

No. 1:Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants

I bet every one of my millions of fans who owned an original Nintendo can remember the day they got it. Our lives were changed forever; it was the crown jewel of all toys. Giants fans now hope - and I believe - that Lincecum can bring the same type of joy to the Bay Area. Like the other two member of my top three, Lincecum is a homegrown talent. He was drafted out of the University of Washington with the 10th pick in 2006 and started just 13 games in the minors before being promoted to the big show. His style reminds me of Pedro Martinez, with his small frame, hectic motion and unfathomable power.

Through 15 starts, Lincecum is on pace to for a doozy of a season. He’s 8-1 with a 2.54 ERA, averaging a strikeout per inning and holding batters to a .235 average. Just like the NES, he’s a lock to deliver every time out (13 quality starts), even if you had to wedge two game cartridges into the slot or blow on it incessantly. The NES was always my favorite Christmas present and Lincecum takes the honor as my top young gun.

Who is your number one pitcher under 24? Think I got the order wrong or left out a worthy candidate? Will Liriano or Carmona return with a vengeance and make me regret not including them? Post your comments below and join in the fun.

Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at sraposa33@gmail.com.