Ever since the 5-foot-11, 170-pounds-soaking-wet Linececum broke into the bigs in 2007 after a brief and other-wordly Minor League stint, pessimistic scouts have been predicting future arm problems based on his unconventional delivery and even more unconventional preparation techniques (no ice!).
Lincecum struck out that notion on three pitches in 2008 and appears primed for the possibly greater things that lie ahead, but he won't waltz to a Cy Young repeat in 2009, not with a growing contingent of great arms to give him company on the NL leader board.
Here are our top five NL Cy Young contenders for the coming season, plus a few other candidates to watch out for:
1. Lincecum: The kid gave up 182 hits in his 227 innings in his first full Major League season and posted a 2.62 ERA. One bonus could come in the form of veteran teammate and five-time Cy Young winner Randy Johnson, who signed with the Giants in the offseason and should provide Lincecum valuable advice and knowledge of hitters. Also, it's scary to think what Lincecum could do if he cuts down on the 84 walks he issued last year.
2. Santana: It's hard to argue with his resume. The quiet left-hander from Venezuela came to the Big Apple under a lot of pressure and delivered on his enormous contract with the highest innings pitched total of his career (234 1/3), his lowest ERA as a starter (2.53) and a 16-7 record for a second-place club. Oh, and then there's the fact that since he became a full-time starter with Minnesota in 2004, Santana hasn't finished out of the top five in Cy Young voting and won the award in 2004 and 2006.
3. Webb: If you're looking for Cy Young-caliber consistency, here's your guy. The Kentucky-bred ground-ball conveyor belt won the award in 2006 and finished second in 2007 and 2008. He's been in the top five in the NL in innings pitched the past three seasons (226 2/3 in '08), and last year was his best season record-wise, with the most wins of his career (22) and the fewest losses (seven). He's still got plenty of 6-4-3 double plays in his future, too, with his 30th birthday coming up in May.
4. Cole Hamels, LHP, Philadelphia Phillies: The long-haired lefty didn't quite make it into the Cy Young mix based on his 2008 regular season numbers (14-10 record, 3.09 ERA, 196 strikeouts in 227 1/3 innings), but people might forget that he was sixth in the voting in his All-Star season of 2007. One thing no one will soon forget -- and in Philly, no one will ever forget -- was his absolutely lights-out work with the postseason lights shining on him. Hamels went 4-0 in five October starts with a 1.80 ERA and a World Series MVP trophy.
5. Zambrano: He's been in the Cy Young top five three times (2004, '06 and '07) and is still capable of carving any lineup when healthy, as his no-hitter last September proved. His numbers last year (14-6, 3.91 ERA) weren't bad, either, despite the fact that he missed four starts. Last time we checked, the Cubs were still the clear favorite to win the NL Central and Zambrano still wasn't scheduled to reach his 28th birthday until June 1.
Dark-horse dozen: Peavy; Oswalt; Francisco Rodriguez, RHP (closer), New York; Brad Lidge, RHP (closer), Philadelphia; Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Colorado Rockies; Rich Harden, RHP, Chicago Cubs; Chris Carpenter, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals; Edinson Volquez, RHP, Cincinnati Reds; Chad Billingsley, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers; Ricky Nolasco, RHP, Florida Marlins; Adam Wainwright, RHP, St. Louis; Yovani Gallardo, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers.