Every team has one. Not every team has a good one.
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The title of Opening Day starter is one of the most hallowed in baseball, even if it’s occasionally misinterpreted. The assignment itself does not turn a pitcher into an “ace.”
Similarly, the Game 2 starter in an excellent rotation – Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, et al – need not start the opener in order to maintain “ace” status. To argue otherwise would be to suggest that Don Drysdale was not an “ace” because he pitched on the same staff as Sandy Koufax. And we can’t stand for that sort of heretical nonsense, now, can we?
Yet it’s true that the Opening Day starter, in many ways, is a reflection of the other 24 players – not to mention the team’s fan base.
Ask a Phillies fan about who’s pitching the opener, he’ll say, “Halladay. He’s going to throw a no-hitter.”
Ask an Orioles fan about who’s pitching the opener, he’ll say, “Guthrie.” When you inform him that Jeremy Guthrie was traded in February, he will start crying.
With the regular season upon us, it’s appropriate to indulge our fixation on those who throw the first pitches of the year. They are ranked here, 1 to 30, according to a simple maxim: If I had to win one game, today, this would be my preference list.
Aces run 1 through 12. Game 1 pitchers start after that. As you know, there is a difference.
WALKING NO-HITTER ALERTS
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers: He’s coming off the first MVP/Cy Young Award combination for a starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986. He was dominant again this spring. He’s the king until someone proves otherwise.
2. Roy Halladay, Phillies: This will be his 10th straight Opening Day start. Yes, he had a crummy spring. But he knows what to do in the triple-decker stadiums.
3. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: He led the majors in ERA, the National League in wins and strikeouts, and he did it while pitching for a team that barely finished over .500. He just turned 24 and has many prime years ahead. With apologies to a couple big names in the American League East, he’s the best lefty in baseball.
WORLD SERIES WINNERS
4. CC Sabathia, Yankees: Over the last five seasons, his average has been a 3.09 ERA and 240 innings. Consistency counts in defining an ace. One concern: He’s coming off a season in which his WHIP exceeded 1.200 for the first time since 2005.
5. Tim Lincecum, Giants: He finished among the top three in strikeouts and top 10 in Cy Young voting in each of the last four seasons. Time for scouts to admit the little guy has staying power.
ACES IN FULL
6. Jered Weaver, Angels: Weaver was the best pitcher in the AL last year, non-Verlander Division. He’s coming off the best season of his career. His age (29) and stuff suggest he’s just hitting his prime. This may be a two-ace team; Dan Haren finished seventh in the Cy Young balloting last year.
7. Felix Hernandez, Mariners: I know. I’m cheating a little. Hernandez was the Opening Day starter in Japan last week, and he won after allowing one run in eight innings. Hernandez clearly is in better shape than he was last year, making it more likely that 2012 will resemble his Cy Young season of 2010.
8. James Shields, Rays: The AL East is brutal for pitchers – particularly a right-hander like Shields, who must deal with all the left-handed bats in Boston and New York. Well, he led the majors in complete games (11) and the AL in shutouts (four). How could you not respect that?
9. Jon Lester, Red Sox: His 2011 season was considered a disappointment, despite a 15-9 record and 3.47 ERA. That speaks to how high expectations always are for Lester; he was only 23 when he won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series. He’s a good bet to bounce back this year, although I’m not sure if we can say the same for his team.
10. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays: If and when the Blue Jays return to prominence, Romero will become one of the most celebrated pitchers in the game. His ceiling is that high. Only 27, he ranked sixth in the league last year with a 2.92 ERA – despite pitching in baseball’s most rugged division.
11. Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks: He reached provisional ace status last year, with a statistically superior season (21-4, 2.88) that vaulted the upstart Diamondbacks into the playoffs. If his 2012 numbers are even 90 percent of that, he will have established himself as an elite starter.
12. Yovani Gallardo, Brewers: He’s the last ace on this list. He deserves the title, coming off a season in which he pitched Milwaukee to a division title while winning 17 games and posting the lowest WHIP of his career (1.215). He was magnificent in the first round of the playoffs against Arizona, less so in the NLCS.
AMONG THE BEST – WHEN HEALTHY
13. Josh Johnson, Marlins: He belongs much higher on this list, but it’s hard to call someone an ace if he averaged only 111 innings over a five-year span. The good news: He can be unhittable when healthy.
14. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals: Sure, Strasburg may have the best pure stuff of any right-hander after Verlander. But as with Johnson, he hasn’t pitched often enough to be called an ace. Forget about a 200-inning season. To this point, he has a 92-inning career.
15. Johnny Cueto, Reds: This year will go a long way toward defining Cueto’s career. Is he ready to make his first All-Star team, after paring his ERA over each of the past three seasons? Or will he continue his pattern of sluggish second halves and questionable endurance?
16. Johan Santana, Mets: He was once the best pitcher in baseball. Now he’s a compelling comeback story, although hitters won’t fear him the way they once did. He hasn’t thrown a major-league pitch since 2010. Santana needs to regain the ace distinction all over again.
17. Colby Lewis, Rangers: The team calls it “a balanced rotation.” The critic calls it “a rotation that doesn’t have a true No. 1 starter.” The Rangers heard the same criticism last year and came within a strike of the world title. Lewis has been at his best during the last two Octobers, which is one measure of an ace. But then there’s his lifetime 4.99 ERA during the regular season.
18. Wandy Rodriguez, Astros: Fire up the rumor mill. A strong Opening Day start would begin Rodriguez’s lengthy audition for the July trading period. He has a 3.40 ERA over the past four seasons. How many general managers do you think are aware of that?
19. John Danks, White Sox: Danks regressed to a 4.33 ERA last season, but the White Sox believe in the southpaw so strongly that they awarded him a five-year, $65 million contract extension. He’s the heir apparent to Mark Buehrle, because, well, who else could be?
20. Brandon McCarthy, A’s: He’s finally reaching the potential that made him such a highly touted White Sox prospect (before he was traded for John Danks). At 28, it’s not too late for McCarthy to have a perennial All-Star career. Further evidence: He went pitch-for-pitch with Hernandez for seven innings in Japan last week.
21. Jeremy Guthrie, Rockies: The Rockies are about to find out what happens to a starting pitcher’s numbers when he no longer has to face the Red Sox and Yankees (and Rays and Blue Jays) every week. Guthrie, already a reliable 200-inning man, should find the NL West much more favorable.
22. Kyle Lohse, Cardinals: Chris Carpenter has a nerve condition and Adam Wainwright is coming off elbow surgery, so Lohse will do the honors. He’s a reasonable choice under the circumstances, but it’s ironic to have someone with a 7.82 postseason ERA begin the Cardinals’ world title defense.
23. Justin Masterson, Indians: A 3.21 ERA – while pitching in a hitter-friendly American League ballpark – is good enough for teams around the majors to take notice. Masterson is gradually improving against left-handed hitters – perhaps his last hurdle to becoming a true No. 1.
24. Tommy Hanson, Braves: If Tim Hudson were healthy, the Braves’ representative would appear much higher on this list. Hudson is a certifiable ace. Hanson isn’t – at least, not yet. Questions about his durability have persisted after an injury-shortened 2011 season, but his career ERA-plus of 120 speaks to his ability.
YOU’RE THE BEST WE’VE GOT
25. Bruce Chen, Royals: The Royals’ rotation is widely cited as the biggest reason why they won’t compete with the Tigers this year. Chen’s presence here explains that. Don’t get me wrong: Chen (12-8, 3.77 last year) is a wily left-hander who can Moyer his way through a lineup. But that describes a No. 3 starter, not a No. 1.
26. Edinson Volquez, Padres: Volquez hasn’t been an elite pitcher since 2008, when he was an All-Star with the Reds. Still, at least he’s demonstrated that he has the stuff of a No. 1 starter. He had a good spring, he’s going to pitch at Petco Park, and there’s every reason to believe he’s going to be a lot better than last year’s 5.71 ERA.
27. Erik Bedard, Pirates: We’ve been saying it for so long that it’s become a reflexive response at the mention of Bedard’s name. When he’s healthy, he’s pretty good. But Bedard is the opposite of a big-game pitcher, going 2-for-8 in quality starts after the Red Sox acquired him last year. He’s still looking for his first 200-inning season.
28. Ryan Dempster, Cubs: He’s sort of the Last Cub Standing, having spanned the Baker, Piniella, Quade and Sveum eras. Loyal to the organization, one of the classiest players in the game, Dempster deserves the honor of pitching the opener. But he had a 4.80 ERA last year.
29. Carl Pavano, Twins: It’s rarely a good sign when a team’s Opening Day starter led the majors in hits allowed during the previous season. Minnesota has a rotation of No. 3 and No. 4 starters. Pavano happens to be the best of them.
30. Tommy Hunter or Jake Arrieta, Orioles: Buck Showalter, perhaps unaware I was writing this column, hadn’t announced his No. 1 starter as of Sunday night. That’s OK. The Orioles belong here no matter what Showalter decides. Arrieta went 10-8 with a 5.05 ERA last year, Hunter 3-3 with a 5.06. Add up those numbers, and this could be Baltimore’s first 100-loss season since 1988.