Last year, it was Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez. The year before that, it was Yu Darvish.
Every year the majors welcome a starting pitcher or two who show they can change the landscape of their division and help their team make an impact in the standings. Sometimes, like Chicago's Chris Sale in 2012, they come from the bullpen, stepping into the rotation and making a difference immediately, and other times they come from overseas as already finished products like Darvish did that very same year. Usually, though, they follow Harvey and Fernandez's route through their team's minor league system, emerging as one of the lucky and talented few whose budding potential wasn't nipped by career-altering arm injuries or the skill of advanced hitters. There will undoubtedly be a couple more that burst onto the scene in 2014 from the top of the league's various farm systems, and we'll look at three of the most likely candidates today.
Noah Syndergaard went to the New York Mets last offseason as a secondary piece in the deal that brought then-reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays. Syndergaard wasn't the most highly regarded piece in that deal at the time -- that honor belonged to elite catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud, despite the fact that he'd suffered a partial PCL tear in his knee earlier in the 2012 season -- but even with d'Arnaud on track to begin the season as the Mets' starting catcher next year, Syndergaard could turn out to be the most valuable player New York acquired in the trade. When he was traded, the word out of Toronto was that the Blue Jays were concerned about his ability to stick as a starter once he started to face advanced hitters, but he put those concerns to rest with his work last year.
Syndergaard was the top pitching prospect in both the Single-A Florida League and Double-A Eastern League in 2013, showing "overpowering fastball velocity and sharp control" while putting up the kind of strikeout numbers that scouts and stat guys alike love to see both levels (Baseball America has a full scouting report here, though it requires a subscription). Considering how the Mets introduced Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler to the majors in 2012 and 2013 by starting them at Triple-A and calling them up during the season, it's reasonable to think that so long as Syndergaard remains effective and healthy, he'll be in New York just after the All-Star Break -- and perhaps earlier if the Mets are somehow in contention and there's a spot for him in the rotation.
One thing that's important to remember about top prospects, pitching prospects especially, is that once they've proven they can get outs at Double-A -- the level in the minors where pitchers start seeing hitters who can recognize and hit breaking balls, and who don't routinely chase fastballs out of the zone -- there's rarely any use in sending them to Triple-A for more seasoning there. That's especially true of Mets pitching prospects, because the Mets' Triple-A squad is the Las Vegas 51s -- a team that plays in what might be the most hitter friendly park in minor league baseball, in what's certainly the most hitter-friendly league. New York has absolutely no interest keeping Syndergaard in Las Vegas longer than they have to and risk damaging his confidence; Mets fans will see him sooner rather than later, and he might have as good a chance to make an impact in 2014 as the next guy on our list.
After signing 2B Robinson Cano, the Seattle Mariners made inquiries about acquiring current Tampa Bay Rays ace and former Cy Young Award winner David Price. Talks went nowhere and ended quickly not only because Price's agent came out and said that his client wouldn't be interested in signing a long-term extension with the Mariners (Price is under contract for two more years, so this might have had less to do with Seattle specifically than it did with simple economics -- no elite pitcher has any incentive to sign an extension instead of test free agency in this market, especially if they're not in the last year of their deal), but because the Rays wanted a package built around top Seattle prospect Taijuan Walker.
The Mariners have been in love with Walker forever, and this is one of the rare cases with that system where the smoke is actually worth the fire, as Walker struck over 10 batters per 9 innings in both the Double-A Southern League last year and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. His time in the PCL was additionally impressive, as he managed to keep his ERA at 3.61 through 11 starts, though his walk rate there was a tad high. Walker's fastball remains as good as it's ever been -- he made top prospect lists while in the low minors based off a heater that sits in the mid-nineties and tops out around 97-98 -- and his change-up and curveball look like they're developing into the plus pitches scouts thought they could be.
The Mariners gave him three starts at the end of the year last year to see what they had, and that plus their reluctance to package him for one of the best pitchers in the game the offseason after he was the centerpiece of a deal to bring Justin Upton to Seattle (which only fell through when Upton invoked his no-trade clause) shows that the Mariners are ready to bring him up and let him pitch. With a rotation of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Walker, James Paxton and perhaps even Masahiro Tanaka if they're somehow able to outbid the competition on the Japanese ace free agent, the Mariners might have a good enough staff to make up for the fact that if Cano gets hurt, their lineup teeters on the verge of replacement level.
The biggest question mark of our three pitchers is Arizona's Archie Bradley, not due to concerns over his ability to perform at higher levels of competition, but because it's unclear right now how the Diamondbacks plan to promote Bradley. He'll certainly get an invitation to major league camp this spring, but Arizona GM Kevin Towers remains committed to adding another starter to a rotation that already has Brandon McCarthy, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, Patrick Corbin, and Randall Delgado on its 40-man roster, all of whom have various levels of certainty for making the 2014 squad. The good news for Bradley is that the Diamondbacks removed the only other major pitching prospect in the organization that might further block him when they traded Tyler Skaggs (the jury remains out on whether that'll turn out to be good news for Arizona, of course). It helps also that Bradley has the sort of sky-high ceiling -- plus-plus fastball, plus curveball, above-average changeup with a still-concerning walk rate that's trending downward -- where if he shows he's ready for the big leagues in early 2014, the question changes from "how does Archie Bradley fit into the Arizona rotation?" to "which other current Diamondbacks starter doesn't?" That said, if Arizona does end up with Tanaka, they'll have about seven starters who have shown they're at least league-average major league pitchers when healthy; at least as far as 2014 is concerned, Bradley's MLB innings could find themselves subject to some tricky juggling.
These are far from the only three pitchers who could come up and make a big impact from out of relative nowhere in 2014. The Baltimore Orioles' Dylan Bundy will be finished rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery in the spring and will likely begin his season at extended spring training; Bundy already made his MLB debut in 2012 and the Orioles need a top-of-the-rotation starter badly, but Baltimore also wants to make sure he's fully healthy and ready before making that commitment. The Angels' recently-reacquired Skaggs (he was originally traded to Arizona in the Dan Haren deal) will probably spend the entire season in the majors considering their pitching situation, and Jake Odorizzi could find himself in the mix in Tampa even if the Rays don't move David Price.
It's conceivable that Walker isn't even the most effective homegrown rookie Seattle pitcher in 2014. Paxton isn't quite the caliber of prospect Walker is, but he was impressive in his brief time with the Mariners in 2013 and should get a chance to build on that success next year. And though he doesn't quite count for our purposes since he already has a successful MLB season under his belt, Yankees starter Michael Pineda should finally be ready to make a sustained contribution to a New York rotation that frankly needs his help. Offense is down and guaranteed money is up; it's a good time to be a major league baseball pitcher, and next year should be no different.